It was the late Peter Roebuck who nailed it, in characteristically urgent fashion, light on facts yet strangely persuasive.
“No country appreciates Lord’s more than the Australians,” he wrote in In It To Win It. “Over the years, Australian cricketers have cocked many snooks, most of them at pomposity, patronising attitudes, snobbery and hypocrisy. More than might be thought, though, they have given the ancients of the game their due.”
The Oval might have produced more stirring Ashes moments over the years, mainly by virtue of hosting the last Test of the series – though it’s true that it did host the game, in 1882, that begat the newspaper joke that begat the urn. Other English venues, too, have their places in the annals: Old Trafford 1902 and 1956, Headingley 1981, Edgbaston and Trent Bridge 2005.
But, for Australian cricketers, it has always been Lord’s – the umbilical cord, if you’ll forgive the presumptuousness, to the mother country, and the place to be seen, if not necessarily heard.
This is curious in one sense, because Lord’s emits precisely the kind of vibe that, according to national stereotype, ought to put an Australian on edge. It is home to a private members’ club (though admittedly one with a public function); it can appear to look backwards as much as it does forwards; and it is shot through with forelock-tugging hierarchy, which isn’t immediately compatible with the Aussie veneration of mateship.
For those arriving from a land whose national anthem proclaims its youth and freedom, all this could come as a shock. Why else did Dennis Lillee greet the Queen with a cheery but startling “G’day”?
Yet Australians like tradition more than they care to admit. This much is obvious when you walk into the other MCC – the Melbourne Cricket Club – and it is obvious at a venue such as Adelaide Oval, where on the first morning of the traumatic 2006–07 Ashes Test I was denied entry by a stickler of a steward who spotted that my T-shirt lacked a collar.
In fact, it was the first thing he noticed: as far as he was concerned, my existence at that moment was defined by my very un-collar-ness. And since the only way to the press box was through the members’ area – where collars are not so much a fashion accessory as an entire way of life – it was clear that this was a problem. I was frogmarched into a memorabilia shop and urged to right my sartorial wrong by buying the only collared T-shirt available: an official Cricket Australia piece of merchandise, which now lies, unloved and moulding, in my loft at home.
So, yes, Australian cricket can’t help hide its affection for Lord’s, because Lord’s appeals to the sense of order and tradition that lurks beneath every Aussie larrikin (a passer-by in Adelaide once shouted at me for crossing a deserted road because the green man was still red). When Australian cricket fans tell me they’re unconventional, I look at their matching yellow hats and green shirts, and smile indulgently.
But their relationship with Lord’s goes deeper than that. Succeed there, and you are ruffling the feathers of English cricket. It’s like making off with a bearskin helmet from a guard outside Buckingham Palace. Part of the thrill resides in its naughtiness. And for all but one day of the 20th century, Australia were very naughty indeed.
It came on the Monday of the second Ashes Test in 1934, when Sunday’s rain had turned Lord’s into a spinner’s haven. It was not, by all accounts, a sticky dog, but it provided enough purchase for Hedley Verity’s left-arm spin to wreak havoc. Verity took 14 wickets for 80 runs that day, including Don Bradman, who according to Wisden “never looked like staying very long, making many of his strokes without restraint”.
Even more than Bodyline, it is an innings often used by mischievous Englishmen when they are trying desperately to debunk the Bradman myth: faced with a superior craftsman, you see, he decided to hit out before he was got out (Ken Barrington would never have done such a thing). Bradman’s slog skewed high and not-very-handsome into the gloves of Les Ames, prompting Wally Hammond, who never needed an excuse to take a dig at The Don, to recall: “As he passed Woodfull at the other end, his skipper gave him a look so compounded of anger and disappointment and woe that I have never forgotten it.” You imagine Hammond went to bed dreaming about it.
The ever-conscientious Bill Woodfull might have been just as upset with what turned out to be the only blot on Australia’s copybook at Lord’s that century. England have won seven Ashes Tests there, but four of them came in the 19th century, and the two most recent in 2009 and 2013. Between Verity’s match and the victory for Andrew Strauss’s side five years ago, Australia played 18 Tests at Lord’s, of which they won nine and drew nine. It is an away record unparalleled in Test history. And, for England, it began to feel like the albatross that could not be slain.
For a long time, the assumption was that, while the Australians felt inspired by the surroundings, the English were cowed by its history and a sense of expectation that bordered on entitlement. Perhaps they just got blasé, like a Parisian who awakes every morning to a view of the Eiffel Tower.
Certainly, when the Australian batsman-turned-commentator Jack Fingleton watched Bradman walk through the Long Room for his final Lord’s innings, in 1948, he was moved to write: “There is no atmosphere in all the cricketing world to equal this one at Lord’s.” Reverence came naturally. You can see why, over the years, the Aussies might have raised their game.
In fact, Bradman made 89 that day, almost a failure by his standards, and Fingleton, observing him closely for his wonderful tour book Brightly Fades the Don, noted: “I thought Bradman looked sad as he walked back from the sinking sunlight into the shadow of the Long Pavilion. This was a moment to live in the memory… Bradman’s last Test walk at Lord’s and, again, he was cheered all the way into disappearance.”
