Sporting Life

Faithful English fan offers a unique look at the Ashes

In early December, as you stroll through Adelaide Oval, look for a 65-year-old gent with a gently receding hairline, holding a Roberts radio from England, who will definitely not be singing. Barmy he is not.

If you want to buy him a beer, he will not refuse. If you wish a short history lesson on the cricketing Ashes, which starts on Thursday, ask nicely. If you'd like to know what it felt like to be in a stadium in 1961 when Ted Dexter scored 180 at Edgbaston, just say so and this Englishman will yank out his earphone and speak of cricket and those days with an ardent affection.

Then Andy Gemmell was a boy, now he is a man, and he has been raised to the spells and silences and tension and tempo of cricket. His father took him to the Ashes when he was eight and he has never left. Even now, 36 years since Ian Botham took five for one at Edgbaston in 1981 to demolish Australia, he can't forget.

"The chanting grew intense as he was coming into bowl. The crowd started to believe and you could feel that belief."

Cricket is sports' version of opera and its drama is recounted through statistics, moments preserved on YouTube, histories written on grounds and also via the durable fan. They age with the game, follow teams like pilgrims, swallow national slumps with a beer, accumulate layers of memory and continue an ancient tradition of oral storytellers by recounting the epics and passing on the game.

History is nothing without the tales of its witnesses and the best fans are transporters, to places, and times, to Dec 30, 1982 for instance, when Australia have 74 runs to get, and one wicket left, and as Allan Border and Jeff Thomson chase, 18,000 people are let into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for free and Gemmell is one of them. It is his favourite day. England win by three runs.

Envy is what he evokes, for he has had a ticket to all manner of genius, to Old Trafford in 1993 when Shane Warne's devilish, darting ball destroys Mike Gatting. "Everyone thought," he remembers, "what the hell was that?"

His brain is an archive, within which resides a small library devoted to cricket's music. The click of bails, the "glorious sound" of the ball leaving the cultured bat of David Gower, the distinctive voice and words of John Arlott, "who could translate his ability as a poet into commentary". Now TV mostly hires former players who ostensibly know the game, but Gemmell preferred radio's older journalists, Alan McGilvray, Tony Cozier, Arlott, who could tell the game.

Cricket is sports' version of opera and its drama is recounted through statistics, moments preserved on YouTube, histories written on grounds and also via the durable fan. They age with the game, follow teams like pilgrims, swallow national slumps with a beer, accumulate layers of memory and continue an ancient tradition of oral storytellers by recounting the epics and passing on the game.

Gemmell is a time traveller in his sixth decade of watching the Ashes, which began in 1882. This is a rivalry with an old soul, more venerable than Barcelona v Real, more enduring than Celtics v Lakers, and one which has brought him to Australia for the ninth time since 1982 for the cricket.

"There's something about it," he says about the Ashes. Something familiar and yet always new, something about old foes with new names, something about acclaimed stadiums awaiting fresh deeds. England, No. 3 in the Test rankings, and Australia, No. 5, are not playing for supremacy of the world but for a prize slightly less rewarding - two years of rights to needle and brag.

Bullied into a prediction, Gemmell says it will be England 2-1 and swears it is a verdict built more on logic than patriotism. England bats deeper, he thinks, and Australia's selection "has been a bit strange".

It's too late to stop him for he is off now, into cricket land, measuring spinners and gauging bowling economies and then, having considered the history of teams and geography of pitches, concludes that if England get away unscathed from the first Test in Brisbane, they can win in Adelaide, probably will lose in Perth and "then it's a lottery after that" in Melbourne and Sydney.

The game seems to be his interest, joy, sanctuary and companion and almost no day for Gemmell passes without cricket. It might be a mention on the news, a visit to a ground or even, very rarely, a finger traced across an old Don Bradman book.

What sustains rivalries like the Ashes? Beyond the tedious hype and almost manufactured niggling between teams, it is also force of habit, of a season we wait for, of a series that doesn't stand alone but is encased in the wider embrace of history. Men are compared to each other but also to ghosts.

Yet rivalries are also given worth by travellers such as Gemmell, who bring arenas of stone to attentive life, who invest savings and cross oceans just to applaud a square cut that leaves a furrow in the grass. They are giving actors an audience.

On Thursday it all begins, but since he's skipping Brisbane you might find him in Adelaide. He'll be the chuckling one with the sunscreen and earphone and the concentrated look of a listening man. Oh, by the way, Andy Gemmell has never seen a ball bowled. He's been completely blind since birth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2017, with the headline 'Faithful English fan offers a unique look at the Ashes'. Print Edition | Subscribe