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‘The Happy Land’ – The Life and Times of John Winston Coward – Part 4 – Extracts from an Interview with ‘Opening Batsman’

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THE HAPPY LAND: Part 4

Was John Howard's Australia the place admirers like Tony Abbott promote? 'The Happy Land' is Graham Jackson's satirical alternative reality. This challenging work, illustrated by Gee, consists of thirteen Papers written by the major players in a dark period in Australia's short history. Here, a leading Australian Test cricketer recalls an international tour in which they were accompanied by the Australian Prime Minister John Winston Coward.
The Life and Times of John Winston Coward
The Prime Minister who pushed Children Overboard in His Pursuit of Electoral Victory: A Reconstruction

Contents

1: ‘His Scottish Ancestors’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
2: ‘His Love of Cricket’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
3:‘My Mum and Dad’ – John Winston Coward
4: ‘The Happy Land’ – Extracts from an Interview with ‘Opening Batsman’
5: ‘The Coming of the Iraqis, Afghans and Fins’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
6: ‘The Martyrdom of Minister Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
7: ‘My Dream’ – a Transcript of ‘Sea Captain’s’ Evidence before a Select Committee
8: ‘An Address to the Australian People’ – John Winston Coward
9: ‘Ruddock Replaces Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
10: ‘His Favourite Sayings’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
11: ‘The Unveiling of the Scottish Thistle’ – John Winston Coward
12: ‘The Death of a Conservative Leader’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
13: ‘Postscript’ – ‘Wicketkeeper’
Paper 4: Extracts from an Interview with ‘Opening Batsman’
Sensational little bloke, sensational. Stood in as a stump one day in the nets, when the locals nicked our gear. Can’t trust any bastard over there. Watch them, the little bloke said, keep your eyes skinned and watch your off-stump. At first I thought he was on the payroll, to keep our uniforms clean. Which, now I come to think of it, is mostly what he did on tour. When I heard it was John Winston himself, you could’ve knocked me down with a feather, or one of those medium pacers they call fast bowling over there.

What country were you touring?

Bastard of a place. Australia had never won a Test series there. Maybe Indonesia, or India — somewhere in Asia. Pakistan, or Afghanistan…

But the little bloke was sensational. Stood in the nets as a stump and didn’t flinch when the quicks came on. Not that anything gets past me. No quick’s going to get into my off-stump. Only Knocka got under my bat when the little bloke distracted me with one of his tricks. He was balancing a bail on his head. Then he sent it up Knocka’s arse!…

I remember the first Test at the Gardens, or some similar venue. The little bloke reckoned it wasn’t a patch on the MCG. Bill, he said, the Melbourne Cricket Ground’s the only place in the world to play cricket.

He was with you the entire tour, the Prime Minister?

It surprised me. I thought he had to run the country. But how much do you have to do to run a country?… We must have been India, now I come to think of it, or Bangladesh… You’d think they’d take more care about who they allow to play Tests. They should be prepared to show their credentials. They can’t expect to grease up and join in. They could be anyone, for pity’s sake! That’s what the little bloke said.

Did he take a leadership role on tour?

That’s an interesting question.

You mean he did?

In a manner of speaking… But the Captain’s a strong character. He’d even tell a Prime Minister where to get off.

And did he?

Not to my knowledge.

Could I ask you what it’s really like over there?

Depends where we’re talking about. Buggered if I know where I am, sometimes! It’s like losing track of your off-stump. But I remember they had lamb on the menu. John Winston had warned us about it, and the roast kid. They’ll eat anything over there, he said.

Was it wet?

Was it wet, she asks! John Winston wasn’t used to rain. They don’t get much of it in the Wimmera. One of the lads said he should pass a law, but it wasn’t as easy as that, he said. Rain should be left to God, or the Bishop, if you could depend on him. Test teams get burdened with liabilities, too, like fast bowlers who’ve lost a yard and can’t bowl line and length. Or opening batsmen who can’t score a run, even when they keep their wicket intact. I keep telling them to look at the averages.



