The Sporting Religion

“I could read the sports section if my hair was on fire” – Jerry Seinfeld

Pleasure and pain

by williamschack

It’s a fine line between pleasure and pain. 

I do not remember much of the match.  I have not taken the opportunity to watch any of the replay or highlights. My memory is a series of fragments that I don’t have the strength or energy to pull together into a coherent structure, but would like to record for future reference.

I remember walking down Smith Street looking for the lady who I gave $2 to in front of Woolworths before the Carlton game, but she was nowhere to be seen. 

I remember a Geelong marching band playing before the game.

I remember us being in front early, just as I had hoped we would as Geelong are great starters, but we were also kicking inaccurately. 

I remember my sister saying we are going to lose this game because we were kicking so badly and I remember agreeing. 

I remember Geelong reeling in the margin in the second quarter and Collingwood not kicking a goal in that quarter until after the siren. 

I remember being so angry at the umpiring. 

I remember the song “What’s new Pussycat?” playing after a Geelong goal. 

I remember Jordan De Goey playing the best game of his career. 

I remember thinking that our disposal was off. We were rushed when we didn’t need to be. Inexperienced, it seemed. 

I remember thinking in the last quarter that I cannot do this anymore. This feeling of dread. This feeling of my stomach churning with anxiety. I can’t handle it anymore. 

I remember Gary Rohan taking a pack mark and kicking a clutch goal. 

I remember thinking Josh Daicos had very poor disposal all day. Then he kicked it out on the full with a couple of minutes to go.

I remember Gary Rohan dropping a chest mark but it not mattering as he managed to pass the ball to Max Holmes in the forward square, who kicked the winning goal. 

I remember no longer feeling like it was a free hit, but an opportunity lost. Having to go through Sydney at the SCG is about as difficult of a task there is.

I remember the Cats fans laughing with glee as we left the ground. 

I remember thinking that we have experienced a dream run of close wins this year, so I can hardly complain about this pain. 

I remember a Geelong fan on a packed Hurstbridge Line train playing the Geelong theme song out loud on his phone. I remember thinking he might not make it out alive.

I remember a new starter at work who is a Geelong fan misusing the word stoic to describe Geelong supporters. He said it did not matter who they play in the preliminary, as the hard game had been won. They would make the grand final regardless, ‘us cats fans are pretty stoic’. 

Not dead yet, I keep telling myself.  But also the refrain from the Dylan song keeps ringing in my head, ‘It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there’. I don’t have the resilience of Craig McRae. The widescreen wipers analogy does not work on me. I hope the players can lift themselves up. Let’s see how we go. 

Advertisement

After the deluge

by williamschack

The flood comes in the third quarter. It is raining Carlton goals. Eight. The first time Carlton has kicked that many in a quarter against Collingwood since the 1970 Grand Final. Three in a rush and then five more steadily throughout the quarter.  There is a feeling of hopelessness inside all of us. The Carlton energy is irrepressible and the crowd feeds off it.   Every time Charlie Curnow goes near the ball it seems like he will kick a goal. A small forward, Jesse Motlop, a person I did not know before today, kicks two.  There was a man named Hopkins who did something similar in 1970.  Only Ginnivan’s goal against the flow keeps us within touch. But with a four goal deficit at three quarter time, and Carlton seemingly unstoppable, we need a miracle.

The day starts with Bulldogs v Hawthorn. The Dogs need to win by enough to increase their percentage above Carlton’s.  If that is achieved, any victory by Collingwood – 1 point will do – will ensure that the Dogs are in, Carlton will miss out, and Collingwood will make the top four.  
During the first quarter of the Carlton game, the Bulldogs’ score and the live ladder are shown regularly on the screen.  Various Collingwood fans shout out ‘Carn the Dogs’ when it appears. Putting loyalties and hatred aside, the football world collectively wishes for the Dogs to win, so that this game can live up to its billing as the biggest game since 1992. The anticipation has been palpable in Melbourne during the week about ‘the game’. It would be a shame for it to lose its edge of being a quasi-elimination final.
By the end of the first quarter it is confirmed that the Bulldogs won and their percentage jumps to .6 above Carlton’s for the season. The stage is set for an epic contest of biblical proportions.

After the flood comes some good luck. The football gods seemed so against us in the third quarter, but they have now thrown us a life raft.  Carlton keeps pressing forward to create chances, but they keep missing. And missing. Curnow, Durdin, a forward square contest is rushed, O’Brien, McKay, and Curnow again.  In amongst all of that is a Docherty out on the full, an overturned Cripps mark 30 metres out and two Collingwood goals. 
By the time Curnow kicks Carlton’s sixth point for the quarter, the margin is 17 points and there is 6:45 left on the clock with the ball in Nick Daicos’ hands.  We are afloat, just. 

Daicos kicks the ball out to the defensive 50, receives the handpass from Murphy and kicks to Sidebottom on the wing. He kicks the ball inward to Lipinski and Daicos again receives a handpass. The ball moves inward via a series of handpasses, as we have done so many times this season. The ball finds its way to Isaac Quaynor in the forward half of the centre square, who kicks long inside 50.  Elliot flies high as he likes to do and clunks it.  He coolly kicks the goal without much fanfare.  There is 5:42 left on the clock. 

Carlton wins the next centre clearance, their eleventh for the day and it would end up being their last, but Quaynor out-marks Durdin on the back flank. The ball flows through the centre of the ground before Josh Daicos kicks it to Cox who picks it up on the bounce just inside the boundary about 40 out. He turns, slowly, like an ocean liner, in a wide arc toward the goals.  Eventually he dishes off to Pendlebury who pivots, draws in two players and handpasses the ball out to McCreery who has some space on the boundary line about 45 metres out. The angle seems too acute to score, but after messing up a shot in the third quarter by being too unselfish, he does not think about that. Mitch McGovern lunges for a smother but is too late. The ball looks good straight away.  It goes through the middle and lands about one metre over the line so we know there is no need for an interminable and unnecessary score review. I lose my mind. It is the best Collingwood goal I have ever seen live. There is 4:59 left on the clock.

With what seems like may be our last chance, Lipinski and Hoskin-Elliott run towards 50, the bounce from a De Goey handpass eludes them both. In the blink of an eye the ball is in Curnow’s hands, on Carlton’s forward flank, and he is keen to take as much time as possible. He holds it up for a bit before kicking inside 50. There is 2:11 left on the clock. 
Moore spoils and Daicos handpasses passes to Maynard, who kicks a spearing pass to Pendlebury in the centre of the ground.  The crowd’s anticipation rises. Pendlebury plays on and kicks towards Ginnivan on the flank but it goes over his head. He stops just long enough to block Saad’s run and give Elliot some time and space. Enough time to take a quick glance around him to properly understand how much time and space.  He collects the ball and turns to the goals. The moment arrives, the stadium is pulsating, behind Elliot the crowd rises in the Shane Warne Stand.  So does the crowd in the Ponsford Stand.  He sizes up his options and elects to take the shot himself. He runs to about 30 metres out and kicks the goal on a 45 degree angle. The collective ecstasy in the crowd is immense. We can barely believe this is happening. The margin is 1 point to Collingwood and there is 1:42 left on the clock. 

The remainder is frantic with some poor kicking and some lucky bounces for both sides. Finally, the siren sounds. The crowd is so loud that I cannot hear it, but the sight of the players with their arms in the air tells me it is over. There is no time left on the clock. Collingwood is still in front by 1 point. The Pies fans cannot believe it, but this is really happening. No words will do this experience justice, and neither will television replays. This miracle has occurred. Carlton hearts break. Ours are filled with joy.
We will never experience another season like this. There is now at least two games to go and the first is a free hit against the Cats in the Qualifying Final. We are trying to maintain our composure, but we are daring to dream.

Falling in love again

by williamschack

As Collingwood fans left the MCG on Friday night, we sporadically burst into chants of Coll-ing-wood.  After the siren I high fived and hugged friends and strangers. The crowd was delirious after another close, pulsating, adrenaline inducing victory.  This time against the reigning premier when all statistical logic said that we should have lost.  It was a wild game, like so many of them have been this season which has taken us on the unlikely ride from 17th to 2nd with two games left. My love for the game and club has been tested over the last two years, but it has well and truly been reignited this season.

