Sporting Chance Co-Founder, James Fitzpatrick aka "DataRoamingFitz" was our man on the ground for the First Ashes Test of the 2019 series. You would have seen the on-field magic unfold via a Todd Woodbridge led Channel 9 broadcast, but this is a recount of what transpired behind the scenes: in our first international posting to the English pubs, the Edgbaston crowd, the London Tube and office tea-rooms...
I lost my English Ashes virginity in the "Post Sandpapergate Era" to a Steve Smith twin-hundred and a "Garry the GOAT" 6-for, in a come from behind victory at "Fortress Edgbaston" on Motherland soil.
It had it all, to say the least.
Location: The "Office" tea-room followed by the Sugarloaf Pub, Cannon St, London
I'm brewing a miserable excuse for a coffee in our office tea-room in central London. I check the score; Australia may have won the toss but instead of batting, they've elected to collapse.
The local Poms whom I share the office space with are huddled around the kettle still debating the bizarre laws which afforded them an ODI World Cup victory only two weeks prior. They don't yet seem aware of Australia's current ill-fortune and I don't intend to bring it up, instead I chime in with:
"You still haven't actually won a World Cup, in my books it was a tied match."
Either they didn't understand my accent or pretended they didn't hear me because they dismissed my bold interjection and carried on complimenting Ben Stokes' match-winning performance.
In the interest of diplomacy, and my own well-being, I went back to my desk.
After work, I decide to put in a night-watchman-like effort down at the local pub (Sugarloaf on Cannon St) to see if I can support the Aussies through until stumps.
Upon arrival, I'm shook by the state of affairs. Everyone's outside sinking lukewarm pints on the street rather than inside, watching the cricket (see photo below). I soon uncover the reason however, Smith has, in his maiden return from Sandpapergate banishment, raised his team from the proverbial ashes... (yes, intended.)
I overhear the following distraught conversation from two of the locals still left inside:
Pom 1: "I f***ing hate Steve Smith"
Pom 2: "You gotta admit, he’s pretty good though."
Pom 1: "Sandpaper-gate was supposed to end him, this is not fair!"
Pom 3: [Arrives from outside with an empty pint glass and glances up at TV] "Oh feckin' 'elll" (Translation: I'm disgruntled at the current state of play.)
Stumps on Day 1, AUS (1st Inns): 284ao, ENG (1st Inns): 0-10, [England trail by 274 runs]
Location: The Pavilion End Pub, Watling St, London
The Pavilion End is a renowned cricket pub just down from St Paul's Cathedral. It's an oasis for any cricket tragic; the bartenders don whites with cricket bat lapels, the walls are decked with old cricket memorabilia, there's a private function room called the 'Umpire's Room' and in every direction you look there's a large screen playing... well, I'll let you guess.
I arrive Friday after work to find it bustling with blokes in suits who judging from their euphoric state, are either buoyed by England's progress on Day 2 or by having been at the pub, saucing themselves, since midday.
Upon reflection, I suspect both were correct.
I'm enjoying a London Town Pale and scheming how to force an English collapse, as a French guy charges in like he's in Napoleon's first brigade and starts harassing me for being so engrossed in the cricket - while in a cricket themed pub no less:
"It’s so stupid! Both teams are wearing same colours. Why it go for so long? It makes no sense.”
As he's rabbiting on, I think to myself: “I can see why the English were so often at war with the French..."
Stumps on Day 2, AUS (1st Inns): 284ao, ENG (1st Inns): 4-267, [England trail by 17 runs]
Location: London Tube (begrudgingly)
It's a Saturday and, convinced that I've spent too much time in English pubs already, my liver and bank card stage a coup and force a house arrest.
Little did my conspiring organ know, English cricket in a moment of madness (fuelled one can only assume by money) sold the exclusive TV rights to Pay TV years ago.
With no free-to-air option, I waste hours trying to activate an online stream to no avail.
Towards the end of the day, I action an escape. I'm met at my London tube station by a big billboard brandished with "Cricket's coming home..."
What the billboard failed to announce (as per its normal day job) was that there were signal delays on my line. My frustration quelled by overhearing murmurings at the station of the masterful Smith "at it again".