You have a good average

I have an excellent average. The little bloke’s keen on averages. There are high points and low points in life, he said, but in the end there’s only an average. Wisden records averages, remember that, he said. You are your average. It was like a quote from the Bible. I felt like I did as a kid, when a grown-up said something important. It was strange, coming from someone so small. Peculiar. It makes you think about things, about whether protecting the stumps and scoring runs is the be-all and end-all.

Could you provide our readers with more overseas colour?

Overseas colour? Well, I remember we were in a city called Wellington, a cold, windy place. I didn’t realise Afghanistan was so cold. Always thought of the sub-continent as a steamy kind of place. But it’s the mountains, you see. The little bloke wasn’t keen on mountains. Liked flat, open places. I suppose that’s why he likes cricket.

And the people? Were they happy?

Happy?

I guess that’s the point I’ve been coming to… We hear so much about the unhappiness over there, the misery. So many seem to want to sail to Australia.

To play cricket…

To come to a happier country, perhaps… So you can understand why we’re keen to hear your views, having so recently been to one of the world’s trouble spots.

Afghanistan.

How did the people strike you?

One of the bastards in Wellington got me over the back of the head with a stump! They take their cricket so seriously… But no, can’t complain overall. It’s the same the world over, so far as supporters are concerned. The Afghans were neither better nor worse. Wellington itself is a hilly sort of place, and the only flat spots are the airport and cricket ground. I don’t suppose anyone would be happy living on that sort of pitch. If they want to come to Australia, good luck to them. They should get in touch with John Winston first. He’ll give them a fair hearing, especially when they tell him they come from a city where it never stops drizzling.

An interesting point, Mr Ready. It’s often been said the Prime Minister isn’t a sympathetic man.

All I can say is that anyone who’s prepared to stand in for a stump gets my vote every time.

They say he doesn’t know the meaning of the word.

Now you mention it, the dressing room was no place to go if you didn’t get runs. The little bloke liked to explain at some length where you went wrong. Had a natural feel for the game, I should’ve thought, could really sniff out a ball. But not a naturally happy man, since we’re on the subject, although he perked up a lot when we got to the South Island.

Of Afghanistan?

That’s the place. We were well into the tour by then, when the going gets tough…

And the tough get going.

Exactly. The little bloke began to show his mettle. You have to remember he was away from family and friends like the rest of us. You can send postcards, of course, and make the odd phone call. Some of the lads make pretty odd phone calls! But not John Winston, to the best of my knowledge.

You get the feel of the real Afghanistan in the South Island. You travel on the plains and lowlands, but the mountains are always up there above you, away to the west, menacing somehow. You get to know the meaning of terror in the South Island, although the fact the tour wasn’t cancelled and that we had the little bloke with us says it was safe enough. Even so, the troublemakers are hard to spot. If you’re expecting turbans and flowing robes, forget it! They look just like the rest of us. Out in the streets, we kept thinking we were bumping into members of the Afghanistan team, but they were everyday locals going about their business.



Did they look happy?

As happy as pigs in shit, if you’ll excuse the expression. The more I think about it, the less likely it is these people want to come to Australia. I suppose it must have something to do with the clerics in Christchurch, although I can’t say I saw one. The little bloke had his eye open for them, all the same.

He has a religious background, I believe…

Can’t say I’m surprised, the way he looks at you through those thick glasses. There’s something of the Old Testament about him, meaning no disrespect. I wouldn’t want him as a coach, either, although he does a good job as Prime Minister. We each have our place, I suppose. And I guess the little bloke believes it’s his place to lead the country more or less indefinitely, which is OK by me, as long as he doesn’t meddle in captaincy issues…

I must say it’s peculiar how being interviewed seems to sharpen my memories of Afghanistan. Even brings back some I never thought I had! It occurs to me now how British the place is, even so long after its years of occupation. The names are still there, Oxford and Canterbury, Belfast and so on. Oban… Is that British?

