Monday, January 2, 2012

Sydney Cricket Ground and Yabba

The infamous Sydney Hill is gone; in its place now is the Victor Trumper Stand

This post by the author also appears in the Cricketcountry channel

Standing under the charming green awning of the Members’ Stand of the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), a cricket romantic is slowly soaked into the atmosphere. If one looks to the left, the eye sweeps over stands named after a pantheon of greats – Monty Noble, Don Bradman, Bill O’Reilly and, further down, Victor Trumper.

On the right stands the demure Ladies’ Pavilion, built in 1896 – and in one of the curious quirks of serendipity, one of the carpenters who built its framework was George Bradman, the father of The Don.

George Bradman visited the ground again during the 1920-21 season for Australia’s fifth Test match against England, accompanied by the 12-year old Don. The legend goes that on that day Charlie Macartney stroked his way to 170, and the young lad pledged that some day he would play on the ground. It was just 27 years later that he pushed Gogumal Kishenchand to the right of mid on to get to his 100th first-class hundred on the very ground.

Steve Waugh recounts that one of his dreams is to go back in time, sit on the grassy mound of “The Hill” and bask in sunshine while watching Don Bradman carve into the English attack.

“The Hill”, the undulating green spectator mounds, had been the cheapest of all the stands, a haven for the working class. From the opening of the ground in 1882, many a generation of cricket fans had flocked down with their picnic hampers and ready supply of beer, to lie on the incline and watch some absorbing cricket. And from Macartney to Keith Miller to Brian Lara, cricketers across the ages kept entertaining them with scintillating performances.

If we come back to the present and look straight across the ground from the Members’ Stand, we no longer see the green expanse that had been so much of a signature feature of the ground. It has been now replaced by the Victor Trumper Stand – swanky, new and boasting a capacity of 12,000, with all the embellishments of modern times.

Yabba - the legendary heckler at the SCG

If one looks closely, one can detect a seated spectator, cast in bronze, hand beside his open mouth, poised to throw his voice into the action in the middle. This gentleman is a throwback into the past, the immortal barracker Yabba, who was active enough in “The Hill” during the early days of the century to become one of the rare spectators to find his own likeness seated in the stands forever.

A rabbit seller by profession, Yabba was born Stephen Harold Gascoigne and gained reputation as a legendary heckler from the stands. Yet, he did not throw a single bottle or rotten egg.

Completing his business early in the day by carrying his rabbits around on his horse-driven cart, Yabba used to arm himself with sandwiches and beer and settle down under the big old scoreboard on the Hill. After which he used to make his presence felt with his big booming voice.

When Douglas Jardine, unpopular to the extreme during the Bodyline series, was trying to swat away some adamant flies buzzing around him, the roaring voice had memorably rung out, “Leave our flies alone, Jardine, they are the only friends you have got here.”

Often the comments that were dipped in wicked humour, but tinged with his immense understanding of the game. Players having a bad day at the ground would often find themselves at the receiving end of the thunderous yell.

“Send ’im down a piano, and see if ’e can play that,” heard an unfortunate batsman. Another, while adjusting his box, was subject to the rather uncharitable, “Those are the only balls you’ve touched all day.”

And when Arthur Mailey struggled to pitch his leg-breaks in the right places, he was rewarded with, “Oh for a strong arm and a walking stick!” – a quote that found its way into the bowler’s autobiography.

From the 1970s, day-night matches entered the picture. The crowd it drew were rather less interested in the subtleties of the game and more in the excitement of the moment, boosted by the recent inventions of the beer can and the portable cooler. Brawls and unruly behaviour increased and it became necessary to take some administrative steps.

End of an era

Numbered seats were introduced and the area was now quaintly renamed Yabba’s Hill, but it failed to check the misbehaviour. Ultimately, “The Hill” was demolished altogether in 2008 and replaced by the Victor Trumper Stand.

However, Yabba sits there yet, now cast in bronze, probably awed into silence by the current curiosities of day-night matches and T20 encounters. His mouth is open as if by habit, his hand perched beside it to add the decibels to his yell, but he is perhaps rendered speechless by the white ball, the third umpire and, chiefly, the disappearance of his beloved “Hill”.

But, if we strain our cricket-loving imagination, do we not hear the famed voice heard above the din of the spectators, sending across sound waves strong enough to be captured on the stump microphone?

With apologies to the legendary heckler, let us try to hear his voice in the context of the modern day.

When Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman settle down to bat endlessly on their favourite Australian pitch, do we not hear the legendary voice ring out, “Put an exit sign in front of that pitch Ricky, that’s the only way to pretend you’ve got ’em out.”

When Sourav Ganguly was caught off the bounce by Michael Clarke and Ponting raised his finger to confused umpire Mark Benson in declaring the Indian batsman out, would the legendary voice not bellow, “Give Ricky your black trouser Mark, he is doing your job anyway.”

And if in the Test starting Tuesday the Indian bowlers struggle yet again to get rid of the Aussie tail, won’t there be that full-throated jibe rippling across the cricket lover's consciousness, embarrassing the young Indian bowler as he walks back to his bowling mark, “Even I can’t give you a job, lad, you can’t take care of 'em rabbits.”

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