My first day of the Ashes 2019/1997 and forever

There is a green light shining onto Uma Thurman and Michael Richards. They’re in my teenage bedroom as characters from Pulp Fiction and…

My first day of the Ashes 2019/1997 and forever

There is a green light shining onto Uma Thurman and Michael Richards. They’re in my teenage bedroom as characters from Pulp Fiction and Seinfeld. Those posters were in the same spots I’d have a ‘Victoria wins the Ashes’ poster before it’. This day was the first day of the Ashes, for others they think of Harmison’s shit or scary day, or Nasser’s toss, McGrath wickets or maybe even further back. 97 is my first day of the Ashes.

Australia fell for 118, and I watched most of it with my father. It was the first Ashes I could stay up and watch as much as I wanted. I’d left school, which meant my life was going nowhere, but also meant I could stay up late. Usually I’d have been up looking at episodes of M.A.N.T.I.S and Renegade. The Ashes was better.

The problem was that after Austalia’s full-on collapse, and England’s smaller stumble, Nasser Hussain and Graeme Thorpe put on a significant partnership. The night got long, and without wickets (I’ve always been able to stay up for wickets) I got drowsy and went to bed.

That meant turning on the radio, which was part of an old unit that had a tape deck and played records. It was 97, so I didn’t listen to anything other than CDs. It meant I had this substantial wooden box to play the radio on, and its giant screen lit up my room almost as much as a TV would. Because the dials were so big it made it easier to work out the right volume that would let me sleep but wake me for wickets if I drifted off. I’d had it from 1993, it probably would have been affordable for me to get a cheap radio, or even borrow one of my father’s. But I never did, and perhaps part of the reason was because that radio was my grandfather’s.

My Grandpa was an orphan, he worked in box factory before becoming a school principal, and there was a significant war in there somewhere as well. He was also a cricket fan, the family story was that he climbed the MCG fence to see Bradman — who made a duck. But I looked that up once, and I’m not sure it’s true. It doesn’t matter, he liked Keith Miller more anyway.

My Grandpa was one of the few people I could talk to normally in those years. The other adults were worried about what I would do with my life and why I was struggling. Grandpa didn’t do that. He just talked to me. Mostly about sport, occasionally about Law and Order. So I spoke to him more than the others.

One day I was over helping him with something and we were chatting when he mentioned Greg Chappell’s bad run. In 1981/82 Chappell played seven international innings against the West Indies and Pakistan and made five ducks, a six and a 12. And he said something like, “I’m not out of form, I just keep getting out”. At least that’s what my Grandpa told me that day. I think he told me that because he saw me struggling, or maybe it was because he liked talking cricket.

Today all those memories came back, and I could see the illuminated green poster of Kramer that said, “He is a loathsome, offensive brute. Yet I can’t look away.”

This was painted by Catherine Keener in the episode, who years later I’d have a really odd moment with at a Spike Jonze Q&A.

And then there was Steve Smith, a loathsome offensive brute, aesthetically as much as morally.

Before Smith was involved in sandpaper Greg Chappell, who was the captain of the bad sports XI for making his brother deliver underarm to deny New Zealand a chance. But it wasn’t what my Grandpa remembered when looking for Chappell’s worst days. And it wasn’t what people in Austalia talked about when talking about Chappell — unless New Zealand were in town.

People forget, the narrative changes.

Smith’s booed when he came out to bat today, in fact, the boo started at Bancroft’s departure, and then elevated for Smith. It meant that Smith’s booed from the moment Bancroft was out until he took guard. When his face comes up on the board this morning, he’s booed. He was probably booed at breakfast. Remarkably he was booed by a country where Mike Atherton has been done for ball-tampering (almost forgotten) and Marcus Trescothick talked about England’s tampering in a book (famous for other reasons).

Smith was booed because it was fresh in our memories and because what he did was that heinous that it’s an acceptable enough target. And fans like to boo, real boos, pantomime boos, it’s part of sport. From the coliseum to now, the noise is the same, canned sound effects of cheers and boos.

But it doesn’t matter to Smith, if a UFO crash-landed at deep mid-wicket as Stuart Broad was about to bowl he wouldn’t notice it. It was that singular focus that was part of the reason he got in trouble. All that matters is the next run, wicket and win. Today it was the reason he made over half of Australia’s score and played on of the finest innings it’s possible to make while people sang about him crying.

Until Smith’s innings it was that narrative fight over the first day of an Ashes. Nasser Hussain and Steve Harmison have somehow instilled this need to contextualise the entire Ashes in one moment or day. So for a while it was the bowlers are better than the batsman. Then it was the booing of the sandpaper three. A while later the umpiring errors. Maybe the atmosphere of Edgbaston was getting to Australia. James Anderson’s injury and Jofra Archer’s perpetration for a Sussex second XI made solid calls. And Peter Siddle’s nudging was there.

They were all vying for that magical spot, but then a very normal thing happened, Steve Smith made a lot of runs.

So Steve Smith doing very Steve Smith things after a year in cricket’s slammer is the story of this day. I mean, for now. Whether it remains that way, depends on the series. We’ll make today about whatever we have to later in the series. Whether people continue to boo Smith for his entire career, or even remember him for that, and not his incredible batting, I don’t know. Ben Stokes might have more of an answer.

Maybe that’s why first days aren’t really that special to me. They kind of change as they days after do.

But I know that today on the way to the ground I wasn’t thinking about amazing first days of Ashes, just first days. The Nasser Thorpe partnership isn’t iconic, it didn’t change much, England won that Test, but lost the series. But I still remember Uma Thurman in green light and the things my Grandpa said. That wasn’t my first day of Ashes cricket, but it’s my first Ashes day.