The great English stalwart Angus Fraser may not have spoken entirely for his country but he surely had the ear of anyone who understood quite what had disappeared from the landscape of sport when Australia surrendered so abjectly at Lord’s.
Fraser, who once took eight wickets in a pounding defeat by Australia at Melbourne, spoke of a hollow feeling after the debacle.
Allan Border, the brilliant, instinctive captain who dragged Australia back to the forefront of world cricket from one of their lowest points in the mid-Eighties, told of his acute embarrassment.
They were signalling the loss of certainty over a superb fighting tradition, and you were bound to join them if you happened to spend some time with another Australia captain, Steve Waugh, when he produced one of the most astonishing acts of individual commitment and will in his team’s 4-1 triumph in 2001.
Waugh, in any reasonable assessment, became a non-combatant after sustaining a serious calf injury in the third Test that settled the series.
Yet while Australia suffered their one defeat, at Headingley, Waugh could be found running alone across the rugby league ground behind the cricket stand.
It was painful rehabilitation beyond the call of any sportsman’s duty, you had to suggest, but Waugh would have none of it. “Listen mate,” he said, “If you are captain of the team you have to put a little bit extra in because how can you ask any of your players to do the same when it is needed? We’ve won the series but that’s not the point. Every Test match is important.”
Australia crushed England in the final Test at The Oval by an innings and Waugh, at times flinching in pain, scored 157 not out. His dive to the safety of the batting crease to bring up his century led to an image of determination which would sail across the decades.
Michael Clarke, today’s captain, has received much praise for his batting skill and his aggressive tactics but it is hard not to see him as simply overwhelmed by the problems of a failed cricket culture.
You play back the philosophies of Border and Waugh and Clarke’s predecessor, Ricky Ponting, and it is to re-enter a world that you are bound to fear may well be lost.
This was Waugh on his decision to remove the hook from his batting armoury: “After being dropped in 1991, I decided to avoid some of the risks. It was forced on me facing the West Indians at their peak, four great bowlers. Unless you’re the best hooker in the world they’re going to find you out regularly. I saw blokes getting out all the time and I said, ‘that’s not for me’. So I had to cut it out and it couldn’t be restored because it was no longer part of my thinking. When I was asked about it, I said, ‘what’s the big deal?’ It doesn’t matter how pretty you look, it is how many runs you get.”
You had to think of Waugh when paralysis took hold of Australia on the long bleak Sunday at Lord’s.
You had to go back, too, to Ponting’s recollection of that ferocious day on the same ground eight years earlier when England threw everything at Australia before Glenn McGrath rose up with one of the greatest pieces of pace bowling in the history of cricket. There was said to be dancing in the Long Room before McGrath made his sublime statement – and quite a bit of optimism, too, when Steve Harmison laid out Ponting, and Michael Vaughan, the England captain, forbade his players from giving aid or even comfort to the writhing victim.
Ponting later produced an icy smile and said: “That was Test cricket, it was Ashes cricket, it is what it is all about. I loved that day at Lord’s. When you play the game at this level you want the battles.”
There wasn’t much scent of battle last Sunday and it is why Fraser found joy so hard to find and why for Waugh, who once spoke coolly about how you install “mental disintegration” in your opponents, it was an ultimate cricket nightmare.
He explained to the late Peter Roebuck, a man fascinated by the psychology of sport, why he developed a passion for reading. “It is probably just the way you develop as a person – for 20 years sport was non-stop, all day, every day – but things happen and I’m inquisitive and I love to read about other people, true stories and heroic deeds.
“Have you read a book called I Have Life? It’s about a lady who was car-jacked in Port Elizabeth and had her throat cut from ear to ear and had her belly opened up but they missed the main arteries and she crawled back to the road and survived. We are hoping she will come and talk to the team.”
Another book to make a great impression on Waugh was entitled The Stoker. It was written by a man who was obliged to prime the furnace in Auschwitz and did not talk about it for 45 years. “He was at the cricket one day and he gave me the book,” said Waugh. “He was a knockabout Australian.”
Waugh was certainly a man of fortitude – maybe the kind the old guard of Australian cricket are so desperate to see re-appear. On the way to this Ashes series the tourists were ordered to do some homework. More profitably, the management might have doled out some of Steve Waugh’s library.