2020 was a peculiar year for obvious reasons. I was heavily invested by finals time, but during the home and away season I watched the least amount of any season in a long time.  From soon after the first bounce of that year’s Semi-Final against Geelong, the most disastrous period of time at Collingwood since the 90s commenced. 
There was the embarrassing trade period in which people that deserved better were mistreated.   There was the Do Better report which found that the club was systematically racist and its botched release by the club administration.  And then the season started and things just got worse.  Eventually, Nathan Buckley was left with the option of stepping down or being sacked if he chose not to.   Then in the off-season, Jordan De Goey was again in trouble for his behaviour off the field. 
It was a tumultuous 18 month period in which there were moments that I felt guilty about loving the Club, but this year has been simply exhilarating.  With a new coaching panel and president, the weight of history was seemingly thrown off our back.  We were given a fresh start, despite the vast majority of people at the club being the same as the year before, and went into the season with low expectations about what we could achieve. 

From the first game against St Kilda, almost immediately the game style felt different.  The ball moved freely and the crowd noise increased as it moved forward.  Early on, it was hard to get a read on where we were.  Some week’s we were good, and some weeks we were bad. The season meandered along but was enjoyable to watch.  We were in games most of the time, but when we lost to the Bulldogs by 48 points it felt like we had reverted to our previous season selves.  

Then this bizarre streak began in Perth, beating Fremantle one week after they beat Melbourne. Then Carlton, on a Sunday afternoon in what felt like a final. And it has continued on and on, with us barely scraping by teams we should be beating comfortably, but still winning nonetheless.  It has been a remarkable ride which has seen me celebrating wins against teams that are 13th on the ladder like my life depended on it.  I know I have acted like a fool, but I cannot help but be swept up in the emotion of these wins. 

There is no doubt that the journey of watching your club rise from the bottom is so much more enjoyable than when they have reached the top.  If you expect to win the premiership, or know you can, then the joy of each moment towards the premiership is lessened by the fact that the home and away season is just a qualifying period.  But if you do not expect to win the premiership, or make the finals, then the wins along the way can feel of relative importance.  And once the wins start accumulating, each victory has that same importance while also morphing into a stepping stone to a future that was impossible not long ago but now seems real.  The lack of expectation forces you to be entirely in the moment of each game that might otherwise be meaningless.  Then when the siren goes you dream of what could be.  The combination of the two makes for the most pleasurable of sports fandom experiences.  It is that similar feeling of joy from winning the Preliminary Final as compared to a Grand Final.  You experience the ecstasy of victory and can gaze at your orgastic future. It is like experiencing the dopamine rush of falling in love with the promise of what a happy future you could have together. A Grand Final win is better, of course, but it is peculiarly different.

And that is what it has felt like the longer that this streak has continued.  It reached a crescendo last Friday night and there was delirium on both sides of the fence after the siren.  Kane Corne thinks we are being over the top and that celebrations like that ought to be reserved for after the Grand Final.  He is likely right.  We probably will lose our last game of the season. It probably will be in heartbreaking fashion. We probably will look silly for celebrating a round 21 game that had no bearing on the ultimate outcome of the season.  But there is also a chance that it won’t. 

So while I take Kane’s point, and at the risk of having my heart broken by this tragic football club yet again, and although it is scary, I cannot help but fall in love with this team and throw all of myself into this season and hope that it ends in happiness. If it does not, at least I will have had fun along the way. 

Warnie

by williamschack

Shane Warne is dead.  A man that every Australian felt like they knew, whether they liked cricket or not, has died.  Suddenly and shockingly, at the age of 52.  It is a tragically young age for the passing of a larger than life figure who still had so much to give.  He was a national icon who transformed from a failed Australian rules player into a global superstar in the blink of an eye.  A boy from Black Rock who felt lost when his dreams didn’t work out.  Cricket found him at this time, he said, and we are all the richer for it.  And now he is gone. 

Warnie was an artisan of the most difficult craft in cricket, leg-spin bowling.  He had some natural gifts, namely his large hands and broad shoulders, but he also had an immense competitive spirit and desire to be the best.  By the time he decided to give cricket a proper go, he sought out a coach and practised and practised and practised leg-spin bowling.  He was not the fittest player on the team, but he would practice his technique as much as anyone, and it was the combination of his natural talent, practice, competitiveness and artistic flair that made him so compelling.  

Warnie said that when he bowled he knew he was the lead in a theatrical play.  Nothing started until he said so.  He would sometimes move players from one spot to another, then back to the same spot. Just to make the batter think he had chosen a particular spot because he knew the exact shot the batter wanted to play.   Gideon Haigh’s brilliant book On Warne is the best thing I have read about Warnie, a remarkable document of what it was like to watch him play.  The second chapter, The Art of Warne, is all about his run-up.  It is the best sportswriting I have ever read.  Rather than try and imitate Haigh, I suggest that you read it yourself. 

And on top of that, there was his cricket brain.  What teams now spend millions of dollars a year paying statisticians and data analysts to work out, Warnie understood in just a couple of overs and with a bit of chat to the opponent.   He bowled not to a spot on the pitch, but to the shot he wanted the batter to play.  Batters always felt like he was one step ahead of them, and he really was.  He was always toying with his opponents and making adjustments, like a mad scientist experimenting on the fly, seeing what a few inches more flight might do when the concoction came together 22 yards away.  The adjustments almost always worked. 

It was his cricket brain that made him such a compelling commentator.  He knew what was happening on the field and what ought to be happening at all times.  It could sometimes be grating, particularly when it seemed like he had an agenda against a player, but for a novice like me who does not properly understand the technical or tactical aspects of the game, it was a delight.  He could also rabble on about things not altogether to do with the game, such as whether he liked pineapple on pizza.  Although this was sometimes annoying, it strangely also made him relatable.   He was simply himself, and at the end of the day, he was just like all of us. 

It would be remiss to not say that he was also a flawed man.  He was in trouble with the cricket authorities on multiple occasions and also caused incredible pain to his wife and kids in a very public way.  Simone’s hurt is unimaginable and it must have been so difficult to persevere under such intense scrutiny of the media and gaze of the public.  She also didn’t have the luxury of being universally loved for her sporting prowess.  Yet Warnie would not hide from his mistakes and his honesty was refreshing.  There are far too many stories of his generosity to people from all walks of life for him to not fundamentally be a good and kind person.

He once told his coach at Hampshire that just because he sometimes did stupid things, this did not make him a stupid person.  Every time he did do a stupid thing, he did try to become a better person, and in particular a better father. The world’s collective heart has broken for his children who were able to enjoy him in the 15 years post-retirement in a way they had not during his 15-year career.  Our loss is nothing compared to theirs.      

 But even though he courted intense public attention and humiliation throughout his life, he had a remarkable ability to compartmentalise the issues he might be experiencing off-field, with his duty to his teammates on the field, and the 2005 Ashes is the greatest example of this.  There is an illuminating scene in the new documentary Shane where he reveals that during that series he would sit in his hotel room after a day’s play drowning his sorrows and cursing himself for the hurt he caused his family.  Then he would go out and play the series of his life in which he was performing works of art such as the Strauss Ball.  The Barmy Army spent the entire series chanting hurtful songs at him asking, ‘Where’s your missus gone?’, yet when it was all over, they were chanting ‘We wish you were English’.   At the lowest and most difficult point of his life,  Warnie was producing his series masterpiece, and it is that mental capacity that sets him apart from the other greats of his generation.  It is perhaps that mental capacity to live in the moment so intently that also allowed him to make those mistakes in the first place. 

***

As we all woke up on Saturday morning in a state of shock at his passing, many of us took solace in being able to watch his great feats on Youtube.  The moment that I always return to (and there was one in just about all of his 145 Test matches and 194 One Day Internationals) is the 1999 World Cup Semi-Final.  In that match, with a miserly 214 as the target, South Africa were cruising at 0/48 off 12 overs.  Victory was about to fall out of Australia’s reach before Warnie dramatically swung the momentum back our way. The ball to dismiss Gibbs is almost as good as the Ball of the Century and was in a much higher stakes moment.  He was also returning from a shoulder operation and dealing with the emotion of being dropped in the preceding Test series against the West Indies.  His relationship with Steve Waugh was broken and sadly was never mended.  Yet amongst all of that, he was able to turn the match on its head with his fierce desire to win, his belief that he and they could win, and his sheer talent.  However, that is just one moment in a career that was simply mesmerising.  We are lucky that almost all of it was captured on camera and will now likely live on for as long as the human race.  Whenever we like, we can click on a YouTube link and savour his mastery, and future generations who did not know what it was like to witness this phenomenon will be able to do the same. 

