From Lillee to the Long Room, Sparrow's solo flight
He's been to the MCG, Lord's and every Test-playing nation in between - this week Luke 'Sparrow' Gillian celebrated a remarkable milestone with the team he's waved the flag for at 200 Tests
16 August 2019, 05:42 AM AEST
At the age of ten, Luke Gillian understood that cricket was his love.
By the time he turned 35, it was also providing his livelihood.
Now, as he ruefully contemplates raising his well-travelled bat upon reaching 50 next July, the game might very well have saved his life.
Gillian – better known to his myriad cricket friends around the globe as Lukey Sparrow – is an immediately identifiable figure to anyone who has tuned into coverage of the Australia men's Test team's tours abroad during the past quarter of a century.
Clad in a distinctively gaudy floral shirt, with trusty bat resting on one shoulder and a billowing Australia flag waving at every boundary, wicket and milestone the players achieved, he has followed the team to every Test-playing country.
He is at Lord's for the current Ashes match against England, an event whose celebratory nature has been amplified for it being the 200th Test upon which the 'Sparrow' has alighted.
For context, Australia's most capped men's Test players – Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, with whom Gillian has forged close friendships – each played 168 matches for their country.
But as every Test veteran well knows, the relentless touring schedule and the toll it extracts both physically and mentally can wear down even the most dedicated and resilient.
And there were times during the past year or more when Gillian doubted he would make it to his double-ton.
Indeed, the man whose passion for travel has taken him to the furthest points of the planet found himself in such dark places he wondered if he would see or play another game of cricket.
On several occasions, he actively contemplated taking his own life.
"I got to Sri Lanka in 2016, and as much as Sri Lanka is the best place in the world to watch cricket and follow the game, we had 15 days of Test cricket and I couldn't wait to get home from the moment I got to the ground," Gillian told cricket.com.au.
"The heart had absolutely gone."
Since then, Gillian has faced bankruptcy over the collapse of his travel business and the Brexit-related imposts on his offshore shirt manufacturing enterprise, learned his long-time travelling mate had died, alone, in a Moscow hospital, and been evicted from his London home.
"I'm at the very end; I'm at the bottom," he said this week.
But just as Gillian's unwavering support for Australia's Test team helped raise their flagging spirits during long, trying days in the field at Kolkata, at Cape Town and at Chittagong, so have Australia's elite cricketers rallied around their life-long supporter.
Luke Gillian's earliest encounter with Test cricket came in his home town of Melbourne, as a schoolboy in the occasionally rowdy outer terraces at the MCG.
When Dennis Lillee overtook West Indies spinner Lance Gibbs in December 1981 to become Test cricket's leading wicket-taker, 11-year-old Gillian ran down to the boundary fence and acknowledged the achievement by furiously blasting the horn he'd removed from his bicycle that morning.
Two years later, he travelled unaccompanied on the overnight bus to Sydney to stay with his aunt and attend his first Test match at the SCG where he was a junior member.
But it was a decade later, when Gillian and his then-boss tuned into the early morning television coverage of Australia's 1991 tour to the West Indies that his destiny crystallised.
"You could only ever watch the Ashes on TV (in Australia up until then)," Gillian recalled.
"The first non-Ashes televised series came out of the West Indies, five Test matches in 1991 and I remember thinking 'wow, that's awesome'."
At that moment, he decided that, when Australia next headed to the Caribbean for a Test campaign, he would go along.
So, in early 1995, he booked a plane ticket for the 48-hour journey from Melbourne to Barbados with no idea what to expect, or who he might meet.
"When I first started, all I wanted to do was go on my own," he said.
"Mum said 'you'll be okay, you'll get to the West Indies and you'll find other Australians and you can just sit with them'.
"And I said 'I don't want to meet other Australians, I can do that in Melbourne'.
"I just wanted to go and live the Caribbean way of following the game."
Gillian arrived amid the heaving hedonism of Bridgetown's unreconstructed Kensington Oval, and instantly fell for the intoxicating, pulsating rhythm of the Caribbean.
He then booked passage for the following Test in Antigua, and even the subsequent three-day tour game at St Kitts where he was horrified to notice the Australia players being offered only sponsor-provided cola at the mandated hourly drinks breaks.
On day two of that game, having borrowed a tray from the guest house at which he was staying, he stopped at a local market en route to the cricket ground and – when drinks were called on the bakingly hot day – ran on to the field to offer the grateful touring team a selection of grapes, bananas, oranges and apples.
