In 1987, when Peter Taylor was unexpectedly picked for instead of Mark Taylor, an English newspaper fabricated a quote from chairman of selectors Lawrie Sawle, saying it was a “clerical error”.
In 1997, when Mark Taylor was struggling in England, another newspaper tried to present him with a one-metre wide bat as he alighted from the team bus one day. On the same tour, the crowd at once genteel Taunton abused Shane Warne so foully that acting captain Steve Waugh stopped the game and called in the constabulary. In England in 2009, n captain Ricky Ponting was booed at his every appearance. It rankles with him still.
Elsetimes, English press laid honey traps for at least two n players, one of whom unwittingly thwarted them because he preferred a drink to what was on offer. For a third n, it must be reported, no trap was necessary.
Why this reprise? Half a century ago, n Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies said that and Great Britain were such kindreds spirits that they had no need to be “too tactful with each other, thank heaven”. Seemingly, all that has changed is that instead of merely forgoing tact, the Ashes combatants calculatedly pursue tactlessness, and for ‘s part at the end of this series, tackiness.
From England, there has emerged a sense that the aggro was different in this time: meaner, nastier, more concerted, unprecedented. But was it?
I’d guess there was nothing that Jimmy Anderson hasn’t seen and heard and brushed off before, and Stuart Broad has not previously thrived on, and the rest of the England players were not briefed upon thoroughly. None of the ex-players in the British media appeared taken aback.
Suggestions of collusion between Cricket and the media to antagonise England give rather more credit to the cosiness of that relationship than it merits. CA mounted its own artless campaign of propaganda, as is its increasing wont, the n players prodded and provoked, as they have for years, and the media ran its own race, as it does in England. This is the vapid status quo.
The nearest thing to conspiracy was when CA’s website joined other media in pursuing a phantom case of English ball-tampering at the MCG, a still-born story. In terms of official interference, this was somewhat further down the scale from when England chairman of selectors David Graveney ordered a switch of pitches the day before the Leeds Test in 1997. In both instances, it can be said that the exercise proved fruitless.
I don’t at all like where “the line” is now drawn in cricket verbals, but the nearest thing to crossing it was the sledging of Jonny Bairstow. The substance, though hinted at darkly, was never made explicit. But it can hardly have been more below the belt than on a previous England tour of when details of an n player’s bedroom manners fell into English hands and were thrown back in his face on the field.
In media, the proxy battlefield, many barbs were exchanged. But the only story that might have done lasting damage was the London Sun’s ephemeral expose on imminent match-fixing in Perth. That story carefully and explicitly exonerated any England player: how about that for cahoots? For as long as the story lived, which was as long as a blowfly, it was 1-0 to England.
As for the Telegraph’s usually sage Paul Hayward and his idea that we ns are still feeding on “colonial dislike”, I can reassure him that it has long since fizzled out. England now is just another country we always beat at cricket at home and never away, and otherwise enjoy visiting. Republicanism is not some sort of anti-British reflex, it’s just a long overdue status update.
Doubtlessly, England developed a siege mentality. That is the almost inevitable fate of losing teams on long tours as form, fitness and confidence ebb away. But England had in its corner a bulwark no other team have, the Barmy Army. Strained through airwaves, they seem merely to drone, monotonous but inoffensive. Up close, they can be as vulgar and personal as any hardcore football fan club.
They are a more palpable force than any shot fired from a media redoubt. They got to Mitch Johnson, in his own backyard – that is on the record – and they will have left their mark on others. If England sometimes feel as alone and abandoned as if they have been put in stocks in , they should try coming here as Pakistan.
So this is the state of the Ashes in the 21st century. It is not very edifying, but it is hard to come at the idea that England somehow walked into a special ambush this time.
Only Glenn McGrath in the last 20 years has risen above the fray. Preceding each series, he would make outrageous predictions, always adding that it didn’t matter what he said anyway, only what he did.
It made all the other bellicosity appear silly and trivial. But he was Glenn McGrath.