So while I am now filled with sadness, I am also filled with gratitude at having lived in the same times as this man.  A man who was sometimes easy to laugh at for all of his controversy and for his curious life choices such as commissioning a large painting of his dream party.  Despite being able to laugh at him, he was also unashamedly himself, and for a man who had reached dizzying heights, this was overwhelmingly endearing.   He is the only Australian cricketer who stands equal to Bradman.  A man who sits comfortably in the Wisden top five players of the 20th Century with the other four other batters (one being an all-rounder).  The only one of the five to have not been knighted, which feels about right.  He may have mingled with global celebrities, but he was still one of us.  He was, as he said, someone who drank a bit, smoked a bit, and bowled leg-spin.  He was Warnie.   He was not just a once in a generation bowler, he was a once in a nation bowler.  The greatest bowler this country will ever produce.  And he has gone too soon. 

Western Heist

by williamschack

On Saturday night, the Collingwood Football Club enjoyed one of its greatest victories in my lifetime. It was an underdog victory in the true Collinwood tradition, a club that has an unenviable record of defeats in Grand Finals, but an incredible knack for winning games and finals when it is not expected to. It was the perfect ending to a quartet of blistering games that has rightly been touted as the greatest first round of a finals series since 1994. That round, coincidentally, held another classic between West Coast and Collingwood, with the Eagles doubling the margin in this game and winning by 2 points before going on to win the premiership. This season, which has felt somewhat artificial up until now, was suddenly sparked into life.

Collingwood’s lead up to the game was at a resort in Joondalaup. The issues of quarantine have been discussed ad nauseum, but it is still confusing. The Western Australian restrictions meant that there could only be one person per room, and some stayed in campervans in the carpark. Some staff, players, and all family were forced to stay in Queensland. Campervans and reduced numbers aside, it remains unclear to me how these conditions differed to the conditions in Queensland. If they were drastically different, it was inappropriate to play the game in a State that had such drastic restrictions on new entrants. The logistics would have been very difficult to organise had it been in the second or third week of the finals.

The petty obsession that Western Australia has for ‘Easterners’ and the ‘East Coast’ was on display for all to see in the lead up to the game. The front page headline of the West Australian newspaper read ‘Dirty Pies’. It was unseemly behaviour from the local rag that one would expect from the publication that Paul Keating once referred to as the worst paper in Australia. But if its job was to increase interest in the game (not that it needed to), it certainly did that, and the stage was set for an epic Collingwood v West Coast final, the seventh in their short history.

As Collingwood and West Coast finals are wont to be, it was a see-sawing and pulsating game. The best game of the year, and probably the best since the 2018 Grand Final. And it was the man of the moment in the lead up to that Grand Final, Mason Cox, who unexpectedly tore apart Richmond the week before, who set this game alight. He kicked 3 goals in 3 minutes and his confidence grew with each kick. The commentators rightly stated that Cox can get a strut on in finals and after he kicked his second goal, he waved two fingers in the air and then egged on the Eagles supporters behind the goals. After his third he held his fingers to his lips. At quarter time Born in the USA brought us back in from the ad-break.

Collingwood knew the Eagles would be coming. A 16-point lead is meaningless against West Coast who can score very quickly. And they set about that task by kicking a goal from the opening bounce, something they would do again in the third and fourth quarters with ease. But the highlight of the second quarter was the battle between Liam Ryan.

In the 2018 Grand Final Liam Ryan perfectly timed a bump on Maynard on the forward flank in the second quarter, before taking a crucial mark in the match winning play on the opposite flank. On this night he laid him out again in the forward square. Then when Kennedy marked for his second goal they came face to face.
Shortly after they were in a marking contest on the forward flank, Liam Ryan marked the ball and dangled it out for all to see. Ainsworth kicked a momentum building goal and Ryan bumped Maynard on his way down the field to congratulate him. It was magnificent theatre. It was also pleasing to see the two of them show respect to one other after the game.

One thing that was strange about this game was watching it in isolation. Not being able to celebrate or vent with my friends somehow increased the tension. The adrenalin running through my body had no release and my heart rate continued to increase. But it was also easier to extricate yourself from the situation. After Liam Ryan kicked the first goal in the last quarter, I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth – preparing myself for the inevitable loss and a quick exit to bed. But then two of the greatest goals kicked by a Collingwood player in finals were kicked in succession.

First, the boy from Burnie, Brody Mihocek, took a handpass from Josh Thomas on the forward flank. The ball had fallen over the top of the pack of a down-the-line kick from Mayne. Thomas collected the ball and should have been wrapped up by Duggan. This would have been given time to drop back into the defensive 50, but Thomas somehow wriggled free and and got the ball to Mihocek. He kicked a hard and – what was supposed to be a – a centreing ball. It seemingly went off the side of his boot, however, and instead of landing at the top of the forward square it went straight through the goals. Comparisons were drawn with Swanny’s goal in the 2014 ANZAC Day game, but Swanny’s goal was a floating mess. Mihocek’s was kicked as hard as I have ever seen a goal kicked. ‘

The next one, remarkably, was not that surprising. I actually thought to myself before the ball was thrown up that De Goey could do something here. And right on cue, he kicked one of the most remarkable goals ever. I guess this is kind of what it was like to watch Peter Daicos.

But the game was not over yet. Liam Ryan beautifully assessed his options after Gaff smothered a Maynard kick and passed to Kennedy who coolly goaled. Darling then made sure the umpire knew he was collected high by Crisp and he kicked another. The margin was 1 point and there was 77 seconds remaining.

It was one of the most frantic finishes I can remember. Treloar had the chance to seal the game but his shot fell short, the ball bounced over Hoskin-Elliot’s head and fell into the arms of the man who tortures Collingwood fans for fun. He immediately moved it forward and a quick succession of passes meant all of a sudden Tom Cole had the ball in the centre of the ground with only 34 seconds to go.

Nathan Buckley bristled at Basil Zempilas’ mention of the similar between the final charge forward by the Eagles and the 2018 play that lead to Dom Sheed’s goal, but while watching I could think of nothing else. ‘Not again’ I screamed at the TV.

This time, however, the play was thankfully stopped. Taylor Adams crowded his space and managed to smother the ball as it went forward. The ball spilled to Maynard, who again was involved in an unpaid free kick but it went Collingwood’s way, and he threw the ball to Pendlebury who kicked it to the flank to Hoskin-Elliot. And Collingwood was home.

It was such an odd feeling watching the game at home on my own. I had so much adrenalin running through my body but no proper release. I love to scream and hug people (especially people I don’t know) when celebrating a Collingwood victory. But on this night it was just me, screaming to no one in my lounge room, scaring my cats. Me and my friends had a zoom chat shortly after to debrief. In Melbourne in 2020, this is the best replacement we have for a pub.

After the win, my mind began to try and find comparisons with past victories, but this victory is distinct. Its own beautiful thing. It is without doubt Nathan Buckley’s greatest win in his coaching career. In 2018 Collingwood already played well against Richmond in the home and away season in round 6 and round 19. In the latter game, Collingwood held on gallantly after suffering injuries to Jeremy Howe and Matt Scharenberg, before Richmond broke away in the final quarter. In our group chat after the game it was agreed (and never spoken of again) that we would beat Richmond the next time we played against them. Also, Richmond went into that game with injured players and were caught by surprise.

This victory, however, truly was an underdog victory. A victory against a team who decimated Collingwood in the home and away season by 66 points, with a strong home ground advantage, when Collingwood players had not slept in their own bed for months.
In this victory, all the history and animosity between these clubs and their respective States converged onto the field at Optus Stadium. The win did not wash away the pain and envy that I still feel about the 2018 Grand Final, but it made me feel prouder than I have ever been to be a Collingwood supporter – in a year in which there has been much to make me feel ashamed. There is still another three finals to win if Collingwood is to win the premiership. But in this season, a victory in a knock-out final against the Eagles feels like it is enough.

Heartbreaker

by williamschack

(NB: This was written in the days after the Grand Final but was never posted because I was too miserable. My mood has thankfully lifted since then, but this truly was a Heartbreaker.)

This one hurts more than any other loss before.  The day started out as a dream and ended up as a nightmare. The fourth Grand Final loss for me and my sister. My father’s twelfth. This is what my club does. I don’t know why I dared to dream of anything other than a kick from the boundary line with 1 minute 40 seconds left after a dubious non-free kick.

