Tony Mann died this week after a seven-year battle with pancreatic cancer that was expected to defeat him in six months.
Returning from Iceland and taxiing directly to Old Trafford for the first day of this Test, Cam and I felt like we’d entered another world. Since we crossed the Stargate, Australia has only surged further ahead.
Iceland, though, had been another world again from any trans-dimensional iteration of Britain. It was everything we expected, given our prior conception was less than fragmentary.
But part of the Ashes Diary concept was to get to know new places and people, and pass on the stories. Nowhere is closer to Iceland than the United Kingdom, and nowhere is further from it than home.
The opportunity of a nine-day gap in the Test schedule was too good to pass up.
In Australian terms, I can only imagine mentioning Iceland as a way of referencing absurdity, of tagging something as the most distant or unlikely in its field. A dominant innings by Australian batsmen could fit in a similar category.
A few news items about economic collapses or volcanoes aside, my pre-arrival thinking found only four points of cultural connection with that cold and distant country.
One: a handful of musical acts. Björk, Sigur Rós, Múm, Of Monsters and Men. In their case, ‘Icelandic’ is attached as a means of romanticisation, increasing their appeal by presenting them as fey or obscure.
All but the latter trade in varying strains of surreal sound collage. There is an invocation in their music of the kind of strangeness people associate with their country, an elven quality to sound and song.
Two: Eleanor Jackson’s poem ‘I Don’t Speak Icelandic’, my first time hearing even an approximation of that language’s “unfamiliar rolled sounds, pleated consonants, and jumbled dipthongs that remind me of pressing rewind on a tape”.
The Icelandic language too has an elven quality, and with reason; from memory Tolkien’s High Elvish used ancient Norse linguistics, the same root from which Icelandic has grown.
As you’ll see in the Ashes Diary video below, enunciation was a challenge. Reading comprehension was minimal. But listening was a pleasure. When I’m rich enough to have a bizarre entourage, it will include at least one Icelander to follow me around at all times telling me things I don’t understand.
Three: Bobby Fischer. First the song, then the international chess champion. It’s well over a decade since Australian band Lazy Susan wrote one of my favourite lines ever: “Reyjkjavik. No-one ever says ‘Reykjavik’ in a song.”
It appealed exactly because of the previously discussed sense of absurdity that Iceland creates for outsiders. No place could be more random. And of course no-one did say Reyjkjavik, except presumably in Icelandic tunes.
So the song that for ten years made me think of Iceland did not come from Iceland. It did make me research the story of Fischer, when I realised the rest of the lyrics told a true tale.
“I don’t understand cricket,” said Jakob, our Polish host in Reykjavik. “Chess is my sport.”
For the benefit of those who refuse to acknowledge it as such, chess was once treated with the same importance as Olympic medals. Which is where the song comes in. At the absolute height of the Cold War, in 1972, US prodigy Fischer played Russian world champion Boris Spassky in Iceland’s neutral territory.
It was given huge propaganda weight by both sides. The Soviet Union threw full governmental support behind Spassky. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger personally intervened to convince an increasingly erratic Fischer not to back out.
The Match of the Century lasted 21 games over nearly two months, with Fischer nailing a remarkable comeback win. The story is well worth reading up.
Having been fascinated by the story for so long, suddenly I was in an apartment only blocks from the Laugardalshöll Arena where the match took place. Jakob, having packed up his life to move there, no longer even owned a chessboard.
Four: Eidur Gudjohnsen, one of my favourite Chelsea players spanning the pre and post-Abramovich eras. Perennially underrated, his back-to-goal play as a centre forward linkman was crucial to Mourinho’s League titles.
Some of my great football memories are of Gudjohnsen, his late-season chip against United and his opening strike against Barcelona in 2005 uppermost among them.
For a country of 319,000 people to produce even one elite footballer seems unlikely. But with the constraints of life in Iceland, it becomes even more so.
Our visit was at the height of summer, meaning it didn’t get dark at all. The sun set at around 11pm and came up again at 2:30, while the radiant light stayed throughout.
The flipside of this, of course, is that much of the year passes in darkness. All but the stillest and sunniest days had a frigid edge. In the mountains the wind sliced through us. Coats and fleeces were the order of the day, even in bright sunshine.
The rest of the year, according to the stories of locals, passes in a miserable haze of sleet, snow, freezing wind and lack of sunlight. Rates of depression and suicide are well above average. Life is constantly curtailed. How and why people choose to live there is a matter of some confusion.
How Icelanders manage enough time outside to play football in these circumstances is another question to ponder. Yet it remains extremely popular, and their interest in the EPL is immense. Apparently they’re disproportionately good at handball, too, which as in inside sport makes much more sense.
As we learned about Iceland, we tried to teach them a bit about us. We brought cricket whites with us from London, along with bat, ball and stumps, and set up wherever we could. We challenged Icelanders to play, and tried to explain the rules.
As the video also reveals, sometimes they tried to explain the rules to us as well, with varying levels of success.
Whether we’ve done much good as cricketing ambassadors could be debated. But for now, we’re back in a land where people understand a silly point, are not afraid of a square cut, and can appreciate a fine leg, all with no confusion.
From here it’s just down to the last three days of play to tell us which side of the Stargate we’re on.