While the 1994/95 Ashes series was largely one-way traffic, it was the formation of Australia’s ‘A’ team that really captured the imagination of Adam Collins.
When I think back to the best days of my childhood, the image is always one blessed Australian summer, a catalogue of moments and scores that remain instantly recognisable. More than two decades on, its months still feel endless.
As a lad of 10 years, I was just old enough to be transfixed by every vagary of our game, and just old enough to play competitively. It may have erred on the side of monocultural, but the country of my upbringing was also vastly simpler. The only Waughs to be concerned with were in the middle order, not the Middle East. Parochialism felt natural and inclusive, rather than confused nationalism or worse. And we knew it mattered when the English came to town as they did in 1994/95. So we roared when Michael Slater slayed the Poms at Brisbane and laughed with joy when Shane Warne skittled Alec Stewart with his best flipper yet. Ominous beginnings.
Christmas brought my own debut, of sorts: heading to the mighty MCG to watch Test cricket in the flesh. It was a novelty that would become a ritual, then an obsession, then eventually a career.
On this day, from the back of the Southern Stand, I saw David Boon carefully compile his 20th Test ton, leaving no doubt of his standing. But it was one ball from Damien Fleming that fuelled me; an unplayable outswinger to Graeme Hick that crashed into off stump. My joy witnessing this particular part of the bowling craft has never abated. Warne’s hat-trick the next morning was euphoric; our own, unstoppable hometown genius, back before he singlehandedly kept the tabloids in business.
Sydney’s New Year Test represented the middle of the series, not the hurried end to a tour it has since become. It was there that a new bloke called Darren Gough ran through Australia like no Englishman had in a generation, and he sure was easy to like for his eager celebrations after each wicket and occasional change-up leg-break.
In Adelaide, on Australia Day weekend, Greg Blewett’s debut century felt more significant than England’s sole victory, coming as it did so long after they had arrived. By now, their misadventure was comical; illustrated by the fact that even the team physio had to cut short his tour after injuring himself during a stint as a substitute fielder.
Order was restored in Perth, in a match notable for Slater’s third audacious ton of the series, England’s many dropped catches and a last goodbye for Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting. Graham Thorpe’s own excellent century was the only positive the visitors could take. It was an appropriate finale to an altogether shambolic three months for England, while Australia were primed to leap to the top of the world in the Caribbean three months later.
For all the Ashes mystique, the white-ball fare – meshed between Tests in an era where squads seldom changed between formats – elicits memories just as vivid. While the annual limited-overs tournament was a staple, this time it had a twist. The gap in standard between England and their hosts – and the newly arrived Zimbabwe squad – presented fears of a gravely uncompetitive tri-series. So administrators found a solution: expanding the tournament to four, including an Australia ‘A’ team. It was a revelation.
The young understudies became the nation’s sweethearts in the best tradition of the underdog. Forget Taylor, Slater, Waugh, Warne, McGrath and company – we wanted a top order of Blewett, Hayden, Ponting, Martyn, Bevan, Langer and Lehmann. One after another, they would announce themselves on the newly improvised stage. And it worked: fast-forward eight years, to the corresponding Ashes series in 2002/03, and five of Australia’s top six came from the talent that emerged during that summer.
Australian flags were brought to games with giant ‘A’s’ written on them with paint to show their support, even when competing with the senior side. Indeed, captain Mark Taylor’s annoyance was palpable when the Adelaide crowd barracked against the ‘real’ Australia in favour of the kids. On this basis, it was explained, the innovation wouldn’t continue for more than a season.
The brilliant theatre came to a climax when the ‘A’ team defeated England in their last group game – prompting a headline that England wouldn’t beat Australia ‘Z’ – to secure a spot in the best-of-three finals against the top dogs. Bevan’s run-a-ball century was a sign of things to come.
In the lead-up to the deciders, Paul Reiffel – who had led the ‘A’ team’s attack throughout – was given a promotion, but, curiously, only to carry drinks for Taylor’s men. At home we fumed, spouting conspiracy theories. These games may not have carried formal ODI status, but that meant nothing by now; they were our guys. One banner quipped, with a nod to the sponsor Toyota: ‘Australia plays with itself, oh what a feeling!’
Instead of Reiffel, Greg Rowell – who later tried his hand at politics – had the final over to bowl at the SCG with three runs to defend. The crowd roared for him to keep Steve Waugh at bay, especially after a couple of dot balls. Rowell stared down the Australian hard man. It was the best cricket all summer. The ‘A’s’ didn’t win, but by then it didn’t matter.
Many years later, upon seeing a man in a pub wearing one of the predominantly green ‘A’ playing shirts from that summer, I very seriously offered him what amounted to about half my week’s wages to buy it off his back. He refused my offer; there was just no way he would part with that. They were his guys too.
To Victorian eyes, the raw deal handed to the ‘A’s’ was just the latest slight to add to our existing outrage. We were already occupied with another injustice; the ongoing exclusion of Dean Jones from national squads of both varieties, even after a triple century in a Sheffield Shield game played under lights with a yellow ball, the precursor to the pink. But he did lead the state to a win in the domestic one-day competition, in uniforms that did away with traditional trousers in favour of jaunty blue shorts. How didn’t that catch on? Of course, Queensland did win the Shield for the first time that season, but no summer’s truly perfect.
All the while in the suburban under-12 third division comp, I charged just as hard and gave as good as I did in the driveway with my brother and mates, on arenas where bad light didn’t exist; hurling the ball down at each other well beyond dusk, tattered baseball caps held together by tape. The quintessential story of Australian summer is mine as much as anyone’s.
Is the retention of information about cricket of long ago a blessing, or just clogging up scarce bandwidth that could be more meaningfully deployed? Probably a bit of both. But it means my one crowded summer is never far away.