From, Bill Bryson Down Under - Bryson, 2000
The Sturt Highway begins near Wagga Wagga, a hundred miles or so west of Canberra, and crosses broad, flat, dust-brown country known as the Riverina, an area of plains cut by the fidgety meanderings of the Murrumbidgee River. It provides a perfect demonstration in three dimensions of how swiftly uou can be in the middle of nowhere in Australia. One minute I was in a comely world of paddocks, meadows and pale green hills, with little country towns scattered at reliably accomodating intervals, and the next I was alone in an almost featureless nowhere - a disc of brown earth under a dome of blue sky, with only an occasional gum interposed between the two. Such habitations as I passed through weren't really communities at all, but just a couple of houses and a petrol station, occasionally a pub, and eventually even they all but ceased. Between Narrandera, the last outpost of civilization, and Balranald, the next, lay 200 miles of highway without a town or hamlet on it. Every hour or so I would pass a lonely roadhouse - a petrol station with an attached cafe of the sort known in the happy vernacular of Australia as a chew and spew - and occasionally an earthen track bumping off to a distant, unseen sheep station. Otherwise nothing.
As if to emphasize the isolation, all the area radio stations began to abandon me. One by one their signals faltered, and all those smoky voices so integral to Australian airwaves - Vic Damone, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra at the mindless height of his doo-bee-doo phase - faded away, as if being drawn by some heavy gravity back into the hole from which they had escaped. Eventually the radio dial presented only an uninterrupted cat's hiss of static, but for one clear spot near the end of the dial. At first I thought that's all it was - just an empty clear spot - but then I realized I could hear the faint shiftings and stirrings of seated people, and after quite a pause a voice, clam and reflective, said:
'Pilchard begins his long run in from short stump. He bowls and ...oh, he's out! Yes, he's got him. Longwilley is caught leg-before in middle slops by Grattan. Well, now what do you make of that, Neville?'
'That's definitely one for the books, Bruce. I don't think I've seen offside medium slow fast pace bowling to match it since Baden-Powell took Rangachangabanga for a maiden ovary at Bangalore in 1948.'
I had stumbled into the surreal and rewarding world of cricket on the radio.
After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn't fix in a hurry. It is not true
that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavours look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side-effect. I don't wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by
millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players (more if they are moderately restless). It is the only competitive activity of any type, other than perhaps baking, in which you can dress in white from head to toe and be as clean at the end of the day as you were at the beginning.
Imagine a form of baseball in which the pitcher, after each delivery. collects the ball from the catcher and walks slowly with it out to centre field; and that there, after a minute's pause to collect himself, he turns and runs full tilt towards the pitcher's mound before hurling the ball at the ankles of a man who stands before him wearing a riding hat, heavy gloves of the sort used to handle radioactive isotopes, and a mattress strapped to each leg. Imagine moreover that if this batsman fails to hit the ball in a way that heartens him sufficiently to waddle sixty feet with mattresses strapped to his legs he is under no formal compulsion to run; he may stand there all day, and, as a rule, does. If by some miracle he is
coaxed into making a misstroke that leads him to being put out, all the fielders throw up their arms in triumph and have a big hug. Then tea is called and everyone retires happily to a distant pavilion to
fortify for the next siege. Now imagine all this going on for so long that by the time the match concludes autumn has crept in and all your library books are overdue. There you have cricket.
But it must be said that there is something incomparably soothing about cricket on the radio. It has much the same virtues as baseball on the radio - an unhurried pace, a comforting devotion to abstruse
statistics and thoughtful historical rumination, exhilirating micromoments of real action - but stretched across many more hours and with a lushness of terminology and restful elegance of expression that
even baseball cannot match. Listening to cricket on the radio is like listening to two men sitting in a rowing boat on a large, placid lake on a day when the fish aren't biting; it's like having a nap without
losing consciousness. It actually helps not to know quite what's going on. In such a rarefied world of contentment and inactivity, comprehension would become a distraction.
'So here comes Stovepipe to bowl on this glorious summer's afternoon at the MCG,' one of the commentators was saying now. 'I wonder if he'll chance an offside drop scone here or go for the quick legover. Stovepipe has an unusual delivery in that he actually leaves the grounds and starts his run just outside the Carlton & United Brewery at Kooyong.'
'That's right Clive. I haven't known anyone start his delivery that far back since Stopcock caught his sleeve on the reversing mirror of a number 11 bus during the third test at Brisbane in 1957 and ended up at Goondiwindi four hours later owing to a changed timetable at Toowoomba Junction.'
After a very long silence while they absorbed this thought, and possibly stepped out to transact some small errands, they resumed with a leisurely discussion of the England fielding. Neasden, it appeared,was turning in a solid performance at square bowel, while Packet had been a stalwart in the dribbles, though even these exemplary performances paled when set beside the outstanding play of
young Hugh Twain-Buttocks at middle nipple. The commentators were in calm agreement that they had not seen anyone caught behind with such panache since Tandoori took Rogan Josh for a stiffy at Vindaloo in '61. At last Stovepipe, having found his way across the railway line at Flinders Street - the footbridge was evidently closed for painting - returned to the stadium and bowled to Hasty, who deftly turned the ball away for a corner. This was repeated four times more over the next two hours and then one of the commentators pronounced: 'So as we break for second luncheon, and with 11,200 balls remaining, Australia are 962 for two not half and England are four for a duck and hoping for rain.'