It sits third amongst all-time painful Collingwood Grand Final losses. 1970 is number one. 1979 due to the opponent and the Harmes incident. I can think of no other losses that hurt more than this. We held on and on. They were dominating, but we still held on. Until we couldn’t hold any longer. And the siren sounded to conclude our 27th Grand Final defeat.

***

Before the game I went for a kick on Victoria Park with my fellow Pies Family. People dressed in black and white were cooking on the barbecues on the wing. Others were on the ground also having a kick. We all acknowledged each other with a “Go Pies!”.

We caught the train to Jolimont and it filled me with pride to see fathers and mothers with their sons and daughters waiting in expectation. If football has any point, then that is it. On our way into the MCG I looked to my left and saw The Macedonian Marvel, Peter Daicos. I was too scared to say anything to him. I thought to myself that maybe it was a sign of good luck. After all, he kicked the greatest goal of all time against the Eagles.

We arrived about 90 minutes before bouncedown to make sure we were all settled in our seats before the stress really kicked in. I was not drinking as I had gone without alcohol the two previous games. I figured I might as well keep the good luck running. In the pre-match entertainment The Black Eyed Peas and Jimmy Barnes’ played only a couple of songs each. I was particularly disappointed Jimmy did not sing ‘Working Class Man’. Then the main act, Mike Brady, came on and did a rousing rendition of ‘Up There Cazaly’, his final moment in the son in the busiest week of the year. At the end of his song the Eagles’ fans began chanting. They were loud and it was intimidating.

As our players prepared to come out the Pies fans began chanting Coll-Ing-Wood. It stirred up the entire stadium and made the hairs on my body stand up. Then the banner broke apart before our team had even reached the ground. My dad started visibly shaking. The Eagles fans were laughing.

Nathan Buckley’s composure to take time out of his intense schedule to hug the banner leader and wish her well is testament to his character. As was his discussion with our runner who blocked Stephenson in the third quarter. He is a great man. If you are a person who still calls him FIGJAM then you need to question what you are doing with your life and what kind of person you are.

It started out so brilliantly. A flurry of goals. Varcoe with the first, as he is wont to do in Collingwood Grand Finals. Two to Stephenson, including a brilliant running goal after a dropped mark by Thomas Cole. And De Goey with a brilliant piece of wizardry, beating three in the pocket. If the game kept on going like that, I may have calmed down by the third quarter. The West Coast Eagles, however, would not lay down and their high possession and marking game began to get on top.

We matched up badly against them and had lost the two previous contests in 2018. The first was at the MCG and after a good start we were comprehensively beaten. In the first final we played two good quarters but were overrun in the end. In both games, McGovern had periods where he completely dominated the play. That dominance continued in this game, most notably in the match winning play.

At half time we were up by two goals, but no one felt good. A sense of dread sat in the pit of my stomach, and it became more intense as the game progressed. Our flow had stopped and everything felt off.

About half way through the third quarter my Dad left the ground. He didn’t say goodbye or say where he was going. He sent a message in the last quarter with a photo of two people in the park doing tai-chi with the caption “Surrender”. A friend at work said her Dad also did not watch the final quarter. He said he had lived through too many of these to know how it ends. I guess that is my future.

At three quarter time with the Eagles having convincingly won the last two quarters, I felt like I needed to change something. I decided I would go to the bar and buy some drinks, but not drink them. On my way to the bar I walked past my sister. She had left her seat at some stage in the third quarter too. Her face looked pale, like she a had seen a ghost, and she didn’t respond to whatever acknowledgement I gave her. In the line at the bar I met an Eagles fan who was the complete opposite to me. I looked at him and shook my head and said I don’t know why I do this to myself. He responded by saying “How good is this!?”. I thought of my father who had left 15 minutes before, my sister who looked half dead, and my stomach that had been on the verge of coming up since late in the first quarter.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Oh, you’d hate it if it was a blow out either way like the rest of the finals series”
That is exactly what I wanted. I think in 2007 Geelong fans got the experience the perfect Grand Final. The game was over by quarter time, the fans and players ready to party, with the other team never showing a whimper, and the avalanche not ending until the final siren. This game was the exact opposite. I grunted back an unconvincing “yeah”.
“How good is footy!?” The Eagles fan said but I didn’t respond. He was not my kind of guy.

The final quarter started off brilliantly, with two quick goals to the Pies. The De Goey kick from outside 50 will remain one of the great moments of my life. We sat right behind it and it never looked like missing. I hugged everyone around me but it was not enough. My switch to drinking trick had not worked.

The last 15 minutes felt like it was all at the Eagles end. We were stagnant and could not get it past the wing. I know we had our chances in the last 5 minutes, but that all seems a blur. All I can remember is Adams having a shot that went out on the full, and Treloar kicking inside 50 with McGovern marking and setting up the match winning play. It was the latest that a lead has changed in a Grand Final for the victor since 1947. Much has been said about the non-free kick, indeed a change.org petition was even set up, but everyone knows that is not the reason we lost. We lost because we played 1 good quarter and the Eagles played 3. Even if the free kick was paid the Eagles would have likely given themselves another shot. Jack Darling gave us a glimmer of hope by dropping a mark and denying himself the opportunity to kick the sealer, but it was not to be. The siren sounded and we left immediately.

***

Outside it was strange. There were some Eagles fans in the marquees cheering but it was still very quiet. My sister began to cry. All of us Pies fans with pain-stricken faces looked like we were at funeral. Walking through the Fitzroy gardens I felt numb. I kept admonishing myself for daring to dream it could end any other way. A couple was having their wedding photos taken in the gardens.
The photographer asked us who won, to which we mumbled a response.
“I thought it must have been the Eagles, too many Collingwood fans walking through” she said with a smile on her face, as though that was a completely normal thing to do.
She just didn’t get it.

We quickly drank a couple of pints at The Cricketers Bar on Spring St, the same venue that witnessed such jubilant scenes only one week before. To distract ourselves we talked about the potential appointment of a man accused of rape to the Supreme Court of the USA. We finished our beers an caught an uber to meet our respective partners at a pub. Gubby Allen, ex-player and 1990 premiership football manager, was walking out as we did. I told him we were struggling, and he said with a pained look on his face, “Yeah, what can you do?”. He gets it.

And what can you do when you love a club that hurts you time and time again? I guess that is what following a club is all about. Your love endures despite all the pain they cause you. Your love exists for no reason other than that 61 years ago some kids were singing the Collingwood theme song on their way to school, and against odds of 1 in 400 trillion you happened to be born to the person who heard those kids singing that song. Yet, despite my love I am not sure if I can go to another Grand Final. I think I finally get it. The youthful optimism that has propelled my fandom up until now has finally been beaten out of me. I’ve lived with the pain of Collingwood Grand Final losses for as long as I can remember, but I lived it through books and grainy old footage of Grand Final moments that haunt those who love Black and White. I’ve watched Bob Rose pushing his way through the crowd in 1966 to congratulate Allen Jeans. I’ve watched him try to console the desolate Collingwood team after the siren in 1970. I’ve watched Wayne Harmes tap the ball to Ken Sheldon deep – very deep – in the Ponsford Stand pocket in 1979. I’ve watched and read about all those moments. But I saw with my own two eyes Jeremy McGovern launch at a kick into our forward line and take a mark as he did so many times this season. I saw him immediately play on and kick the ball to Nathan Vardy (Nathan fucking Vardy!?) on their back flank. I saw him pass the ball to Liam Ryan on the forward flank who ran back with the flight of ball and took a mark that should have been spoiled by Langdon or Thomas. I saw Ryan play on and kick the ball inside 50. I saw Brayden Maynard get blocked by Willie Rioli and the umpire pay a mark to Dom Sheed. I saw Sheed walk in from the fence, 40 metres out, with the season on the line, and I saw him kick a goal with what must have been ice running through his veins. I know that time heals all wounds, but I saw all of that and I don’t think I can take the risk of watching something like that ever again. I don’t have the resilience of Bob Rose or Nathan Buckley, or any of the hundreds of people who have endured through the pain of loss and fronted up again for another chance at success. I don’t have any of that – I don’t know how much more of this my heart can take.

A Night to Remember

by williamschack

Goodness. Where did this all come from? In round one this year Mason Cox played one of the worst games of Australian football I have ever seen a professional play. There were audible groans every time he went near the ball and inevitably dropped it. The perennially entertaining Facebook page ‘Footy Fighting Scenarios’ summed it up best when a group member posted: Basic AFL Skills v Mason Cox (Still the 2nd best Cox to ever play the game terrain).

