Sunday, January 04, 2009

If only the batting were as dazzling as the spectators, by Andrew Stevenson and Eamonn Duff - The Sydney Morning Herald - 4th January 2009

Given the humiliations of Perth and Melbourne, white flags might have been more appropriate but pink - second only in meaning to green among the nation's cricket team - was the colour of the day at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

South Africa's deadly pace attack had pink stumps to aim at and besieged opener Matthew Hayden defended them with his customary pink bat handle.

Yesterday's crowd of 37,901 - subdued by the events of recent weeks, which have confirmed Australia is no longer the gold standard - flaunted pink bandannas and shirts in a show of support for the McGrath Foundation and for families, victims and survivors of breast cancer. Jane McGrath, wife of Test great Glenn, died from the disease in June last year.

"To come to the ground and walk out onto the middle there, to look around and see all that pink was pretty special … pretty amazing," an emotional McGrath said.

It was a day on which local boy Doug Bollinger - whose childlike enthusiasm belies his 27 years - was presented with Test cap No. 405 and then sang the national anthem with it clasped to his chest. It was the first time in a decade Australia had fielded two debutants in a Test, Victorian all-rounder Andrew McDonald sharing the honour.

The new Victor Trumper grandstand, which swallowed the little that remained of the Hill and lifts the SCG's capacity to 46,000, was far from full and the crowd's mood seemed to match the greying skies and reflect recent performances by the team.

As prime minister, John Howard was ever ready to line up beside sporting success. Yesterday he, Kevin Rudd and a small posse of politicians showed their belief in cricket rather than victory as Australia's batsmen dug in, attempting to graft a revival onto what has been such solid root stock.

Many spectators promised to stay true to the cause, regardless of the team's performances.

"For me, it's about travelling to the new year Test and supporting the green and gold, win, lose or draw," said Shea Flanigan, 30.

"We as a cricket nation have had it good for a very long time. If that means going through a period of transition, I for one will still be here next year."

Ben Tye, 30, from Newcastle, agreed: "It's part of Australian culture to come and watch the cricket, so it's disappointing to see that some people have stayed away today. It should be a full house out there but it's not."

Rob Gardner, a South African-born Sydneysider, was among the many Proteas fans wearing a pink bandanna.

"There are a lot of South Africans here today, and nearly all of them have turned out in the pink for Glenn McGrath and his family, which is a wonderful thing to see," said Mr Gardner, 61, who was originally from Cape Town. "Everyone looks great and they should look even better on Ladies' Day."

Sydney might be the home and soul of this Australian team - city of choice for six players, including skipper Ricky Ponting - but only once a year, and then for only five days at best, does the Test cricket caravan roll into town.

When it does, the new year Test provides the faithful with a ritual as important to them as the official observances of Christmas and New Year. Under cover of darkness, members queue for their seats, renewing friendships forged over their common faith in the game.

After 16 years of virtually uninterrupted success, their faith is now to be tested. Was it the spectacle of cricket they loved or the fruits of victory? "Today is about the occasion and the Sydney Test has begun to enjoy a really good following," said NSW Cricket chief executive Dave Gilbert, who was pleased with the crowd but worried it might drop off by day three.

"We've had a golden run but it's coincided with a very successful Australian team.

"As much as we deny it, Australians don't like losing."

On the pitch there was no surrender, despite Australia entering the match 2-0 down with their crown slipping and their world No. 1 ranking officially on the line. But there was also little to cheer, with Hayden's failure to stave off Father Time and Ponting - unable to match his heroics in the Boxing Day Test - out for a first-ball duck.

At stumps, Australia had fought back to be 6-267, thanks to a fighting knock by Michael Clarke, who, cheered on by glamorous fiancee Lara Bingle, will resume this morning on 73, chasing his first Test century on his home ground. The battle to regain lost pride goes on. (Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

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