I may not have all the terminology exactly right, but I belive I have caught the flavour of it. The upshot was that Australia was giving England a good thumping, but then Australia pretty generally does. In fact Australia generally beats most people at most things. Truly never has there been a more sporting nation. In the 1996 Olympics at Atlanta, to take just one random but illustrative example, Australia,
the fifty-second largest nation in the world, brought home more medals than all but four other countries, all of them much larger (the countries of course, not the medals). Measured by population, its performance was streets ahead of anybody else. Australians won 3.78 medals per millions of population, a rate more than two and a half times better than the next best performer, Germany, and almost five times the rate of the United States. Moreover, Australia's medal-winning tally was distributed across a range of sports, fourteen, matched by only one other nation, the United States. Hardly a sport exists in which Australians do not excel. Do you know, there are even forty Australians playing baseball at the professional level in the United States, including five in the Major Leagues - and Australians don't even play baseball, at least not in any particularly devoted manner. They do this on the world stage and play there own games as well, notably a very popular form of loosly contained mayhem called Australian Rules Football. It is a wonder in such a vigorous and active society that there is anyone left to form an audience.
No, the mystery of cricket is not that Australians play it well, but that they play it at all. It has always seemed to me a game much too restrained for the rough-and-tumble Australian temperament. Australians much prefer games in which brawny men in scanty clothing bloody each other's noses. I am quite certain that if the rest of the world vanished overnight and the development of cricket was left in Australian hands, within a generation the players would be wearing shorts and using the bats to hit each other.
And the thing is, it would be a much better game for it.
In the late afternoon, while the players broke for high tea or fifth snack or something - in any case, when the activity on the field went from very slight to non-existent - I stopped at a roadhouse for petrol
and coffee. I studied my book of maps and determined that I would stop for the night in Hay, a modest splat in the desert a little off the highway a couple of hours down the road. As it was the only community in a space of 200 miles, this was not a particularly taxing decision. Then, having nothing better to do, I leafed through the index and amused myself, in a very low-key way, by looking for ridiculous names, of which Australia has a respectable plenitude. I am thus able to report that the following are all real places: Wee Waa, Poowong, Burrumbuttock, Suggan Buggan, Boomahnoomoonah, Waaia, Mullumbimby, Ewlyamartup, Jiggalong and the supremely satisfying Tittybong.
As I paid, the man asked me where I was headed.
'Hay,' I replied, and was struck by a sudden droll thought. 'And I'd better hurry. Do you know why?'
He gave me a blank look.
'Because I want to make Hay while the sun shines.'
The man's expression did not change.
'I want to make Hay while the sun shines,' I repeated with a slight alteration of emphasis and a more encouraging expression.
The blank look, I realized after a moment, was permanent.
'Aw. you won't have any trouble with that,' the man said after a minute's considered thought. 'It'll be light for hours yet.'
Hay was a hot and dusty but surprisingly likeable little town off the Sturt Highway across an old bridge over the muddy Murrumbidgee. In the motel, I dumped my bag and reflexively turned on the TV. It came up on the cricket, and I sat on the foot of the bed and watched it with unwonted absorption for some minutes. Needless to say, very little was happening on the pitch. An official in a white coat was chasing after a blown piece of paper and several of the players were examining the ground by the stumps, evidently looking for something. I couldn't think what, but then one of the commentators noted that England had just lost a wicket, so I supposed it was that. After a long time a lanky young man in the outfield, who had been polishing a ball on his trouser leg as if about to take a bite from it, broke into a loping run. At length the hurled the ball at the distant batsman, who insouciantly lifted his bat an inch from the ground and putted it back to him. These motions were scrupulously replicated three times more, then the commentator said: 'And so at the end of the four hundred and fifty-second over, as we break for afternoon nap, England have increased their total to seventeen. So still quite a lot of work for
them to do if they're going to catch Australia before fourth snack.'
I was back in my room by about nine thirty. I switched the TV and was impressed to see that play was still going on. Give the cricketers their due. It may be light work but they put in the hours. The man in
the white coat was still chasing paper, though it wasn't possible to tell if it was the same piece. England, according to the commentator, had lost another three wickets, which seemed rather absent-minded of them, At this rate they would soon run out of equipment altogether and have to call it a day.
Perhpas, I decided as I switched the TV off, that was what they were hoping for.
Still, the parks remain lovely for the moment and I was happy to pass into them now. They were packed with large family groups enjoying Australia Day, picnicking and playing cricket with tennis balls. Adelaide has miles of good beaches in its western suburbs, so it surprised me that such numbers of people had forsaken the shore to come into the city. It gave the day an engagingly old-fashioned air.
This is how we spent the Fourth of July when I was a kid in Iowa - in parks, playing ball games. It seemed odd, too- but again pleasing - that in a country of so much space people chose to crowd together to relax. Perhaps its all that intimidating emptiness that makes Australians such social creatures. The parks were so crowded, in fact, that it was often impossible to tell which fielders belonged to which ball game. When a ball bounced into a neighbouring party, as seemed to happen quite regularly, there was always an exchange of apologies on the one hand and a call of 'No worries' on the other as the ball was tossed back into play. It was effectively all one very large picnic, and I felt almost ridiculously pleased to be part of it even in such a marginal way.
It took about three hours, I suppose, to do the complete circuit of the parks. Quite often a roar would arise from the Oval. Cricket was obviously a livelier spectacle in person than on the radio. At length I emerged onto a street called Pennington Terrace, where a row of neat bluestone houses with shady lawns overlooked the Oval. At one a family had essentially moved its living room onto the front lawn. I know it can't have been so, but in my recollection they had brought out everything - floor lamps, coffee table, rug, maagazine basket, coal scuttle. They had certainly brought out a sofa, and a television on
which they were watching the cricket. Behind the television, a couple of hundred yards away across open parkland, stood the Oval, so that whenever anything dramatic happened on their screen it was accompanied in real time by a roar from the stadium just beyond.
'Who's winning?' I called as I walked past.
'Bloody poms,' them man said, inviting me to share in his amazement."