Excited by the prospect of an Aussie comeback, my wife and I book Day 4 tickets and prepare our following day's conquest to "Fortress Edgbaston" in Birmingham.
Our choice of weapon? The Melbourne Cricket Club cheese platter.
Stumps on Day 3, AUS (1st Inns): 218ao, ENG (1st Inns): 374ao, AUS (2nd Inns): 3-124, [Australia lead by 34 runs]
Location: Fortress Edgbaston, Birmingham
Our conquest hits an early snag with industrial action cancelling some of the Birmingham bound trains. (Was it industrial action or just workers who wanted to go to cricket? I wouldn’t dare to presume...)
We're in a waiting area of the grand London Euston station, surrounded by other eager cricket goers. (If you're in a party shirt or a miscellaneous vegetable costume you're clearly not going to Sunday mass.) Everyone's eyes are fixed on the departure board waiting for their platform to be assigned - and then suddenly it's a mad dash to get a seat on an overbooked train.
Despite the Kafkaesque transfiguration into humanoid sardines, the mood is buoyant. Mostly due to English fans anticipating another Australian collapse I assume.
The pilgrimage from Birmingham New Street station to the ‘Fortress’ takes us past several cute churches offering cricket parking space for 15 quid. It seemed even Jesus planned to cash in on the festivities. I wondered who his/her holiness is barracking for...
Like the Trojan Horse entering Troy, we soon infiltrated the Fortress. (My so-called 'horse' is merely a valid ticket but the grandeur of the moment got to me.)
While Tim Paine tried to dismiss the threat of Edgbaston with his 'I can think of 15 more' threatening venues schtick, I have no such obligation to downplay the scenario: Edgbaston's infamous reputation is well and truly valid.
Led by the Barmy Army in the Hollies Stand, the vast majority of the crowd participates in thunderous renditions of English cricket songs and jibes. The sound and vibrations bounce around the ground like we're all trapped in a cauldron. It's shivers down your spine kind of stuff.
The ground is a fraction of the size of the MCG but its atmosphere is no less than that of an ANZAC Day clash between Essendon and Collingwood.
What's more, they pull off this raucous scene with a strange but typical English politeness.
At one point, a spectator's chair partially broke. The attendant arrived and apologised:
"I'm sorry but the ground is full, the only other seats we can relocate you to are in the Australian change room and no-one in their right mind would want to go there."
The spectator laughed and agreed to bear with the broken seat. Minutes later the attendant re-appears, beer in hand and announces: "But in return for your patience, the ground will serve you beer on the house!"
The whole bay cheers with delight at this one man's mis-fortune turned fortune.
At another point, an elderly couple who are struggling with the stadium stairs are immediately greeted by several spectators jumping out of their seats to give them a hand.
While these pleasantries were exchanged off-field, on-field Steve Smith was being far less kind to the English bowling attack.
As he carried on with his redemption mission, there were some clever new hits being sung in stands, including a remix of Men at Work's classic:
"I come from a land down-under, where Smith and Warner use sand-paper!"
Or "Stand-up, if you're a World Champion!" (To which everyone stands up.)
Or "If you love the English, take your shoes off!" (To which everyone takes their shoes off.)
Or "Same old Aussies, always cheating!" (After any failed appeal or decision review.)
To their credit, even by the end of a long day, during which Australia flipped the match on its head, the Barmy Army were in a joyous conga line, led by a man dressed as sandpaper, singing a thunderous rendition of ‘God save - your - Queen’.
Stumps on Day 4: AUS (1st Inns): 218ao, ENG (1st Inns): 374ao, AUS (2nd Inns): 7-487(dec), ENG (2nd Inns): 0-13, [England trail by 385 runs]
Location: Back in the "Office" tea-room (where it all began)
We all know what happened next. The GOAT and "Blue-Eyed Stallion" performed their magic tricks to appease Aussie Ringmaster Langer and the contest was over.
I’m back in the office tea room wearing an arrogant smile as my outfit of choice.
My English counterparts are noticeably quiet and I can see their eyes desperately pleading with me not to mention the war.
But alas, I’m too stubborn to show mercy.