Cricket civility and NYE blasts

Instalment #3 of my columns filling in for Peter Fitzsimons in summer 08/09.

A sporting sporting triumph

Seeking only to capture the experience for Sunday Extra readers, I selflessly attended the last two days of the Sydney Test. The contest between our inexperienced attack and the skilful South Africans was enthralling, and Graeme Smith’s decision to bat remarkable. The entire ground winced pre-emptively as the injured skipper faced every full-paced delivery. I probably wasn’t the only person half-hoping he could hold on for the draw.

Smith and his team have shown throughout this series that it’s possible to be tough and uncompromising and yet gracious and polite. And from the ruin of a first home series defeat in fifteen years has risen a most unfamiliar phoenix: an Australian team which can win a Test match without racial controversy, and so little sledging that Shane Warne sent his mate Smith an SMS to find out why. We should be more proud of our team’s clean-spirited series defeat than if they’d won another gamesmanship-tainted whitewash.

The only disappointing thing about the final day was that a mere 9000-odd people attended, nearly all of them members. The place should have been packed to the rafters, and Cricket Australia should have opened the gates to anyone making a donation to the McGrath Foundation for admission. (And with over $500,000 raised, that pink-tinted charity drive must surely become annual.) The match had more drama and heroism than any one-dayer I’ve seen, and those few kids who turned up are surely now lifetime fans of the long form of the game.

A brand new badge for the Deputy Sheriff

John Howard has been awarded a prize he’ll treasure above all others – another invitation to hang out with George Bush. He’s visiting Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, previously awarded to independence fighters like Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel but awarded in this particular case for subserviency.

Our former leader described the award as “a compliment to Australia”, but surely any prize for being mates with George Bush is Howard’s alone.

It may seem somewhat inappropriate for the President to sit around with Howard and Tony Blair – who is supposed to be a Middle East peace envoy – while war rages in the Gaza Strip. But perhaps even George Bush, like the rest of us, is sitting back and waiting for Barack Obama to do something about it.

It’s e-tolls for thee

Today, nearly a decade after Jeff Kennett boldly converted Melbourne’s main roads overnight, the Harbour Bridge has finally gone electronic tag-only. I’m nostalgic for many things from my youth, like Sunny Boy iceblocks and a match-winning spinner in the Australian cricket team, but I won’t miss those lengthy morning queues in front of the tollbooths. Let’s hope the few remaining toll collectors have found less monotonous employment.

The downside of electronic-only tolling that it’s easier to jack up the prices when they don’t need to be a round number. This is why the Cross City Tunnel now costs a diabolical $4.12. I’m in favour of tolls which vary at different times of day, which will be implemented from Jan 27, but changing to $4 and $2.50 for peak and off-peak crossings constitutes a steep price rise for most motorists. It makes me nostalgic for something else from my 1980s childhood – the 20c Bridge toll.

Having a blast on NYE

A few days into each year, I check the news from the Philippines and remember my dullest New Year’s Eve ever. I was stuck in the drab underground ballroom of a hotel in Manila because the organisers of our nerdy debating tournament were worried about their guests getting hurt. And rightly so, because Filipinos celebrate the New Year by playing with fireworks and firing guns randomly into the air. Their belief that it brings good luck is annually disproved by the injury statistics.

This year, the Philippine government banned military personnel from discharging their weapons, and Health Secretary Francisco Duque filmed an evocative ad where he brandished a circular saw to warn against the annual loss of limbs. Nevertheless, 563 people were injured by fireworks and stray bullets this year, with two deaths. Libertarian types often complain about NSW’s fireworks ban, but as the spectacular display on Sydney Harbour demonstrated, they’re best left to the professionals.

The pre-school Picasso

The story that Melbourne’s Brunswick Street Gallery was tricked into exhibiting paintings by two-year-old Aelita Andre is certainly amusing, but it’s revived the old myth that anyone can paint an abstract painting. We disproved this in 2007 by getting kids to paint ABC personalities for the Archibald Prize. Unfortunately all the entries were rejected, so we couldn’t use the segment on TV, but they made a lovely exhibition in the foyer at Ultimo.

Andre’s paintings look impressive to my untrained eye, but I’m just relieved they weren’t self-portraits. The NSW Police would have tried to confiscate them.

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