Steve Smith and Mitch Marsh almost made it. Together, they had put on 300, changed the course of the third Test and brought the Ashes within ‘s sight.
Now it was stumps, and they were walking off, bats raised, and the WACA crowd was on their feet, and their glorious exit was almost complete when suddenly they were swamped, by cameramen and commentators and CA operatives and water boys in sponsors’ get-ups, tugging the heroes-of-the-moment this way and that, and they had to discard their bats and helmets, and it would be another quarter of an hour before they did get off the ground, but not together, and in the background the downtrodden English were being channelled and corralled in much the same way, and the cluster and clutter on the ground grew until no individual was visible in it, and the crowd’s applause, rather than reaching a peak, tailed away into anti-climax, and the effect was as lumpen as this paragraph, and a great moment was lost.
This was also how it was when Mitch Johnson walked off for the last time at the same place two years ago. Johnson did not want a solo bow in the spotlight, but the posterity and the occasion demanded one, and instead he got a professional mobbing and the crowd got a fleeting glimpse.
This is how it is at the cricket now. There are literally hundreds of people on the ground before a day’s play, and dozens at each break, and even more at the finish, long before the players have left the ground, and since the introduction of rope boundaries, there are likely to be eskies and hoardings and other detritus scattered around the perimeter, which begins to look like a flea market or last night’s backyard barbecue the next day, and any sense of the cricket ground as a stage is destroyed.
It is hardly cricket’s first-order problem, I know. But it does matter. Great sport is great theatre, in which the entrances and exits matter because they are part of the show, and the stage and the staging has to allow for this, rather than permit the performers to be swept up a gaggle of the forces of commercial imperative before they are three-quarters of the way towards the wings. Can you imagine this for, say, Geoffrey Rush, after doing Shakespeare? Can you imagine it for Don Bradman doing Don Bradman? One of cricket’s most evocative photographs is of Bradman walking off the SCG for the last time in 1949, in sunshine still, but about to be swallowed by long shadows. He is alone, and that is the image’s undying power.
The sporting stage has another aspect to it. I’ll illustrate it obliquely. I once saw the horror on the faces of a couple of ex-n players as another ex-player barged blithely into the n change room at the MCG. To them, though it was really just an assemblage of bench seats and lockers, you had to earn your right to enter at will, and held it only as long as you were in the team. Thereafter, whether by days or decades, it was strictly by invitation.
Likewise, the playing field is consecrated ground. You earn rather than presume the right to tread it, and for as long as players are on it, it is their domain. This will be too overwrought for some. But in the drama called sport, we consent to the idea of the players as demi-gods, even as we know it not to be true, and so we must also conspire to agree that the arena, though just a swathe of turf, while the players are on it is not a place for mortals. The boundary rope is not merely a length of twine.
I know this will fall on ears that were already deaf before they realised there was a buck to be made out of deafening all others’ ears, all day. I ask only that at the MCG on Boxing Day, the consortium that puts on the show and claims to understand what Test cricket is all about demonstrates it by minimising the sundries, ancillaries and ephemera on the arena, literally clearing the stage so that it can be held by the masters of it, and so that whoever emerges as the day’s hero gets to walk off in a way that says this day he stands splendidly alone, and not into a mugging.