So, there were Tom and I – Thomas Keneally and I – sitting in a tent in Hay-on-Wye the other day, shooting the breeze about the looming battle ahead. “I’ve got a spare couple of tickets for the opening day of the third Test at Chester-le-Street,” I told him. “I’m a member up at Durham.”
“Oh, I’m a member at the Sydney Cricket Ground,” the genial Aussie wordsmith said, giving the offer the subtlest of swerves. The septuagenarian who penned the Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark (which became the Oscar winning Schindler’s List), and whose enduring excellence rather contradicts “Lord” Gower’s impish claims of a cultural drought Down Under, is clearly a canny soul.
“Somebody’s already pulled me up, saying I’m deliberately rubbishing our chances in the Ashes,” Keneally continued, referring to the defeatist allusions that had peppered his hour-long talk about his new book, The Daughters of Mars, at the Hay Festival. “I can assure you it’s not mere psychology.”
The twinkle in the eyes of the Living National Treasure (as formally designated by the Australian Government) suggested otherwise. The glint came to mind yesterday as the sun struggled to pierce the cloud cover at the Grange Club in the northern suburbs of Edinburgh.
Perhaps all of the uncharacteristic Aussie doom and gloom – the Homework affair, the midweek capitulation in Cardiff, the incapacitation of Michael Clarke – is all part of a Cunning Plan of Baldrickian dimensions to lull the English nation into a false sense of security ahead of the opening of Ashes hostilities at Trent Bridge on 10 July.
Perhaps the Australian A teamers who embarked on their short three-legged tour with the start of a four-day contest against Scotland yesterday are part of the strategy to sneak under the radar, while their one-day squad – minus the ailing captain Clarke – set about the business of the Champions Trophy, commencing with the small matter of today’s engagement with the Poms at Edgbaston.
After all, it will be into the A team ranks, when they move on to play Ireland and Gloucester, that Fawad Ahmed will be introduced following the Australian parliament’s fast-tracking of his citizenship application. The spin bowler, who fled Pakistan after death threats against him in 2010, could well prove to be a bolter in the Australian Ashes selection stakes.
Six members of the A party are already rubber-stamped in the Ashes squad, most notably Brad Haddin. The 35-year-old elder statesman of the Test wicketkeeping fraternity is captain of the A side and vice-captain of the Ashes squad. Others could be asked to stay on in England too if they manage to make the same kind of A-Team impact as the Mohican-topped, be-blinged Mr T in the cult 1980s television series of that name.
Not that they made the most auspicious of starts yesterday in the timeless setting of the Grange, with its wonderful steep-stepped Victorian pavilion. Across the road from Raeburn Place, where the first rugby international was played in 1871 (Scotland got the better of England), the shadow Aussies were in danger of disappearing with little trace, let alone slipping under the radar, when they lost the toss and then both of their opening batsmen in the first nine overs.
First to depart was Jordan Silk. The 21-year-old Tasmanian failed to live up to his name, edging a rough defensive shot to second slip off the bowling of Gordon Goudie. Silk only had the four runs on the board. Alex Doolan, his fellow opener, had 14 to his name when he lost his leg stump to a peach of a delivery from Iain Wardlaw. That left Australia A on 23 for 2 and they relinquished a third wicket before lunch, vice-captain Steve Smith getting caught out at gully by Goudie on a fishing expedition of a shot.
By then, though, Usman Khawaja was getting into the groove at the other end and proceeded to stabilise the Aussie A ship in tandem with Haddin. From 65 for 3, the pair put on 73 runs before Khawata nudged an outside edge to wicketkeeper Matt Cross. He was one run past his half century.
Haddin ploughed on unperturbed, after Moises Henriques departed for 20, striking up but then the skipper struck up an 118-run partnership with Peter Siddle before falling victim to a fine diving patch by Scotland captain Preston Mommsen. His knock of 113 was his 16th first-class century.
By stumps Siddle was on 85, James Pattinson on nine and the Aussie A team were 335 for 6. “It’s been a good day,” Haddin reflected. “We’ve fought back hard to get where we are. I like the position we’re in.” Which is something we haven’t heard from an Australian captain for a wee while.