Marnus Labuschagne of Australia celebrates after bringing up his century during day one of the third Test. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
It’s strange to wake up on the morning of a Test match and feel like it doesn’t matter at all. To have the mental space that would normally be fizzing with anticipation instead be filled with a large slow shrug.
If you opened a popular map on your phone to find a bus to the Sydney Cricket Ground for the Test against New Zealand on Friday, you were greeted with a bushfire warning tile. Click that and the east coast of Australia appeared, licked at by bright red cartoon flames.
There were buttons to report blocked roads, buttons to share your location with loved ones, click-throughs to fire services or to check the toxicity of the smoky air around you.
These buttons are not going anywhere, because fire conditions are predicted to worsen. Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide all have Bureau of Meteorology listings for smoke haze from burning forests and coasts.
Air quality forecasts of ‘poor’ have been issued for Sydney for Saturday, the second day of the Test. One can only hope for the third, the main fundraising day for the Jane McGrath Foundation and its charitable breast cancer work.
The first-day crowd wasn’t deterred, with a rousing minute of applause before play for those affected by fire. Batsman Marnus Labuschagne said the day didn’t feel notably different, but that he didn’t want eyes on his team that day.
Australian captain Tim Paine has said his team will play until they’re told the air quality isn’t good enough. (AAP: James Gourley)
“If all we did was create a distraction or a bit of enjoyment for people in these tough times, I think that’s a win for us,” Labuschagne said.
“The focus should be on the firefighters and what they’re doing for the community, because that’s the most important thing at this point in time.”
It was a distinct separation of priorities from a 25-year-old who had just scored a Test century for Australia. That separation stood out given a lack of the same elsewhere.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been trying to link his office with cricket and fire relief for months. He had on-field photo opportunities at the PM’s XI match in Canberra game in October, then attended training ahead of the Brisbane Test in November.
@ScottMorrisionMP: Going to be a great summer of cricket, and for our firefighters and fire-impacted communities, I’m sure our boys will give them something to cheer for.
Fires had started in New South Wales by then, so he wrote on Twitter: “Going to be a great summer of cricket, and for our firefighters and fire-impacted communities, I’m sure our boys will give them something to cheer for.”
Over the weeks since, fires have flared in every state. The running tally is 5.8 million hectares of land burned. On New Year’s Day, Morrison drew flak for staying at Kirribilli to meet the home and visiting Test teams, and using them to double down on his inspiration message.
“Australians will be gathered, whether it’s at the SCG or around television sets all around the country, and they’ll be inspired by the great feats of our cricketers from both sides of the Tasman, and I think they’ll be encouraged by the spirit shown by Australians.”
It’s curious why this link keeps being attempted. Perhaps national teams offer safe territory for politicians to appear relatable. Perhaps a patriotic impression of exceptional Australian resilience might reflect onto the disaster at hand, angling the horror to find a positive.
Perhaps if this year’s Sydney Test was the deciding match in a classic series, this idea might get a tiny bit more traction. But it’s especially strange in a series that has already been decided, against a team that has been thoroughly outdone.
New Zealand’s star batsman is laid up with fever. The star bowler is home with a broken hand.
The current team includes understudy spinners Todd Astle and Will Sommerville, Tom Latham as an understudy captain, an opening seamer in Colin de Grandhomme who is at the bottom end of the medium-pace bracket, back-up keeper Tom Blundell as a makeshift opener, another keeper Glenn Phillips as an emergency bat, and discarded opener Jeet Raval recalled to first drop.
Colin de Grandhomme (left) isn’t exactly the quickest opening bowler in world cricket. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
Raval’s last nine innings have returned 66 runs averaging 7, in which time Labuschagne, in the corresponding spot for Australia, has returned 814 runs at 102.
It shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the game to pump up this Test match. Day one played out exactly that way, with New Zealand toiling for three wickets and Australia eyeing another huge total with 283 on the board.
But in the end, we could be playing the 2005 Ashes multiplied by Michael Jordan’s Space Jam out here at the SCG, and it would still mean exactly nothing right at the moment. Even the laudable fundraising of McGrath Day will sit awkwardly against such a tangible widespread threat.
Australia is currently a country where people are hiding for safety in the ocean, kicking through the ruins of lives, queuing to evacuate by Navy ship, getting helicopter drops of toilet paper to avoid disease outbreaks in makeshift truck-stop towns, pinning medals at funerals onto toddlers who don’t understand either.
Of course our national teams matter. They can bring us together and create collective euphoria, but not if we’re already collectively in grief. So by all means let the show go on for those who want it, but it doesn’t need headline billing.
Even up until the backlash from New Year’s Day, the Prime Minister intended to be at the SCG for the first day. Traditionally a political good day out. Hop on for a commentary stint, get on camera in the stands.
Belatedly, there was a change of plans. There are times when the cricket doesn’t matter at all.