THE first of three intriguing days with the Australians in Durham. 'The most striking thing about the Aussies is their size and the fertility of their moustaches,' says an observer at the nets. This is true. The tourists are joined this morning by a local fast-bowling hope, Steve Lugsden, tearing in to bowl. 'He doesn't get close enough to the stumps,' says one flat-capped critic. 'Too open-chested,' says another. Why can't people leave these kids alone? The bare facts are that he is quick and keen. I don't remember Colin Croft getting too side on or close to the wicket. Fred Trueman has a lot to answer for.
Later, our very own Walrus Moustache, Wayne Larkins, gives the Aussies a pasting on a pitch they regard as the fastest they've seen here. It is a quintessentially English setting - a castle, cathedral, prison, mucky river, old men, families and undergraduates straddling the bank to watch a country squire-type figure thumping boundaries off young lackeys.
Meanwhile, in the pavilion, Merv Hughes gallumphs about in trousers that are too short, identifying fineable offences. 'Pistol (Paul Reiffel) left the car unlocked and lost his golf sticks, that's a quid,' he announces. 'Oh, and what about that bush pig I saw you chatting up,' he says to another. Hughes is loud and fidgety but still can be bothered to offer advice to a couple of Durham juniors, bowl to Dene Border, Allan's nine-year-old son, and make tea for several players' wives. A good man through and through. Botham, by comparison, seems a bit subdued.
At the post-match reception Ian Healy points out that accompanying wives are not allowed to stay in the Australian team's hotel, which he thinks is a good thing. 'We're here to do a job, and it helps with team spirit to keep everyone together. England's attitude to this has become a bit lax.'
PRACTISE with the Aussies on adjacent ground. Tim May and Shane Warne extract prodigious turn. Notice alarming callus on May's index finger, which is bleeding. Doesn't it hurt? 'Aw, yep for the first few overs, then it goes numb.' Attack him early in a spell then, obviously. Also see Warne backing away to the faster bowlers. Apparently the West Indians realised his threat as a bowler last winter so tried to dent his confidence as a batsman. It seems to have worked.
Back in the middle, Botham delivers six playful overs and then wanders off the field. Rumours are circulating that the golf is on TV and he has got claret on the knee. 'No' he says later, 'it was Cabernet Sauvignon.'
Despite being in danger of following on for the first time for six years (outside a Test match) the Australians crowd round the 14in screen to cheer on Greg Norman. 'It's in the hole,' they keep shouting in wild optimism when he's just teed off on a long par four.
To take the wind out of their sails, the BBC cleverly transmits 'Botham's Ashes' immediately after the Open. The tourists peel off meekly for a shower.
LARGE press and TV corps scuttling around - not to photograph Wayne Holdsworth in the tropical Daktari outfit (awarded for some gross misdemeanour) but to capture you know who on his last day in the first-class game. And, wouldn't you know it, it's raining - he's arrived with that cloud-on-a-string again. He's also brought along his shopping trolley of bowling variations - weird run-ups, Thommo impressions, loopy bouncers - but none takes a wicket.
Hardly surprising since he wolfed down two bottles of Beaujolais for lunch. Finishes match keeping wicket with no gloves or pads then walks off waving to rapturous applause all round. Everyone has a lump in their throat. Is the man bigger than the game? Almost.
Afterwards, in the dressing-room, Botham says: 'Right now I'm going to have a whopping big party for my retirement. You're all coming, aren't you?' Yes, Beefy. The day was tinged with anticlimax because he will still be playing for us on Sundays for a while. Must remember to buy him a dog-collar.
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