There were all the old familiar signs of a team who had no game plan. Stagnant play off the half back line. Looking around for a short pass. Hoping someone would lead into space. Seeing no-one moving. Eventually giving up on anything imaginative and kicking it up the line to the wing hoping a teammate will mark it even though it never happens. We still only lost by 4 goals to Hawthorn.

The next week we played GWS and saw one of the most the horrific injuries you will ever see on the football field. Tim Broomhead’s leg wrapped around the goal post and gave a new meaning to the words broken leg. We played better on this day but lost by 15 points.

In round three we played the old enemy Carlton. Before the game David “Champion Data Stats” King wrote that Carlton were closer to a flag than Collingwood. Carlton kicked the first three goals then Collingwood kicked the next 10. Something clicked on that evening. We were suddenly making sharp passes at 45-degree angles. Running and handpassing in patterns that did break down on the wing. Whatever was that Collingwood had been trying to do for the last 3-4 years suddenly worked.

When we lost dismally to Carlton in round 7, 2016, I had lost the faith. After about my tenth beer for the day I got on to Facebook as every good drunk person does and demanded Buckley to be sacked. There is a reason why best practice in corporate governance does not involve social media and alcohol. The post has certainly not aged well, particularly given we only lost by 15 points, and thankfully people more temperate than me are in charge of the club. Despite being posted while drunk it was at least considered. My bio on this blog since day one has read ‘it is his dream to see Nathan Buckley holding a premiership cup’. I just had reached a point where I did not see that dream as a possibility. Every week we would watch our team play and in 1 in 10 games the ball would move well. The rest of the time the play was stagnant and based on luck.

All I want from my football club is to be able to attend the game every week with some sort of optimism. They don’t always have to bring me joy, but I just want to see them improving and playing good football, so that I don’t dread going to ground. That is why I was fed up in 2016, I no longer enjoyed watching them play. To try and mitigate some of my foolishness, however, I must note that I agreed with the contract extension last year. If we had been through all of that and had not sacked him by that stage, then we might as well see it through to the bitter end. I did not expect this.

This home and away season’s highlights for me were the Adelaide, ANZAC Day and Queen’s Birthday games. The main thing though was that we were playing well despite all the bad injury luck. Of the losses, the two Richmond games were most encouraging, but I was not prepared in any way for what happened on Friday night.

It was a match made in heaven. Richmond v Collingwood. Suburban rivals for more than a century, but never good at the same time for the last 35 years. The two biggest supported clubs on the best night to watch football – Friday night, Preliminary Final weekend.

Before the game the city was electric. It seemed like everyone in the world was excited about the game, not just those in our sparsely populated State on our giant island continent. At lunch time I was wearing my scarf and a tradie from the construction site next door grunted at me, ‘Carn the Tigers’. My colleague said a Tigers fan hissed at her on the train. Walking to the ground, the enormity of the challenge stood before me. The MCG, the ground on which Richmond had won its last 22 games, glowing in the distance. I could not help but think of the possibility of winning. Yet the very likely chance of losing strangely tempered my nerves.

Once the game started, the chances of winning grew. It was incredible. With each goal the roars of the crowd got louder. We were all high fiving and hugging each other. Knowing how Richmond had played us twice this year we were all cautious of getting carried away. At quarter time people were smiling in surprise and shaking their heads. As if they were trying to shake out of them any thought that we could actually win, for fear of the heartache a loss would then cause.

The second quarter was something to behold. Mason Cox played as good a quarter of football you will ever see played. Those audible groans that went around the ground whenever he went near the ball in round 1 had turned into cheers of expectation. He just could not drop the ball. Thankfully, he also kicked straight. Chants of USA! USA! USA! went around the ground. I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like it.

The Tigers wrestled back the momentum for the last 10 minutes or so of the half, but Jack crisp’s second goal against the run of play steadied and cemented our dominance. I’ve watched the replay about 4 times now and Bruce had an all-time performance on this night. His response to this goal is my favourite but had me retrospectively worrying about his health. Ominously the margin was 44 points at half-time. There may have been a time when a Collingwood fan felt comfortable with that lead, but those days are dead and buried.

The Tigers won the third and all those worries and stresses increased when they got within 21 points in the final term. Then Mason Cox took a steadying mark on the wing, leading to Adam Treloar kicking a goal. And finally, Brodie Grundy, who with a finals record of 56 hit-outs absolutely dominated Toby Nankervis and Shaun Grigg all night, dominated them once more. He rucked the ball in the front pocket, tapped it, roved his own ball and booted Collingwood into a Grand Final.

It was only then that anyone relaxed. I hugged my sister and father. Strangely, it was the first Preliminary Final I had attended with them. Dad is not quite as boisterous as me at the football but it looked like he had a good time. All night his eyes just kept getting wider and wider with surprise and by this time he could even smile. I’ve since read that the crowd noise reached 126 decibels. 120 is the sound that a jet makes at take-off. It was just glorious. Kicking the sealer into a raucous Ponsford Stand is as good as it gets. My contribution to the 126 decibels was yelling over and over “It’s Grundy!!”. And then the Coll-Ing-Wood chant started.

Exactly where it stands in the history of Collingwood upsets I am not quite sure yet. The 2002 Qualifying Final against Port Adelaide without Buckley was probably more of an upset, but it was the dominance that makes this win against the Tigers stand out. 1958 still stands out alone, but the physical tactics used on that day are not as noble as this complete dismantling of Richmond. What happens on Saturday might determine how we view it in the future.

After the game we stood outside the Ponsford Stand for a while, soaking in the atmosphere of the celebrations. Then we walked up to the Cricketers Bar on Spring Street to meet some friends. All the Colllingwood fans in the bar had smiles beaming from their faces. Still in disbelief. One person started singing the Collingwood theme song and everyone in the bar joined in unison. Then we all started chanting Coll-Ing-Wood. The replay came on the TV and we all just took it in. In the second quarter Mason Cox started marking everything that came his way. The crowd in the bar began chanting USA! USA! USA! The world had become a strange and enjoyable place. It was a Preliminary Final night to remember.


William Schack

The Captain Goes Down With The Ship

by williamschack

In his last game as Captain of the Australian cricket team, Steve Smith allowed Cameron Bancroft to walk onto the field in the second session with a piece of sandpaper in his pocket. Bancroft held it there with the intent to cause damage to the non-shiny side of the ball. Smith’s deputy, David Warner, gave Bancroft a lesson in how to rough up that side in the rooms during Lunch. Smith knew the sandpaper was there and why it was there.
We are lead to believe this is the first time such a thing happened, but we don’t know if that is true, and I cannot accept that what we have been told so far is the whole truth. We do know that when Bancroft was caught on camera executing the plan, Smith told Bancroft he should get rid of the evidence. They then lied to both the umpires and coach when they said it was sticky tape instead of sandpaper. Exactly why, I don’t know. They then lied to the world and said the same thing, and said that it was not Warner who concocted the plan, but “the leadership group”. (This may not, in fact, be a lie, but at the moment that is the truth as we know it).
Smith’s leadership, whether he instigated it, encouraged it, or – as it seems – just allowed it, brought about the saddest image in my lifetime of watching Australian sport. Cameron Bancroft, a young man with a burgeoning career, playing in just his eighth Test match, shoving the guilty piece of sandpaper down his underpants and with it went any dignity that this Australian Test cricket team had left.

