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January 31, 2004

Ashes battle led by cricket's quiet achievers

From: The Age, Australia - Jan 31, 2004

By Peter Roebuck

It was the silence that attracted attention. Upon the field, England was defending doggedly as 11 green-capped Aussies pressed for victory after enforcing the follow-on. Now and then an appeal erupted around the ground, disturbing the peace like an electric saw in a forest. Occasionally a burst of applause greeted a stroke or a demanding delivery. Otherwise all was quiet, except for a fluttering sound as captains gave directions or spectators engaged in mute conversation. It had a strange, alluring beauty about it. Outside, the world rushed past along Parramatta Road.

After several years of inactivity, the Australian and English deaf cricket teams were meeting in the first Test of the series. On the opening day, the locals had slipped to 4-72 before recovering, thanks to a rousing partnership of 272 between Andrew Watkins, a banana-bender whose twin brother also plays in the side, and Phillip Cox of Mildura, a captain who also took five wickets in the visitors' first innings. Later, Luke Trudgett, a 15-year-old who plays fifth grade for Sutherland, scored 45 in 53 balls as his parents and brother (who plays for The Silent Warriors in Gladesville) watched from the sidelines. Allowed to wag school, Luke hopes to hold his place for the forthcoming Tests in Melbourne and Sydney.

Hundreds of people had been present on Australia Day as the hosts reached 455. The deaf community is tightly knit and word of the match had spread by email and SMS, innovations that have transformed their lives. England had wilted under a scorching sun and ended the day exhausted, reviving just in time to enjoy celebrating someone's birthday. Deaf people drink, dance, chat up pretty girls and play cards. They just cannot hear all that well. Most of them seem gentle and friendly, and observers say their relaxed approach to life is due to the silence in their heads.

It is especially quiet on the field because hearing aids must be left in the pavilion. A loss of 55 decibels is the qualification mark. Only the umpires can hear properly, a situation widely regarded as unique in cricket.

Luke's dad watches from under one of Sydney University's older trees as his younger son chases a ball. He says that Luke has been helped a lot by his grade club, Sutherland, where he has been lucky to find a great bunch of mates. His public school provides an assistant teacher versed in sign language.

England's first innings had been a disaster born of rustiness. Thunderstorms had forced the abandonment of net practices. Now it was a matter of adjusting to the heat. Not that anyone was complaining. The previous night, an official had told his dearly beloved that it was a trifle warm Down Under, whereupon she had informed him in no uncertain terms that it was "snowing hard and perishing cold" back in Blighty.

Even Mark Woodman had not been able to trouble the scorers in the first dig, a kindness he repeated in the second innings. Woodman played for Devon in the English Minor County Championship in the 1990s and his probing medium-pacers still command respect. Captaining him at Devon was interesting because he had the happy knack of hearing edges but not curses. Running between wickets demanded the sort of directions given by a traffic cop. Considering his deficiency, he could raise a mightily impressive hue and cry when a batsman was hit on the pad.

Woodman had brought a couple of younger Devonians along with him: Stephen George, a teenager who plays for Paignton, and Jonathon Cadaux-Hudson, a promising leg spinner who is supposed to be doing his homework in the evenings. Doubtless, both youngsters were inspired by the example of the senior man. Officials in both countries report that communications and confidence were the main obstacles in their path. All things are possible, though. Kym Daley, Australia's best young deaf cricketer, was that very day playing for City youth against Country youth elsewhere in town.

Forced to bat again after being routed for 105, the Englishmen put their heads down in a valiant attempt to save the match. Umesh Valjee, their captain, led the defiance and reached 50 with a sweet cover drive. Hours passed and the Poms refused to surrender. Ashes battles are fought to the last. Valjee reached 100 and then 150 and each milestone was saluted. Partners came and went and the captain was left stranded on 182 as England went down by an innings and a run. When the last wicket fell at 5.30pm, with storm clouds gathering, the Australians raised a hullabaloo that brought professors hurrying from their lairs.

It had been a hard-fought match played to a high standard. Valjee left the field to applause he could not hear.

Copyright  Â© 2004. The Age Company Ltd