Letter from Australia: When Laura screamed 'lbw' I actually wondered if they were my children

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The Independent Online

Odd as it may seem, I never expected that sending my children Frank and Laura to school Down Under four months ago would not only provide an insight into Aussie sporting culture but even hint at some of the underlying reasons for the Ashes débâcle.

At 12, Frank is pretty typical of a young lad brought up in Oxfordshire and state educated. Like his nine-year-old sister, his passions were computer games, watching TV, reading books and playing on bikes and skateboards. But when it came to sport there was rather less enthusiasm and commitment.

Frank has played football, on and off, for teams in Bicester and Kings Sutton, while Laura has dipped in and out of gymnastics. Imagine, my surprise, then, when I visited them in November and Frank told me he had been trying out for the local cricket club and was fretting because he had been selected to play in his first match.

The family home is in the village of Greenock (population 700) on the north-western edge of the Barossa Valley, 45 miles north of Adelaide and bang in the middle of wine-growing country. Five minutes' drive in one direction is Penfolds, 10 minutes the other way is Jacob's Creek.

It is a sleepy town that, despite enduring a drought for the past 10 years, remains green and pleasant thanks to the irrigation provided to the wineries. The centrepiece of this small 1950s style town is the cricket oval, which acts as a sports arena and centre for civic events, also housing on its fringes the tennis and volleyball courts.

Frank's new-found interest in cricket surprised me. Since I am Irish, he doesn't have a father who ever played or watched cricket, but his enthusiasm had been pricked - his first cousin Connor, with whom he now goes to school, is cricket mad in the apparently grand tradition of all Australian children.

With the Ashes under way, coverage on Australian TV was extensive, and suddenly dinner- table conversation kept turning to cricket. Every day my daughter asked, "Who's winning?"; "Why are England so bad?"; and, "What's the point of the Ashes going on after Australia have won it?"

When England collapsed after making a promising start to the Adelaide Test, the children's Australian grandmother - who clearly missed her vocation in sports coaching - offered that England "lacked belief", and Frank agreed.

By Christmas, the transformation was complete. Frank was excited to receive his first batting gloves, while both of them were very envious of Connor's special spin bowler's ball. With careful markings on its surface, it promised to show any aspiring bowler how to emulate Shane Warne.

Shane Warne. He was everywhere. Books filled the shelves, he was advertising hair replacement therapies on TV, being interviewed on every channel, having his marriage discussed on chat shows, while sports shops had posters, merchandise and memorabilia galore. This was cricket fever, and a passion for a single sportsman which in England, possibly, is only matched by David Beckham.

Christmas Day completed the picture. With presents unwrapped and lunch over, Frank, Laura, their cousins and uncles - and myself, who had never played cricket - headed to the oval for 90 minutes of bowling, batting, fielding and arguments over fumbles and leg befores. Frank told me I had some potential as a batsman. Laura paced out her run-up and bowled straight and fast, with a skip and a perfectly arched delivery. When she screamed "lbw" at Frank, who was batting, I actually wondered if they were my children.

Frank now plays for Greenock CC, knocks about with his cousin on the oval, and has learned all the jargon. Watching TV has all but ceased, partly due to the absence of Sky, which I now realise provides the kids with far too much choice - and computer games? Well, check out stickcricket. foxsports.com.au, because that's the online game Frank, Connor and all the other lads seem to play every day when they get home from school or the oval.

It's not really a surprise that Australia won the Ashes. Cricket is not an elite sport there, it's a sport for all. The miracle is that England ever won it in 2005.

Mark Gallagher is the managing director of Eden Rock Sports, a sports management business, and the owner of Team Ireland in the A1 GP World Cup of Motorsport