I have never read the rules regarding ball tampering until this week. They are peculiar, to say the least. They forbid any form of tampering, but also explicitly allow one form of tampering. Section 41.3.2 states “It is an offence for any player to take any action which changes the condition of the ball”, but Law 41.3.21 also states that the ball may be polished provided no foreign substance is used when doing so. The idea here is that polishing maintains the ball, whereas anything else degrades it.
The other peculiar part of the rule is that if one is to breach the rule and the umpires catch them, the penalty is five runs. In a game that rarely ends in a margin less than 20, a risk of losing five runs is minimal. The maximum penalty that the ICC can impose for a breach of these rules is one game. The opposing Captain in Smith’s offending game has been charged with this offence twice and never suspended. In a press conference just before the offending game, he made light of his punishment and wished that when he was being judged he had the same adjudicator that inexplicably overturned Rabada’s recent suspension. Law 41 also states that the Captain is responsible for ensuring fair play and adherence to the Spirit of Cricket and the Laws.
There is a disparity between what the public expects from players and what the ICC is willing to impose as a penalty for a breach of the rules. Considering recent events now is the time to increase the in-game penalty to 50 runs and something in the vicinity of what Bancroft has received. That would be a more effective deterrent.
The other disparity is between what the players accept as reasonable interference the ball and what the rules say. Despite being explicitly forbidden in the rules (It is an offence for any player to take any action), every ex-player who has condemned the actions of Smith/Bancroft/Warner, has also said it is reasonable to take steps to rough up the other side of the ball in a less confronting ways.
It is different, Warne said, to produce saliva with mints (and it is). Throwing the ball with the intention of it hitting the ground before the keeper is another tactic used, said Clarke. You ask the umpire incessantly to change the ball. But they would never ever cheat by bringing an object onto the field to tamper with the ball. Everyone had an issue that they had cheated, but the ex-players especially had an issue with that they cheated in such a clumsy way.
The player who received the harshest penalty for ball tampering, Shahid Afridi (two T20 Games), apologised when he was caught biting the ball and penalised for his actions. He said, “I was just trying to help the bowler. There is no team in the world that doesn’t tamper with the ball but my approach was wrong”. He was sorry, mostly because he used such a stupid method to tamper with the ball.
Marcus Trescothick candidly recalled in his autobiography a time when he was almost caught with mints during The Ashes in 2001 at Headingley: “I dived to gather the ball at square leg, I landed on my side, and a shower of Murray Mints spewed out of my trouser pocket all over the grass right in front of the umpire. Fortunately, neither he nor the two batsmen seemed to take much notice as I scrambled around on all fours trying desperately to gather in the sweets before they started asking awkward questions”.
These types of confessions are common. I have read many articles this week about the ‘dark arts’ of reverse swing. Tampering is an open secret, and the players usually do it secretly, even though the rules to say that is an offence to alter the ball with any action. The umpires often intervene when players throw the ball in too short, but there are surely times when someone legitimately misthrows from the outfield, and it bounces before the keeper. There is such a grey area with this rule that makes it so hard to legislate. Perhaps the rule should be changed so that the ball can be roughed up in any way using whatever is on the field of play excluding the pitch and – of course – items that the players have brought onto the field in their pockets such as sandpaper. It would certainly make for more entertaining cricket. The ICC, players, and fans all know that cricket is exciting when the ball is reverse-swinging.
The ICC and its history in dealing with tampering incidents make it somewhat complicit in this recent incident. The rules need to be changed to either better reflect the reality of cricket (that tampering goes on), or to change the reality of cricket (make tampering too risky of an option). This is not to excuse what the players did, the rules in place right now were blatantly breached and they were attempting to obtain an unfair advantage, but this incident cannot be separated from all the previous sly actions and soft penalties. There is a reason why Smith and Bancroft thought they could explain away their actions in that fateful press-conference after Stumps on Day Three.

And putting aside all the other issues, it is that press-conference that made the problem so much worse than it needed to be. This week on The Sounding Board , Craig Hutchison and Damian Barrett brilliantly dissected the media mismanagement of the cheating on Sunday. Steve Smith needed to front the press on Sunday after the game, and he needed to admit that something went wrong. He did not need, however, to plainly and bluntly admit to concocting a plan with the leadership group in the lunch break. This implicated himself and five other players unnecessarily. All he needed to say was that there was investigation ongoing and that he could not talk about it until the ICC gave its findings. Cameron Bancroft should not have even been at the press conference. He did not have to say he was using yellow tape instead of sandpaper. And Smith did not have to admit that they cheated and then try and shift the conversation to it being a learning experience and something that would never happen again. We could take that as gospel; we had his word.
There was a gap of 45-60 minutes between the end of play and the press conference. Lehman learned of the incident at Tea. It is astounding that it was allowed to happen. The full investigation by Cricket Australia needs to determine who was involved with the press conference plan and I suspect we will learn more about other leadership positions that are untenable. That they lied again, after the cheating, was reason enough to stand down Smith. Had it been managed better, Smith may have been able to continue playing for Australia soon.
And after that press conference, James Sutherland stated there would be a full investigation into the situation but made no initial findings. For no reason other than public relations, all he had to do was say that Smith and Bancroft had been stood down pending an investigation, and the anger that the Australian public felt would have dissipated slightly and the nation would have been able to take a collective breath. The players had admitted to cheating – that was all he required to stand them down while they worked out what happened. By doing nothing, he propelled the narrative that Cricket Australia would try and mitigate the damage.

Once again, none of the above excuses what happened, but it is just another interesting facet of this sad debacle. It compounded the stupid plan with more stupidity. The end result is that the three main players involved have been banned from the game they love for 9 and 12 months. Some have argued that the penalty is too harsh, and when compared with past penalties, it is. But if Cricket Australia did not take a stand now, then they never could. It would be insufficient to suspend the players for six months, missing only some One Day Internationals that no-one cares about, then allowing them to return for the Australian summer. The punishment needed to fit the crime, and the crime, in this case, was not just the cheating, but the covering up of the cheating and continued lying in the aftermath. There was a complete lack of leadership at every step of the way.
The three players have all now returned to the country from which they have been ostracised. Warner will likely never play for Australia again. The path seems clearer for Smith and Bancroft. They both held emotional press conferences upon their return. Warner to broke his silence on Saturday, but he was not able to reveal more than what was in Iain Roy’s initial report. I get the feeling he will one day and it will be explosive.
In his press conference, Smith was a broken wreck. He said it was a failure of his leadership and that he now fully understood the ramifications of his actions. That realisation, sadly, came five days too late. It didn’t come after Stumps on Day Three. And it didn’t dawn on him in the change rooms at Lunch. When he learned of the sandpaper plan, he didn’t stand up as a leader should. He didn’t say “No”.
And so, onto the cricket field walked Cameron Bancroft with bright yellow sandpaper in his pocket and 30 suspicious camera operators around him. Smith allowed that to happen. He didn’t think forward to the worst possible outcome, which is surely what he is living through now.

 

Reading Richard Ford & Watching Steve Smith

by williamschack

This summer I have been reading Richard Ford’s Canada and watching Steve Smith bat in The Ashes. Ford is one of the finest American fiction writers of his generation, and Smith is the finest Australian batsmen of his generation. Ford mixed with luminaries such as Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. Smith mixes with no one that is his peer, but he did play with Ricky Ponting – the leader of the previous golden generation that will never be repeated.

In the history of Australian batsmen, there is a clear top 3. Bradman sits at the top and will not be replaced. At number two sits Greg Chappell. Some say Ponting beats him, but Ponting had the luxury of batting in a dominant side to finish with a career average of 51.85. Chappell played in some great Australian teams, but played on worse pitches, often without protective equipment and facing bowlers such as Malcom Marshall. He ended his career on 53.86. As it stands right now, Smith’s average is 63.75, and he may surpass them both. He currently sits at 76.45 as Captain.

Ford is at the peak of his powers in Canada, and this summer Smith has furthered his quest to be the second best Australian batsmen ever. It has been a pleasure to enjoy them both over the last six weeks, as Australia has regained The Ashes, and the Australian summer has beaten down on the English team.

***

I first became interested in Ford in 2012 when I was visiting a friend (now the Roos Gal) in London. Her housemate had a large bookshelf, and two books stood out to me: W.G Grace – A life, by Simon Rae (1999); and The Sportswriter (1986), by Richard Ford.  I asked her housemate, who did not strike me as a cricket aficionado, why she had a book on W.G? I was suitably impressed when she informed me that she was a descendant of The Old Man, but slightly upset to find out she did not care for the game.  She also said that The Sportswriter was good and that I should read it. I did. And from almost the first page I knew I was a Richard Ford fan.

For the past 40 years, Ford has been writing stories about the ordinary lives of people from Middle and Lower America. He writes of family. Philandering. Murder. Mental illness. The poor choices that people make when they feel they have no other.

He is best known for his recurring character, Frank Bascombe, who appears in four of his novels. The Sportswriter (1986) was his first success; Independence Day (1995) his biggest success and for which he won the Pulitzer; The Lay of the Land (2006); and Let me be Frank with You (2015). It is Rock Springs (1987) and Canada (2012), however, that interest me most. It is in these stories that his characters are achingly alone and lost, trying to make sense of the times and country in which they live. Down and out, left behind in the pursuit of the American Dream in the Mid-West and West.

