Talking to Luke ‘Lukey Sparrow’ Gillian about cricket is almost as exhausting as watching a full Test.
He’s been around the world, turning his interest and passion into a lifestyle, and speaking with an eloquence belying his unrelentingly bubbling enthusiasm. And of course, he’s seen too many stars to count.
Melbourne-born Gillian has been an Australian cricket super fan for the past quarter of a century. He's supported the Baggy Greens in Tests across the globe - where they go on Tour, he goes. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies, you name it, he's been there, always an instinctively recognisable presence in the crowds with his trademark floral shirt.
Australia's coach Justin Langer has said seeing ‘ripping bloke’ Gillian in the grounds at a game, waving the flag, is guaranteed to put a smile on the face. In his 100th Test match of watching, 'Sparrow' - a nickname he's had since childhood - became one of the very few people who has been asked to sing the team song with the Australian squad. Former Australia Test captain Steve Waugh even asked Gillian to write the prologue for his 1999 No Regrets tour diary.
And now his dedication has been recognised by his heroes. The second Ashes Test of the 2019 series at Lord's was his 200th as a supporter, with the entire Australian Cricket Team presenting him with a three-piece cake and a signed shirt.
Gillian kindly chatted with The Sportsman as he was sitting in the Emerald Stand in Headingley, Leeds - his tenth visit - as he once again enjoyed The Ashes in England. He told us how he felt about the reception he received from his beloved team.
“Well, it was surreal but it was outstanding. I was told to get on the team bus from the hotel at 8:30am, on the Monday, and they drove me off to Lord’s where I presented with the three cakes with 2 - 0 - 0 on it, and I was also handed the match shirt, fully embroidered with my name, ‘200 Tests’, Lord’s, and the dates, and I had that moment with the boys in The Long Room and it was just overwhelming.
“It was just an amazing gesture by the boys and to get to go out onto the field at Lord's and join the team photographs with The Pavillion in the background, even a flag display which is just unusual for Lord's.
“The whole lot was just a great day, and joining in with a training session and being invited up to the players’ dining room for lunch, it couldn’t have been bettered, an amazing spirit and I’m very gracious for the acknowledgement of Cricket Australia and the Australian team management have afforded me.
“I believe I don’t deserve anything more than anyone else who can’t go around the world, who can’t support the cricket team as I have done, but I’ve just been in a position where it’s been afforded me, respect it, graciously acknowledge it."
Gillian has lived in London for 24 years (“It’s cheaper to live in London than it is in Melbourne”) from where he runs his clothing company, selling the type of shirt he’s recognisable for. And he's found that living in the English capital has actually made it easier to fly around the world to various locations to watch his Baggy Greens play.
He looked back on where his love of cricket came from: “Cricket is inbred in the Australian culture like football is in the English culture. When the Boxing Day Test kicked off in 1980 in Melbourne, my parents bagged up myself and my brothers and sisters off to the Test match, all five days if it lasted that long, and it was just a brilliant experience. I remember seeing just hundreds and hundreds of Australian flags across the ground and thinking ‘Wow, that looks fantastic’, and I didn’t have one.
“In Grade Six, in my first ‘Screen-Printing’ lesson I did an Australian flag so I could take it to the cricket and I could wave it. I was so proud of the fact that I had made this flag for myself so I could show my colours at the game. I never realised it at the time but that was one of my earliest memories.
“But doing what I do now and waving the flag, it all stemmed from there without even realising it. The pride behind the national colours and holding the flag to show you I’m from Australia and I want our team to win and I’ll do what I can to help them.
“When I first left Australia to go to the West Indies in 1995 it was always the intention to travel for a year and go back home and continue life as a chef but it only took probably about half an hour into the game in Barbados to realise that, what a great decision it was to go. I had spent four years waiting to get to the Caribbean and to actually get there and realise that ‘Wow,’ it was all worth it just for the first half-hour and realise that ‘Yep, I’ll go again. And I’ll go again. And I’ll go again.”
And it was a chance meeting with some players on that trip that took his devotion to another level: “I remember bumping into Steve Waugh and Justin Langer and the guys as we were leaving the hotel late one night and the boys were off to the casino. I asked Steve if myself and my mates could come along and he said ‘Listen just because we’re Australian cricketers doesn't mean you can't hang out with us. Get in the car'.”
“And you go ‘Wow, you’re right these guys are just real blokes'. They might be superstars on the field but get them off the field and they’re just like anybody else you’d want to share a beer with.
“From that moment, that’s when the game became personal very early on and I realised I could go to the next match and the next series and the next country and say ‘g’day’ to the guys and they’d say ‘g’day’ back and that would make it all worthwhile. Steve and Justin were there at my first two at the West Indies and they said ‘Make sure Lord’s is your 200th’ - you can’t get any more personal than that."
Over the years Gillian has got used to both winning and losing over the years: “I’m now immune to the ‘win/loss emotion’, I’ve seen us win/lose around the world, whether it’s the Ashes series or World Cup or losing Test matches to Bangladesh and losing Test Series to Sri Lanka; ‘Oh well, that’s a shame, roll the flag up, let’s go to the next one!’