Australian readers may wonder why the same courtesy was not extended to Ricky Ponting in 2009, when English crowds thought it was funny to boo the best batsman Australia have produced before or since Bradman. But by then that crowd’s own relationship with Lord’s had changed, if not yet – for a few days at least – their team’s winless run against the Aussies.
Australia have not been the only team England struggled to beat at Lord’s. In the 1980s and ’90s, England played 29 Tests at Lord’s, and won only six – two each against India and Sri Lanka in the days when those sides were even worse tourists than they are now, and one each against New Zealand and West Indies. Meanwhile, England lost 12 and drew 11. What appeared to have been true against Australia since 1934 now seemed to apply to almost everyone else: visitors to Lord’s became inspired by what they saw and felt.
As with all theories that make sense at some visceral level, this one could be overturned only through sheer weight of evidence. In 2000, the ECB – encouraged by the new England coach Duncan Fletcher – introduced central contracts. The team’s fortunes changed instantly. And nowhere was that change more radical than at Lord’s. Since the start of the millennium – and before this year’s June Test there against Sri Lanka – England had played 28 Tests at Lord’s, winning 16 of them and losing only four.
Two of those defeats, inevitably perhaps, came against Australia. But one of them served the unexpected purpose of convincing England that a team containing Matthew Hayden, Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath could actually be beaten. In a counter-intuitive kind of way, one of England’s greatest Ashes moments at Lord’s came in defeat.
The 2005 Ashes was the first to get the full modern-media treatment. The series was being previewed before the two preceding Tests at home to Bangladesh had taken place, and no one who was anyone within cricket had failed to provide their prediction to at least five national newspapers.
I remember writing a piece for the Guardian in which I was instructed to find someone willing to say that the first session would be, y’know, kinda crucial. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t hard (a much more interesting piece would have been one in which an expert had decried the opening exchanges as much ado about nothing). But by the end of that first Test at Lord’s, it wasn’t clear whether the first session had been crucial or supremely irrelevant.
Writing in Wisden, David Frith captured some of the carnage: “Before the first drinks break, Harmison, bowling from the Pavilion End, struck Langer painfully on the arm, dented Hayden’s helmet grille as he tried to hook, and drew blood from Ponting’s cheek when he too tried to punish a fiercely rising ball: three injury delays during which the Englishmen merely talked among themselves.”
Australia were skittled for 190, with the cheers in the Long Room replacing the usual well-heeled applause. At stumps, however, England had themselves subsided to 92 for seven, with the merciless McGrath taking the first five of them as he jagged the ball into the middle-order right-handers from the Pavilion End.
McGrath’s own memories of the occasion tell a mini-story about Australia’s relationship with the place. He had begun the match with 499 Test wickets, having taken seven in his previous game, at Auckland in March. “There was part of me that wanted to wait until Lord’s to get my 500th wicket,” he told Sam Pilger and Rob Wightman in The Ashes Match of my Life. “I briefly thought I should hold back a bit. How ridiculous does that sound?”
At Lord’s four months later, he “felt at ease”. McGrath went on: “There was a calmness about me. This was how it was meant to be: playing England in front of a packed house at Lord’s. All around me tens of thousands of England fans were celebrating our disappointing first-innings total as if they had already won the Ashes. It was time to quieten them down.”
Eight years earlier, McGrath had taken eight for 38 at Lord’s as England were skittled for 77 in a rain-ruined draw. Aided by the slope, he knew what he was doing. On the second morning of the 2005 game, England were all out for 155. They would go on to lose by 239 runs, with McGrath returning match figures of nine for 82. Englishmen everywhere concluded: here we go again.
But the effect of Steve Harmison’s first-morning blitz had not been forgotten: England could ruffle Australia after all. Thus ensued the greatest Test series in history, in which England won by two runs at Edgbaston, by three wickets after enforcing the follow-on at Trent Bridge, and in between came within a wicket of winning at Old Trafford. At The Oval, Kevin Pietersen eased their last-day jitters with a blistering 158. Yet without the self-belief engendered by their fast bowlers at Lord’s, none of this might ever have happened.
Perhaps it was a complete coincidence that, in 2009, England would finally end their Lord’s Ashes hoodoo. And that, in 2013, they would London-bus the Aussies, beating them for the second time in four years after waiting in vain for three-quarters of a century. Perhaps.
Or maybe, just maybe, England were slower to turn around their Lord’s record against Australia because the Aussies were simply more adept at smelling the local roses.
In 1948, Fingleton painted the scene: “Hats and coats were off in the popular stands, flags were flying, the trees looked very green and clean, and people were squatting contentedly on the grass behind the white line and in front of the pavilion.”
The next time an Australian tells you he doesn’t buy into all that stuff, don’t believe a word of it.
This article appeared in the fifth issue of The Nightwatchman. You can buy all copies here.