Ford does not like colourful language. His understated prose gives the events he is describing an unsettling gravity. He can write about the most traumatic event in a character’s life in plain language that makes it seem all the more shocking.
He also sees language differently to others. He is dyslexic and unable to read like most. He did not complete a book until he was 19 and this has informed his approach to writing. He writes in sentences that are not intended to show his skill as an author. More than most writers, he considers how many syllables are in a word and a sentence. He is direct and easy to read. Sometimes in the Bascombe books, this plainness becomes painful, but that is less a fault with his writing and more a testament to the character and the minutiae of his life which Ford intends for us to understand.

I bought Canada in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago. It has since sat on my poorly positioned bookshelf in my bedroom catching northern sunlight, its cover fading and gathering dust. Recently, while watching the first Test of this summer’s Ashes series, I picked it off the shelf and flicked through it. And from the first page, I knew I loved the book.

***

Smith seems the most unlikely Australian Captain. He first came to my knowledge when he was selected for the Perth Test in the abysmal 2010/11 Ashes series – the nadir of Australian cricket in my lifetime. It was then that my friends and I bowed our heads in shame as Smith said that his role was to make gags in the field. In hindsight, he was probably just inexperienced in the media and could not articulate what he meant by trying to be a positive influence on the team, but at the time his inarticulateness articulated perfectly that Ponting was out of luck and his team was about to be trounced like no Australian team since 1986. The series ended with Australia losing 3-1 with three innings losses. The English crowd took delight in our demise as a collective, and in particular singling out Mitchell Johnson. Never before had we been humiliated in such a way. It would take Johnson 3 years to recover.

But perhaps Smith is right where he thought he should always be. He grew up in Sutherland Shire, of short-lived The Shire fame. He is not from the school of hard knocks – cricketers rarely are – but he did not complete secondary school, choosing instead to head over to England and play County cricket. This strange colonial sport was his way out of whatever he was in, but he never saw himself as the leg-spinner he was brought into the side as. And he has turned out to be so much more than that.

Smith was dropped after the 2010/11 Ashes and not picked again until the disastrous Homework-Gate tour of 2013 called for someone – anyone – to be selected as four players were dropped for not doing their homework on the opposition.  Once again, I laughed at his selection. I thought there was no point in trying him when he had already failed. He scored 92 in Mowabli, and my opinion immediately changed.

Australia needs batsmen that can play in India. Any batsmen of worth can make runs in Australia and we rarely lose here. If we are to call ourselves the best in the world again – it has been a decade since we did with conviction – then we need batsmen who can bat in foreign conditions. At the moment we have 3 (Warner, Smith, Marsh). And that is the reason Smith’s 92 meant so much to me. In a series when we lost 4-0, this was the one bright spark.

Since then, Smith has progressed to be the number 1 ranked batsmen in the world. It happened slowly, and then suddenly. At Perth in the third Test of the 2013/14 Ashes series, England was pitching the ball short at Smith. He decided he needed to step back and across the stumps, from leg to off, and to face the ball front on. This gave him more time and strengthened his defence. It was strange to make a change in the middle of a Test, but it worked. Smith said that from that moment everything just sort of clicked. Since then, he has averaged above 75 runs per wicket.

***

Canada is set in the autumn of 1960. It is the story of the Parsons, a lower-middle-class family in Montana. And it is a story of loss and alienation.

Bev Parsons, the father, is an Alabaman native and Airforce veteran from WWII whose life never returned from the heights of dropping bombs in the Pacific. Neeva Parsons, the mother, never recovered from falling pregnant soon after the war, a time when other arrangements could not be made. Their story, Dell says, is not an unheard-of story in the world.

Bev is jubilant at the prospect of a Kennedy presidency, and a Roosevelt picture hangs on his wall. The society is on the precipice of the 1960s, the decade of upheaval that delivered the Civil Rights Act.
The story is told from the voice of Dell Parsons, son of Bev and Neeva, some 50 years later as a 66-year-old. He is looking back at the events of his life with the full knowledge of American life since then. The great trick of the book is that although it is told from Dell in old-age, the story is presented as he saw it at the time through his naïve 14-year-old eyes. Things happen, but it is not immediately apparent to him what they mean. He also foretells the dark events that form the story, but rather than spoil the narrative, it propels it.

The book is split into three parts. The first follows a series of events that lead Bev Parsons to believe his only way out of a bind is to rob a bank. (There are no spoilers here, the first two sentences of the book read: First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later). Neeva helps too, but for different reasons. Part one ends with the parents in prison, awaiting a transfer to North Dakota where the robbery was committed. Their children, Dell and Berner, are alone in their house and uncertain of their future.

The second part follows Dell dealing with the ramifications of his parent’s actions. To avoid becoming a ward of the state, Dell is driven north to (fictional) Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, Canada, by his mother’s friend, Mildred Remlinger. She takes him to live with her brother, Arthur Remlinger, who grew up in the era of The New Deal and hates the government and unions. He went to Harvard, but retreated to Canada to escape his mysterious past after he became politically involved in some violent groups. He would have been more at home in Trump’s America.

Dell spends most of his time, however, with Arthur’s right-hand man, Charley Quarters. He teaches Dell how to hunt geese, and warns Dell of the dangers to be found in the town. He is a Metis who has pictures of Hitler and Mussolini in his trailer and believes they were misunderstood.
Despite his flaws, it is Dell’s period with Charley that is the most interesting in the book. Dell does not like him, and it appears Charley feels the same way about him, yet they both lean on each other and help one another in an unspoken way.
The reader is always on edge, however, and it feels as though something awful is about to happen at the hands of Charley, or perhaps someone else. We know Dell survives, as he is telling the story from the present, but the reader constantly fears for him in his vulnerable state.

The characters we meet in Canada are much like those in America. Running from their past, not looking back. Trying to make themselves a second life, but never really believing they can. We do not learn of Charley and Arthur’s fate. Charley’s, it would seem, was sealed from his beginning. Arthur goes to extreme lengths to escape his past, and might just succeed.

The third part ends in contemporary times. Fort Royal is largely gone. Only a few houses and an abattoir remain. Dell now lives in Windsor, Ontario, across the river and a now more heavily manned border from Detroit. The city that his dad used to tell him was the melting pot of the world, where you could get a good job with a good wage.

Dell flies from Detroit to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis to visit Berner. It is in the first year of the Obama Presidency, and in the trailer park where she lives, all the residents have American flags proudly waving above their places. Berner voted for Obama, but it would appear the others did not. They have signs underneath their flags stating that abortion is wrong, marriage is a sacrament, and there should be no taxes.
After their brief encounter, Dell flies back to Detroit, the city that would file for bankruptcy four years later.

***

Smith’s 5 Tests this summer have all been enthralling to watch. The first was my favourite of his in Australian conditions. He came to the crease in Brisbane on day 2 with England on top. It seems a long time ago now that the series ended 4-0, but at that stage, it looked as though England had planned everything just right. The wicket was difficult to make runs on and Australia was making them at a slow pace. England had a plan to bore Smith and ensure he could not score freely. Smith was not bothered by this. He could not make runs as he usually would, so he just waited it out. This was most un-Australian.

Since I have watched cricket, I have been bombarded with talk from commentators that players need to be aggressive and must play their natural game. I agree with this mainly because Shane Warne thinks this, but when the team is so inconsistent, there are times when a player should just match the conditions and acknowledge that perhaps they won’t be able to play like they want to. Smith recognised this on day 2. He also recognised it in India earlier this year when he made the greatest performance by an Australian captain in a series on the sub-continent. He is the kind of batsmen who can read the play and bat accordingly, which as an Australian is very refreshing to watch.

He blunted the attack and built a partnership with Shaun Marsh. On Day 3 it continued – slowly.  I was sitting by the pool listening on the radio. Then I was sitting on the couch watching. Waiting. And finally, he passed the hundred and almost 6 hours had passed. Had it been an Englishmen batting, or even another Australian, it would have been boring. As it was Smith, however, and we knew he could do so much more, each ball was fascinating. Each leave, each scream of “not now”, each scrambled single, was another thread in a rich tapestry that was this unlikely century. He celebrated with a fierce fist pump to his heart, atop which sat the Australian emblem.

He performed his worst in the second Test, but his time at the crease was very entertaining. In his first innings of 40, pantomime villain Stuart Broad took upon himself to get verbal with Smith and put him off his game. He was only too willing to engage. Jimmy Anderson then got involved.  In his Telegraph column before this Test, he said Australians were a bunch of bullies. In his subsequent column, he wrote that his clever comments got under Smith’s skin and was all part of the game.