“You realise you're not going to win it all and all I want to do is just enjoy the game, that’s all it comes down to and you know supporting the boys as best I can from my side of the field and just enjoy it for what it is, the game of cricket, and your team."
Asked which of his 200 test games stand out he says: “Australia losing in Calcutta in 2001 is, weirdly, both a fond and horrible memory from the 200; we asked India to follow on and they came out and scored 657 in their second inning and absolutely smashed us. Rahul Dravid and VVHS Laxman batted all day, on day four, putting on that amazing partnership.
“It’s very, very difficult to forget that match, that’s for sure, just for what it was - a brilliant advertisement for Test Cricket. Just when you think you’re on top and you’re ready to put in the sword it just goes the other way.
“I was there to see Steve Waugh score 150 against Zimbabwe in 1999, which made him the only Test captain to have scored 150 or more against every Test nation.
“The young boy hero of mine was, of course, Waugh, and then to meet him and to have him express his gratitude over the years as he has - even as recently as last week - proves he just was and is a superstar for Australian cricket and ambassador for the game and everyone back home; and an amazing batsman and an amazing cricketer to watch.
“Adam Gilchrist was one of the ‘younger guys’ who didn’t make his debut until the Brisbane Test of 1999 after Ian Healey hung up the gloves in Zimbabwe. Gilly always expressed his appreciation [to the crowd].
“I was at an ODI in Christchurch in 2005; when it finished, all the team were walking off and Gilly just thought ‘hang on’. I saw him run right across the field to where I was sitting to give me the match ball, and that was something way out of left-field but that was something Gilly always did, you know there was always some reference to or acknowledgement for support and turning up to places where you think it might be an innocuous ODI in not a draw-card destination but regardless of where I was, Gilly always was aware of myself and the other guys that I travelled with that we had actually been there to support the boys and he didn’t want that to go unacknowledged.
“Watching Gilly bat was outstanding, and interacting with him off the field was always personal. However, you couldn’t go past watching Shane Warne come on to bowl. You just knew the game would turn. Maybe not necessarily with the first ball. Sometimes not even after 20 overs. But you were just waiting for it. That was the expectation and anticipation of watching Shane Warne, you just never knew when he was going to start, the next ball could twist the game.”
Gillian is clear on what should be on top of the Cricket Fan’s Bucket List, with three particular destinations springing to mind; Sri Lanka, South Africa and New Zealand.
He says: “You’d want to go and see Newlands in Cape Town, you’d love to see cricket at the Basin Reserve in Wellington or Hagley Park in Christchurch. And Sri Lanka as a general rule, the country itself, no one venue better than the other because of the environment that you are in; great people, great food, great features, great mountains, tiny little place. You go and fly into Colombo so when they change the schedule five minutes before the first ball which is what they usually do,- you can only fly to Colombo, you can either go to Kandy or Galle or Colombo so you’re not inconvenienced in that regard."
That journey to the ‘200’ has poignantly reached its landmark during the 2019 Ashes, a Series that continues to exist and garner as much attention for the unbridled passion from both sets of England and Australia fanbases, reflected on the field, an almost tribalistic in attitude. Gillian has covered enough games that when he articulates his objectivity, it is undoubtedly sincere.
“It’s a shame James Anderson isn’t playing. I remember when he made his debut for England in an ODI in Melbourne - we’re going back 20 years now if not longer. I always remember when he made that debut he was playing for an Adelaide club side. England were on a training session in Adelaide and they drafted him over because of injury and I was really disappointed for James that they didn’t put his name on the back of the shirt, he made his debut with a nameless shirt, it wouldn’t have taken much to go to the local sports store and get those iron-on numbers.
“I was really disappointed for James then but that was when he first started, now watching him playing is amazing, he’s got his 550 wickets, he’s just a superstar and just a great, great ambassador for England cricket and I hope he gets back onto the park.
“I watched Joe Root four years ago not long after he made his debut and since then he’s gone from strength to strength and he’s now the captain. He’s just a graceful player to watch, a confident young man and a good advertisement for England cricket and the young fellas out there watching the game."
And he's got a special place in his heart for England cricket fans: “What I’ve noticed about the England crowds, they never turn on each other, they can drink as much as they like but they’ll still sing their songs, they’ll still give you a bit of stick and still carry on about the controversies Australia have brought to the game for years, but you’ll still have a laugh about it. No matter how much they consume across the course of the day, they’ll still there for a laugh and still there enjoying the game. It’s different in Australia of course, Australians have too much to drink and they just turn on each other and it’s just ugly to watch.
You can’t go past the England crowd for camaraderie, companionship, even against the Colours, and a cracking good laugh.
“It makes coming to England all the more special and what differentiates one cricket Tour to another; you might think it’s the same team in the middle but the crowd and the interaction and the emotions that you get from what they bring to it is what you take away as your memories
“It makes you look forward to the next one.”
And so he'll continue, towards his next 200 not out...
Luke Gillian's Floral Shirt company is registered at www.bentbanani.com