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Ashes to Ashes: it’s 50 up

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IT’S BACK to cricket’s Holy Grail half a century later for Chief Writer RON REED:

LAST week’s 50-year celebrations of the moonwalk made it almost compulsory for everybody who is old enough to remember where they were and what they were doing when it happened to tell the rest of us about it. So I don’t see why I should be left out.

I watched it on a black and white TV in a shop window in Vienna with a group of mates,  all but one of whom are still going strong, midway through the timeless ritual for young Australians (and New Zealanders, South Africans, Americans and Canadians, to name a few) of exploring Europe in the cheapest manner possible, in our case by travelling and sleeping in a battered old campervan.

So while that year was the first time anyone had been to the moon, it was also the first time I had been anywhere outside Australia. It turned into a two-year trip in which I lived, worked, played cricket, acquired a taste for different sorts of beer, learned about life – and developed an enduring affection for London.

I’ve been back many times – and now, 50 years on, it’s time to go again. For the last time? Who knows? I hope not.

You don’t really need an excuse to do this, but if you did there could be no better one, in my humble opinion, than the chance to take in an Ashes Test match at Lord’s, a sporting experience like few others. Everybody should do this at least once.

I haven’t done it since 1997 – can it really be more than two decades ago? – when I followed the Australian team around for the entire tour, writing about it for the Murdoch newspapers. That campaign under Mark Taylor’s captaincy lasted 116 days, only one of which I was able to take off. Along the way, I lost an office-issue mobile phone by driving away from the Swansea ground with the device on the roof, and we – I wasn’t at the wheel this time, and the bloke who was worked for someone else altogether – blew up the engine of the company car, pretty much writing the old banger off as I recall.

Back home a couple of months later, Rupert stopped by my desk on a meet-the-troops lap of the office and asked me where had I been lately.   “Watching the cricket – and spending your money,” I told him, much to the discomfort of his management escort, who rolled his eyes in alarm about what more I might divulge. But I wasn’t that silly. And anyway, 115 working days out of 116 is always liable to throw up a curve ball or two.

Happily, that assignment was a double act with my late, great mate Bruce Wilson, who was the News Ltd European correspondent and one of the best all-purpose journalists Australia has ever produced. Wilson was a cricket tragic, whose finest moment might have been taking a diving, one-handed slips catch off former England off-spinner and captain John Emburey in a midweek match in Melbourne, an outcome so absurdly unlikely given he was about 50 and barely able to run the length of the pitch that the rest of the team burst out laughing, much to the newly-recruited Emburey’s puzzlement.

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Not too many years later, Wilson was in hospital losing his brief battle with cancer and watching the cricket on TV, when one of those between-overs quiz questions came up. It was about a South African player and Wilson nodded to his wife, Clare, and said: “I know the answer to that – Peter Kirsten.” They were his last words before he died a minute later.

Wilson and Embers became good mates and I expect the old offie, who still turns out for club games well into his sixties,  and I will shortly regale each other with the slips catch story  – and a few others – over a pint in the bar at Middlesex Cricket Club, where until recently he was the president.

Meanwhile, by no means for the first time, Wilson’s legendary hospitality will come into play with Clare having invited my wife and I to stay with her in their South London home. It will be a poignant, nostalgic visit.

This time, my partner in crime at the cricket will be another long-time sportswriting mate, Brian Meldrum. The Drummer used to be the racing editor at the Herald Sun, which is why our first stop will be at Ascot on Saturday for the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, in which the favourite is the mighty mare Enable, winner of 11 of 12 starts, the last 10 in a row. Who does that remind you of?

Now that Winx has retired, Enable might be the best horse in the world. Better judges than me – of which there is no shortage – can argue about that, but with the colourful Frankie Dettori on board as usual and the legendary trainer John Gosden calling the shots, this should be an experience worth saluting with a glass of upmarket fizz.

Then it’s off to Birmingham for the first Test, followed by the pilgrimage to cricket’s sacred site.

The tickets to Lord’s are hideously expensive but I suppose there is no chance of getting in on the grouter the way I did the first time I went there all those years ago, which was by producing an old bit of cardboard identifying myself to police in Melbourne as a newspaper reporter, and  more of less daring the jobsworth on the gate to turn me away.

He didn’t, and neither did the lady on the door of the media centre as I  fell into step behind an approaching figure I immediately recognised as Richie Benaud, echoing his greeting to her of “Morning, Alice,” or whatever her name was, and following him up the stairs to the work area where I sat unnoticed for the rest of the day.

Twenty-eight years later, I was sitting in exactly the same place again, this time legitimately, with Richie by then a long-term friend and extremely helpful colleague and Wilson as, well, ditto.

Neither will be there when the first ball is bowled, except in spirit – but I’ll be raising a glass to them both as I notch a half-century of my own.

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Author: Ron Reed

RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.

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