I Was (Planning To Be) There
January 8, 2020. Just after 7pm at the Victoria Airport. One last hug, pulling him close.
Son Derek shows his passport and boarding pass to the control officer. Maneuvers through the check-in line, turns a final time. A wave and a smile. And then he is gone, off to Australia, the other side of the world, for a three-year physiotherapy program.
It hurts to see him depart, but my wife and I certainly intend to visit him in Melbourne. We hark back to previous enjoyable visits Down Under, to friendly, inviting people, to sunshine and chances to explore a vast continent.
Yet, nothing goes to plan.
Immediately, rumours emanate from Wuhan, in China. Hint at a particularly virulent and deadly virus, with the capacity to spread and infect rapidly. And the rumours prove true, the world’s normal rhythms suddenly and dramatically uprooted by Covid 19.
And so begins life that is anything but normal. Instead, uncertainty, anxiety, dread, isolation and restrictions become the norm. Days turn into weeks, then months, then a year. Then nearly two years. As deaths and hospitalizations reach into the millions.
There are reprieves of a sort, separations eased through technology. Zoom meetings become a thing. At various times, when Covid case counts stabilize, even dare approach zero, hope mounts.
Yet, the virus, first the original strain, then the Delta variant, then Omicron, is and remains a formidable foe. In Australia, a slow vaccine rollout hampers recovery. Melbourne sets a world record for number of days spent in grinding lockdowns. Schools and universities are forced to online learning. Floods and fires, the threat of global warming, violent protests, racism, mental health issues, bungling governments, increasingly nasty social media, add to a general unease. While pandemic fatigue reaches new levels, with the full social, political and economic ramifications yet to fully unfold.
Happily, every so often, a ray of sunshine penetrates the gloom and trouble. As often is the case, sport again provides the tonic.
This time, Cricket.
On tap is a ‘bucket list” event, the annual Boxing Day test, the third match of the 2021 Ashes series between Australia and England. The venue the iconic MCG, the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Derek attends in the company of a few friends. Though stuck on the west coast of Canada, I watch as well. Livestream and highlight packages provide extensive coverage, backed up by the hilariously partisan radio commentary teams from the Triple M network.
The “Ashes” originate in 1883, the term used in a mock obituary of English cricket which concludes that “the body will be cremated, and the ashes taken to Australia.”
Most of the time, when Australia hosts the best of five matches competition, the "Baggy Greens" win easily. And this year is no different, as, guided by new captain Pat Cummins, they dominate in Brisbane and Adelaide to take a commanding 2-0 lead. An undercooked visiting side, thread bare on belief, crumbles due to sloppy fielding, undisciplined batting and a withering home bowling attack.
Alas, despite fighting words in the buildup, England then also succumbs too easily at the MCG. Any dream of regaining the Ashes evaporates as a lamentable collapse sees the team gunned down for a paltry 68 runs in its second innings. With Scott Boland, immediately a new national and Indigenous hero, unexpectedly taking six wickets for a miserly seven runs on his debut.
But back to Derek. His descriptions and photos, direct from the huge stadium via Facetime and WhatsApp, in particular paint vivid pictures of the Day 2 action. While some gritty and determined English bowling does limit Australia to a lead of only 82 runs after its first innings, he describes how England must then survive the final hour of play at the crease.
The atmosphere is electric, the crowd roaring, the noise intimidating and deafening. The action on field intense, almost gladiatorial. A trumpeter plays Jerusalem, the Barmy Army sings lustily, well lubricated crazies in Bay 13 barrack unreservedly. The menacing Australian fast bowlers operate at full throttle, the ball bounces, jags and seams, the visitors’ fragile batting unable to cope.
Wickets fall, first one, then a second and a third. Then a fourth.
Derek neatly sums up the last of these dismissals. He offers that, from far away, a ball slithering off the edge of a bat looks just the same as a ball beating the edge. Likewise, a “leg before wicket” decision given looks identical to one not given. However, he adds, even if situated high in the grandstand, every spectator knows immediately when a player is clean bowled. The sound, a distinctive click, is clearly heard in the most distant seat. The bails fly and everyone goes bonkers. English tail ender Jack Leach is the unfortunate victim, beaten for pace in front of 50,000 frenzied fans.
Looking ahead, two more tests, now both dead rubbers, remain. One in Sydney, the other in Hobart. A 5-0 whitewash by the rampant Australians appears inevitable. But I am not fussed. Because, in its own way, that final hour at the MCG will go down in Ashes folklore as a memorable moment.
For Derek, it will always be an “I was there” experience. While I take solace in his entertaining reports and the fact I was planning to be there.
Pandemic willing, international travel willing, along with my wife, I will make it next time. In the flesh. We will especially enjoy the spectacle, along with our son. Can’t wait.
2022. Boxing Day at the MCG. It has a nice ring to it.
HAPPY NEW YEAR.