Scottish, I believe.

No wonder the little fella got worked up. Did you know he has a thing about Scotland? But Oban came later in the tour, at the end. In the meantime we were trying to play cricket in Christchurch. You think of Afghanistan as a dry, dusty place. Like the Wimmera, John Winston said it ought to be. It should have reminded him of home, he said. It was one of the reasons he came on tour. I’ve never been to the Wimmera, but I’ve been to Afghanistan and I can tell you it’s always raining. The pitches, when we could get on them, were green, damp and lively — as dangerous as one of the passes in the South Island mountains.

It’s not a place I’d visit again in a hurry. Frankly, I’d rather face Knocka on a dodgy wicket. At least you know where he’s coming from. Up there in the mountains they can come from anywhere. At every turn on the road to Milford Sound I expected the worst. A howling gale was blowing, and sleet iced up the windscreen. We had to stop to clear it. The driver, a local, was as cool as a cucumber. I’d have him in Australia as an immigrant any day of the week.

Did he express an interest?

Seemed to be happy on his own flat pitch.

You’re in a unique position to make comparisons, having travelled so widely. Would you say Australians are more contented than most?

Good question… Like one of Knocka’s slow balls. Disguises it better than any other quick in the world, I reckon, excepting that Indonesian bastard… Frankly, I’m not sure we do appreciate how lucky we are. Our climate’s good, no extremes. A bit dry in parts, like the Wimmera, if the little bloke’s to be believed, but on the whole predictable and conducive to the preparation of reliable pitches. We can produce them for pace, or for spin. We can make them fast, or slow. Up, or down. Green, or brown. Where else in the world can you do that?

You were asking what happiness is? Well, maybe I can’t give you an intellectual answer, but I can tell you what happiness is for an opening batsman. And that’s a predictable pitch. And that’s why we like playing at home. Can you imagine what it’s like over there? In Dunedin we played on a sticky wicket, specially prepared. It might have been Glamorgan. The point is they can do whatever they like, and often that means making life difficult for an opening batsman.

And yet you’ve maintained a consistently high average throughout a long career, which means, I imagine, you’ve played as many Tests overseas as you have in Australia.

That’s true. It’s simply a matter of temperament, and you’ve got to have a good one. John Winston’s got a good temperament, one of the best. What a defence! It’s the secret to success overseas. If you can block their best on their own pitches, you’ve got them beaten.

In Oban, John Winston showed us just how it’s done. By then the Afghans had cottoned on to the fact he was on tour with the team, and there was a high-ranking member of their government waiting to meet us. But the little bloke had done his homework, knew what to expect, and prepared a speech.

It was all about Scotland and our common ancestors, common to Australia and Afghanistan. Oban, in the far south of the country – on its own island – was a magnificent setting. You could see Scottish ancestors in the main street — wild, bearded types with sporrans. There was the feel of the past in the air, as well as a thick sea mist. John Winston mentioned the sea a number of times. You could tell it meant a lot to him. And we were all moved, too, even the representative of the Afghanistan Government. In the end, it was apparent he’d forgotten why he was there. He had a dazed look in his eye. We were all dazed, but it had been a long tour, and a successful one. We still hadn’t won a series in the country, but a nil-all draw was a good result. True, few days cricket had been played but, as John Winston concluded in his speech, it was the quality of the play that was important — like the quality of our common ancestors. We should revere them.

He had nothing to say about happiness, but perhaps the word shouldn’t be in the language. Sure it feels good to make a century once in a while, just as I imagine the Prime Minister enjoys winning an election. But what can you do with happiness? Put it on a shelf, like a trophy?

It was the first Test series in a decade that you didn’t top the batting averages.

It was an average tour all round and its only highlight was the presence of the Prime Minister, who showed us in the end how it’s possible to get something out of nothing.

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