Two whole hours before play was scheduled to begin, my father, my brothers and I were in situ on the hard, splintery benches of Old Trafford, unpacking the first of many, many spam sandwiches and unscrewing the flasks of tea. Before us was the enormous field, like a gigantic distorted snooker table sprawling in a rapidly post-industrialising city. Grass was being mown and assailed our city noses with the folk-memory of harvest aromas – mixed in with diesel. Spectators would arrive and feel obliged to converse in hushed voices, so quiet was the ground. Later, less timid arrivals would lever the ring off the first of many lagers to be consumed over the day, and behind us, the first of the relays to the bar would return carrying four pints of bitter on a cardboard tray being ribbed by his mates for spilling a drop or two on a journey that would have been rejected by Jeux Sans Frontieres’ Gennaro and Guido as too tricky for a Fil Rouge. Half an hour before the start, the players would shamble out of the Red Rose Pavilion for a few desultory catches and then disappear again, before emerging once more, marginally more enthusiastically, for the start of play. In those seasons long ago, swamped with seven days a week cricket, nobody seemed to bother with stretches and warm-ups, nor did anyone ever seem to be injured.
A dull low cloud hung over the city, as it had hung over Chat Moss as we travelled the short (in geographic terms) distance between the North-West’s two stumbling metropolises. The football-fueled enmity between Liverpool and Manchester was not so sharp back then (though it was sharp enough two years later at the other Old Trafford when Everton lost an FA Cup quarter-final and we had to get across a hostile urban wasteland to Piccadilly Station – it was The Warriors for real). But those thirty miles of flat Lancastrian plain mattered and our trill, swift, squawkish Liverpool voices stood out amongst the slower, flatter accents of men who sounded, and looked, like Coronation Street’s Stan Ogden.
Two days earlier, I had got the A-level results that would send me to London (well, two E grades wasn’t much of a challenge even then) and my brother had started his transformation from classroom clown to Something In The City. My dad was just pleased to be at Old Trafford, an ugly, decrepit ground back then with trains behind the scoreboard stopping en route to places like Rawthenstall and Ramsbottom. Lancashire was his team, Clive Lloyd was his cricketing hero and he was spending the day doing one of the two things that gave him most pleasure in life – watching sport with his sons or walking hills and forests with his sons. I inherited the first gene, but not the second.
Geoffrey Boycott and Chris Tavaré were the not-out batsmen overnight. Their games were built on defending the good ball and, alas, defending the bad ball too. Terry Alderman bowled a lovely wicket-to-wicket line, Dennis Lilllee still had the action and the skills if not the pace and Mike Whitney – well, Mike Whitney tried hard, but, well, he was Mike Whitney. Tavaré, impassive, impassable and impossible to watch, with his Kent grip – top hand twisted round so that the fingers faced the bowler, allowing him to play the forward defensive with soft hands and little else – spent the morning at one end, while a variety of partners came and went at the other. Boycott was LBW Alderman, as his fellow opener Graham Gooch was so often. David Gower, a champagne man on a mild and bitter day, couldn’t get going at all and spent twenty minutes compiling a single. Two more southern types on this most northern of days, Mike Gatting and Mike Brearley, were equally ineffective, pushing and prodding before swagman Alderman, so effective in England, added those two wickets to his bulging Ashes tucker bag. Four of the best six batsmen in the country (according to the selectors) had scored 29 runs in 28 morning session overs – and the spam sandwiches were running low.
In the lunch interval, we eyed the skies and the scoreboard with equal trepidation. It might rain at any moment – the air was so cool and damp that it was hard to tell if it were raining or not at times – and we’d have to set off back the coast having seen as uninspiring a session of cricket as any member of the Barmy Army would endure in the next decade. England were only 200 or so on, with (soon after lunch) half their wickets surrendered – could the extraordinary events at Headingley and Edgbaston be about to be tarnished as England surrendered its so spectacularly secured one Test series advantage with just The Oval to come?
Not long after lunch, bareheaded, windmilling his bat and blinking to adjust his eyes to the greyness, out strode England’s technicolor cricketer. And our day was about to go from forgettable to unforgettable.
Postscript: Ian Botham raised his century off 86 balls, the last 33 of which disappeared for 72 runs. England finished the day 446 runs on and The Ashes were as good as won. And I know, because I was there.
You can tweet me at @garynaylor999