Any of you who follow cricket will know that this is a very special time for the game and for the city of Cardiff. The First Test in the summer’s Ashes series against Australia is being played here. It’s the first time a test match has ever been played in Cardiff’s splendid ground at Sophia Gardens and to have an Ashes test as the inaugural fixture is a tremendous boost for the city. It’s actually a very good venue for Test cricket, being so close to the city centre and I hope this will be the first of many matches to be played here in Cardiff.
Owing to my general state of disorganization I didn’t manage to get a ticket when they first went on sale. Thinking I’d missed out I agreed to go and give a talk in Cambridge on the first day of the Test (Wednesday 8th July 2009). However, a second load of tickets went on sale a few weeks ago and I manage to get a couple for Thursday’s play (9th July). I was joined for the day by my regular contributor and old friend Anton.
The SWALEC stadium at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff (left) is actually just a short walk from my house in Pontcanna. The daily crowd of around 15,000 has caused a bit of congestion in the area but we got to our seats without any bother at all.
It’s actually quite a small ground, and our seats were right at the front of the Really Welsh Pavilion (which is the far side of the ground as seen in the picture), so we were close to where the players emerged onto the field. The outfield was extremely green with fairly lush grass on it and weather quite nice, with a mixture of broken cloud and sunshine.
England had won the toss and batted first on Wednesday, picking two spinners (Swann and Panesar), presumably in the belief that this was a slow wicket that would be increasingly helpful to the spinners as time wore on and the pitch began to break up a little. After some alarms and rash shots, and the unfortunate loss of two wickets right at the end of the day, England had batted their way to 336 for the loss of 7 wickets.
There having been no track record of Test cricket at Cardiff it was difficult to know whether this was a reasonable score or not. I had been away all day on Wednesday so hadn’t seen any of the play. By all accounts the pitch had played rather slow but was otherwise fairly good for batting. All England’s specialist batsmen were out so it wasn’t clear what kind of total they would reach with their remaining three wickets, but the tail wagged quite enjoyably and they added another 99 runs in the morning session until Swann ran out of partners and was left unbeaten on 47 with a little time to go before lunch.
So far, so good from an England point of view. However, from the point of view of their chances of winning the game it all started to go wrong as soon as the Ozzies went in to bat. The openers scored quite freely off the first few overs from England’s bowlers and went into lunch at 39-0.
For the rest rest of the day, the England bowlers struggled to make any impression at all on the skilful and determined Australian batsmen. Flintoff accounted for the opener Hughes during a hostile spell of bowling in which he regularly exceed 90 mph and also dropped a very difficult caught-and-bowled chance. However, that only brought the Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, into bat which he did quite beautifully. He made no mistakes at all in his innings and played no rash shots, but by the end of play both he and Katich had reached centuries and Australia were 249-1.
Apart from Hughes’ wicket and Flintoff’s dropped return chance the only other time England were close to nabbing a wicket was a shout for LBW from Swann which was close but, I thought, a bit high. Swann bowled very economically but without any real danger. Panesar was unimpressive, as where the other England seamers Broad and Anderson. It wasn’t that they bowled badly or were wayward, it just seemed that there was nothing in the pitch to help them and, of course, they were up against extremely good batting.
I wouldn’t say that this was the best day’s cricket I’ve ever seen – not by a long way – and I know that it’s a game that’s too slow for the taste of a lot of people anyway. There were, however, times – especially when Flintoff was bowling – where the atmosphere turned into something that you only get in cricket. As he pounded in over afer over with very few runs being scored and the batsmen defending stoutly, the action on the field became just the surface manifestation of a deep inner struggle between batsmen and bowler. Who would win this battle of wills? The stress could be felt all round the ground and one sensed that whoever came through that passage of play would have scored an important psychological victory. Undoubtedly the Australians came out of it stronger for having weathered everything England could throw at them. I find this kind of attritional cricket absolutely absorbing to watch, but I know many people who don’t get it.
Later on, after the match, the England pace bowlers expressed their mystification that the ball simply wouldn’t swing. I was surprised too. I have no idea of the physics behind what makes a cricket ball swing but, empirically, it seems to correlate with the presence of cloud and humidity in the air. Both of these were present on Thursday but at no point did the ball curve, even for Anderson who is an accomplished swing bowler. This probably accounted for the ease with which the England tail had batted earlier in the morning.
Anyway, although I would definitely have preferred to see England skittle out the Australians, I did at least have the chance to watch a master batsman at work. I have to say I found it fascinating. Although there wasn’t a great deal of strokeplay – they didn’t really dominate the bowling – they ground their way to centuries in a very resolute fashion. There were very few boundaries scored, partly because of the very slow outfield.
Another reason I enjoyed the day was that our block of seats had its own resident comedian, a character called Chris who was found of shouting comments not only about the cricket but to anyone having the nerve to come into the stand during play.
Early on in the day this chap sitting behind us decided to amuse the crowd by shouting out clues from the Times crossword to see if anyone could get them. I got the first one straight away (the answer was METHODIST: IST was German for “is” and “Method” was clued by a reference to Stanislawski but I don’t remember the clue exactly). Like a fool, shouted the answer back to him. I became a target for him for the rest of the day’s play.
After several hours of his banter, I have to admit being a bit fed up with him but at least the crossword clues were fun.I don’t remember many of them, but did get “Car held at murder location” (CATHEDRAL, i.e. anagram of car held at and reference to Murder in the Cathedral by TS Eliot) and “Rehabilitation of ailing animal” (NILGAI, anagram of ailing, is an Indian antelope). Eventually he came down, gave me the newspaper, and challenged me to finish the whole thing. I did so, and sent it back through the crowd, even getting a round of applause from them as I did so. I had become a minor celebrity providing a bit of distraction from Australia’s success. We may not have been doing well in the cricket, but at least I wasn’t letting the side down when it came to crosswords. Chris argued for a bit with some of my answers – he didn’t think TSETSE was a word, for example – but I think I convinced him I was right.
When play finished shortly after 6pm we left the ground to walk into town for something to eat. The path to the little bridge over the Taff was very crowded. Australian and England supporters mingled and, at one point, someone behind me shouted “Hey look, it’s Peter the crossword guy!”. Fame at last.
I didn’t have tickets for Friday but set out for work rather late. As I walked down Cathedral Road, crowds were turning up for Day 3. I nearly died when someone across the road shouted “Peter! Done the crossword yet?” I was quite impressed to be remembered, but hope my new found celebrity status disappears as quickly as it arose.
POSTSCRIPT: Australia batted throughout Day 3 to pass England’s total of 435 all out and had reached 479-5 despite losing some time to rain. The forecast for today (Saturday) was for rain, but it has so far refused to materialize and the Ozzies have powered on to 577-5 at lunch. It’s now a game that England can’t win. It is very overcast and still looks like some time will be lost to rain, so a draw is the likeliest result as long as England don’t fold pathetically in their second innings. Not that they haven’t done that before…