The Bloke

LET me tell you a story about a little boy who loved cricket. In summer he played it down at the local rec ('Dead Ball' was called if it hit a dog turd, 'Six and Out' if someone clattered it into the garden of the house opposite) and in winter reverted to the green felt and tiny ballbearings of the Test Match board game, even though it had all the excitement of a midweek trip round Morrisons.

This burgeoning obsession with the game was encouraged by the first proper series he watched on telly. England were touring Down Under and we taught those cocky Aussies a thing or two on our way to thrashing them for the Ashes, despite the fact that one of our best bowlers, Gladstone Small, didn't appear to have a neck.

Yes reader, that little boy was me.

Winning the famous little urn at home in 1985 and then away in 1986/7 was great. But the trouble was that for a young cricket fan like me it created the impression this was a normal occurrence, that it was the natural order of things for us to exert our superiority over those pesky colonial upstarts.

And then 1989 happened. This was the defining year when England (who had previously only been rubbish against West Indies, and everyone was rubbish against them) suddenly became a laughing stock.

They lost the first Test at Headingley and proceeded to be thumped 4-0 in the series. This confused me. Nearly as much as the riddle of how Gladstone Small's head was attached to his body.

But I told myself this was just a blip and normal service would soon be resumed.

Except it wasn't. We were crushed in our next visit to the land of dust and flies and then somehow things contrived to get even worse.

One fateful day in June 1993 I broke off from revising for my A levels to watch the first ball in Ashes cricket bowled by a chubby blonde lad called Shane who the Aussies reckoned was something pretty special.

It pitched outside porky Mike Gatting's leg stump and proceeded to turn at right angles to clip the top off. Poor Mike wasn't sure what had happened and nor was I. Surely no one could turn a cricket ball past Gatt's vast expanse of girth?

For the next dozen years I was forced to get used to life without the Ashes. I listened to the late-night radio commentary when we were over there, encouraged by a promising start but knowing full well that when I woke up another middle-order collapse would have left us teetering on the brink of calamity.

When a former Aussie flatmate paid a return visit to the UK I even went to an Ashes Test with him and his two pals, tears welling behind my sunglasses as they whooped and cheered their team to victory.

The amazing summer of 2005 was cruel in a way, offering hope that England had finally turned a corner, only to find it led straight into a dead end. Fresh misery arrived in the shape of a soul-shredding whitewash just over a year later.

So now that England have finally repeated those Ashes-winning exploits of 1986/7 I'm left with a curious sensation. It's not jubilation, nor even relief.

For someone whose formative years were defined by cricketing humiliation at the hands of Australians it's a bit discombobulating to suddenly hold the whip hand again.

Do I hope my Australian mates endure a similar quarter-century of anguish and embarassment?

I'm not sure I'd go that far. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, even an Aussie.

But a decade or so of stomach-churning disaster would at least give them some idea of what I and many more like me have gone through. And I think that would be a fair result.

Boris Becker.

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