A bond was formed with the likes of Steve Waugh, Ian Healy, Justin Langer and Tim May, and 'Sparrow' became a totemic figure for a team that – on the back of that triumphant Caribbean sojourn – became the most potent force in world cricket.
As the team led by Mark Taylor, then Waugh and eventually Ricky Ponting, travelled from India to South Africa, from England to Pakistan, from Australia to New Zealand, Gillian was a conspicuous figure in the outer – clutching his bat, and waving his flag.
In the days before social media transformed the general public into citizen journalists, Gillian and his gathering gaggle of mates became fixtures at team parties, training sessions and – as 'Sparrow' remembers it – even on the field during some low-key tour fixtures.
A special moment for 🇦🇺 superfan Luke 'Sparrow' Gillian ahead of the Lord's clash this week - the 200th Test he has attended! #Ashes pic.twitter.com/9c3A0dMxpq— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) August 12, 2019
He was also invited into the sanctuary of the dressing room to lead the team victory song, and can lay claim to being present (albeit in written form) on the centre wicket at Lord's during an Ashes Test.
That was in 1997 when Gillian lent the ex-Australia captain his tour diary (Gillian would later pen the foreword for one of Waugh's published accounts of life on the road) and Waugh found the need to stash it somewhere safe when caught in a rain shower on match eve.
"He put it down in his pad, between the front of the pad and the protective padding on the inside, and forgot it was there," Gillian recalled.
"He went out to bat (in the second Test of that series) … went back and across and (umpire) David Shepherd fired him out lbw first ball.
"He got back into the shed, took his pad off, threw it against the wall, and the diary went (flying it), and he said 'oh, that's where it is'.
"I've got only a little thin, paper diary but it's still got the indentation of the ball where it impacted.
"So although I never played Test cricket, I have actually been out in the middle with Steve Waugh."
So well known did Gillian become on the Test cricket circuit that he launched his 'Waving the Flag' cricket tours for those who wanted to experience his no-frills, high-thrills mode of travel.
At its height in 2004, Gillian led a group of almost 250 to India where Australia won a Test series for the first time in more than 30 years, an achievement they have not been able to replicate in multiple attempts since.
But as package tours expanded their reach into previously untapped cricket markets, as security and anti-corruption protocols meant more rigid demarcations between players and public, and as life took its unforeseen twists, Gillian and his troupe became less and less a fixture at Test venues.
Having rattled up 150 Test match appearances at an average of more than 10 per year, it took him the best part of a decade to then lift his tally to 198.
He had remained in contact with the men's team manager, Gavin Dovey, who was mindful of the looming milestone and saw some poignant synchronicity in having Gillian reach 200 at Lord's.
However, as the Ashes series approached and the once ebullient cricket presence had been reduced to living in his car and then taken up an offer to convalesce at a friend's flat in Austria, he emailed Dovey and advised he would be unable to get to England for the current campaign.
With his good mates Langer and Waugh part of the current team as coach and mentor respectively, it was agreed that if Gillian could get himself back to the UK, the team would find him accommodation for the first two Tests.
In addition, he was feted at Lord's prior to Australia's main pre-Test training session last Monday, taking pride of place in the official touring party photo, as well as being presented with commemorative cakes and a signed playing shirt in a ceremony held in the Lord's Long Room.
For a man more accustomed to standing in the outer - drinking only bottled water, and waving his flag and shouting encouragement to players in his disctinctive flinty voice - even venturing into the jacket-and-tie domain of the MCC members precinct was beyond the dreams he had dared entertain as a schoolboy.
To be embraced by the institution to which he's devoted so much of his adult life, through so many fluctuating fortunes, might yet deliver a far greater gift – the impetus for him to continue on, and perhaps rekindle his love for cricket and life.
"I never expected that (presentation in the Lord's Long Room)," Gillian said.
"Gavin said 'we've got something on for you' – he's been saying it for a week – 'so make sure you're at training on Monday'.
"I said 'okay', and had a multitude of things going through the mind.
"I thought to myself 'what do you think it will be?', and then I thought 'no, whatever you expect it will be, it's not going to be that, so let's not try and raise that expectation'.
"But to receive that embroidered shirt, with all the players signatures on it, that was one thing I did not expect – absolutely not.
"That is just priceless, and a reminder of 200 Tests around the world.
"It just goes to show you, however thin you slice the bread, there's always two sides."
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