Then there was Smith’s pièce de résistance of the series – 239 at the WACA. The second double century of his career and his most dominant performance of the series. Root had won his third toss for the summer, and England put 400 on the board. In any Test that is difficult to compete with, but Smith had has made imposing scores on the WACA (RIP) pitch over the last two years and said it was impossible to get out. He walked out with confidence and quickly arrived at 92 by stumps. The question was not whether he would make a hundred, but how far he would go.  He went on and on and on and on, despite taking the lesser role and allowing Mitch Marsh to make of the runs in their impressive partnership, ending up on 229* at stumps. He only added ten the following day, and it is a testament to his skill that this felt like a letdown. A triple century seemed an inevitability.

The first innings in Melbourne turned out to be a letdown. His wrist was struck in the nets in the lead up to the game, and he responded by saying he might have to change the way he bats. He came in on day one at 2/35. I had tickets to day two and three of the Test and hoped to see Smith bat all day and make another century. I arrived about 30 minutes late, and by the time I was in the standing room section of the MCC to watch the game, Smith was off the ground, and Mitch Marsh was running toward the centre.

Alistair Cook stole the show with a legacy leaving double century. It was not the prettiest of innings but was a determined effort by someone whose career was on the line, and I am glad I was there to see it. England had a chance of winning their first Test since 2011 in Australia, but in the end, the weather and pitch won out and the game ended in a draw. Smith batted time until the end and in the process made his 23rd century. Plenty has been written about the pitch so there is not much more that I can add other than that the Boxing Day Test was the most boring Ashes Test I can remember.

When his wicket fell on 83 on the morning of day three at the SCG, a hush went around the ground, and the nation was shocked. So expectant have we become, that we are bemused when he goes out.

And that was Smith’s golden summer. It ended with an average of 137.4. Almost more than Bradman in 1930, who averaged 139.14. Granted, Bradman never played on pitches as flat as Smith did this summer, nor did he wear a helmet. Nevertheless, this summer Smith has taken a strong step towards being the best Australian batsmen since.
So dominant was Bradman in 1930, that England took extreme measures to ensure he would not do it to them next time. It will be interesting to see what England come up with next series. They will probably bowl the same, but ensure he plays on the most un-Australian pitches ever, and hope for the best. For that is all they did this series, hope that they could get him out.

***

The most intriguing about Smith is that he is not the archetypal aggressive Australian batsmen looking to impose himself on the game at all times. He is so confident in his defence and not losing his wicket that he knows the runs eventually will come. Sometimes they flow easily; sometimes they don’t. He doesn’t seem to mind and has no ego about it. As long as they come.

This is much the same as Ford, who eschews flashy language. He has no ego about his sentences. He just wants to have readers and wants them to enjoy his books. He does not have the dazzle of Fitzgerald or the spare surfaces of Hemingway. He only has his characters, and he does his best to tell his readers everything about them in as few words as possible. And from this comes his brilliance in explaining the everyday.

They both make the mundane seem entertaining. A leave from Smith can be enthralling. For almost 200 pages in Canada, Ford describes a few weeks in Saskatchewan, Canada, in which Dell Parsons cleans a hotel, hunts geese and plays chess by himself. The plot subtly runs through this period and the promise in the second sentence of the book of ominous times ahead keeps the pages turning, and makes his day-to-day life all-the-more intriguing.

And I guess that is why each and every ball that Smith faces is enthralling. The plot of his career, from plucky up-start Leggie who can bat a bit, to the very best Test batsmen in the world, weaves through every innings in which plays.  And the allure of seeing just how far his greatness can reach is why we are all captivated and blessed to watch him as his career develops.

 

The Day of The Ashes

by williamschack

It has been a strange build-up to this summer’s Ashes series. There has been excitement, but it has not been palpable like in the past. There are so many new faces involved and the personal rivalry between players is not prevalent in the same way it has been in the past. There is no Anderson v Johnson comparison in this series. Of the 22 players in the squads from the last Australian Ashes, only 7 remain. The country will be abuzz once the game begins on Thursday morning, but the build-up has not been quite the same as I remember it before other series. The Ben Stokes incident has been an unfortunate distraction and the series will be poorer for his absence. From an Australian perspective, all the media discussion has been about who would fill the spots of the opening partner of Warner, number 6, and the wicket-keeper.

Until about 1 month ago I did not realise there was an issue with Matt Renshaw, but now he is out of the team – who knows when he will return – and Cameron Bancroft hit form at the perfect time. It is the other two selections, however, that are the most controversial.
Shaun Marsh – 34-year-old boy wonder with loads of potential and a huge future – has been selected at number 6. It should no longer be controversial when Marsh is selected ahead of a worthier player because it has happened for his entire career. Despite Glenn Maxwell being hard-done-by, I don’t mind the selection as much as I usually would and his recent injury set-back may mean that Maxwell gets to play anyway. . He did play well in India earlier this year, and the number 6 position may take a bit of pressure off and allow him to play with more freedom. Although given Australia’s torrid 4-mid-order collapses in recent times he may be coming in at 4-50, or worse.
But it is the Tim Paine selection that is the strangest. All the weird stats have been thrown around about his record – the coach scoring a more recent First-Class century being the most amusing – but he has been selected solely for his keeping. Not since the days of the insufferable Ian Healy has a keeper been selected only for his glove-work. It was a selection that I am sure England would have welcomed. Their memories of the last Australian summer here must be littered the annoying smile of Brad Haddin – the most important player after Johnson in that series – digging in and grinding the English momentum to a halt before adding valuable runs every time England had the edge.

This current crop of Australian players lacks someone with that hard-nosed edge like Haddin. Beyond Smith and Warner, none will especially concern the English bowlers. And despite having a bowling attack that would strike fear into almost any batting line-up in history, they are unproven as a unit and don’t have the same uber-confidence that people like me grew up thinking was normal. Perhaps that will come with time and – hopefully – sustained success, but right now this line-up does not have a clear identity under Smith.
This is by far Smith’s biggest Australian summer. The Indian series earlier this year was one of the most entertaining series in my memory; Smith and his team took it right up to India and almost climbed the most difficult summit in Australian cricket. Due to it being on Foxtel only a quarter of the country had the chance to watch it. So, Smith’s achievement in rallying his team in that series is perhaps lost on most of the general public and his identity as captain – beyond just making heaps and heaps of runs – is yet to be determined.
Smith is less combative and aggressive than almost all his predecessors in the last 50 years. His immediate predecessor has questioned this in the media recently. Every time Clarke or his buddy Shane Warne comment on Smith and his captaincy, it is hard to not read the sub-text. Warne is one of the most aggressive cricketers in history, and while it worked incredibly well for him, he finds it difficult to accept that others don’t play with some style. It is clear that Steve Smith is not the kind guy who Graeme Smith would say calls you a cunt all day, but Warne and Clarke would prefer it if he was. They may not always mean it, but it seems like they are trying to undermine almost everything he does – particularly when it comes to David Warner.
There has been a clear difference in the way Warner has spoken since Smith became captain. Warner once spoke of England’s scared eyes when facing Johnson, but so reserved has he become that his teammates now call him “The Reverend”. When he did speak up in the lead up to this series of the need to ensure there is a hatred of the opposition, he just as soon came out and apologised for taking it too far.
Despite Warner’s conciliatory tone, Nathan Lyon – the most conciliatory of all Australian players – spoke this week of wanting to end the careers of Englishmen this summer. It was as though you could see the new keeping coach behind him pulling the strings. Or perhaps this is what Lyon is really like, and he has just never felt confident enough to say things like that in public. Maybe Smith has given him a license to do what comes naturally to him. Regardless, mixed messages are coming out of the Australian camp – but this series is the series in which Smith can cement his position in Australian cricket and truly deliver a team in his image. And that may be that players are free to act as they like, and not pretend that they have the confidence of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath.
Despite the lacklustre build up – the day is upon us, and hopefully, a classic series awaits. On day two of the Brisbane Test in the last Ashes series, a series of Mitchell Johnson bouncers whipped up the winds of change that soon swept around the Australian continent. England, who had beaten Australia comprehensively only months earlier, stood no chance in those conditions. This contest looks to be much more even – or perhaps that is just because there are so many newcomers and it is unclear how they will match up. Let’s hope this new team can show the world their identity and usher in a new era of Australian Test cricket.