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January 31, 2004

The Ashes contest where only the umpire can hear you sledge

From: Sydney Morning Herald, Australia - Jan 31, 2004

Peter Roebuck spends a quiet day at the cricket.

It was the silence that attracted attention. Upon the field England were 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, the 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.

It is especially quiet on the field because hearing aids must be left in the pavilion. 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 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 in 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 the city.

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 with solid defence interspersed with handsome strokeplay. Chris Hughes was lending stout support as colleagues watched intently. The Australians bowled over upon over and watched with concern as storm clouds gathered. Battles for the Ashes are fought to the last. Valjee reached 50 with a sweet cover drive and acknowledged applause he could not hear.

Copyright © 2004. The Sydney Morning Herald.