JUST ASK AB, AGGERS’ PLOY MAY F****** DO TRICK, TOO
I’d half been expecting it, but when I walked into the golf club bar and the steward said (in a voice even graver than he used on the day the Guinness ran out): “It’s war,” it still came as a bit of a shock. “Who started it?” I enquired. “Was it Trump? Or that fat Korean bloke?” To which the reply came back: “Neither. It was David Warner.”
It has become something of a tradition for a game of cricket between a couple of colonial cousins to generate the kind of rhetoric that would, in other circumstances, prompt emergency meetings of the United Nations Security Council. All for a terracotta urn less than six inches high, containing the charred remains of a couple of bails. Not exactly worth going to war over.
And yet, in a build-up as ludicrously drawn out as Christmas, it appears to be written into the terms of contract that the two protagonists start the ball rolling with exchanges of the “ya boo, sucks to you” variety commonly found in primary school playgrounds.
Australia, as hosts, were afforded the honour of firing the first verbal shot ahead of the upcoming series, and not for the first time, their chosen spokesman was Warner. A cricketer who has confirmed, on more than one occasion, the old link between noise and empty vessels.
If there is a distinction between the two sides when it comes to the propaganda stuff, you’d have to say that England are a bit more subtle about it. As is the case this time with Jonathan Agnew, the BBC’s cricket correspondent, going for the reverse psychology approach by describing Joe Root’s boys as one of the worst ever England sides to travel to Australia.
It’s not a new wheeze, having first been tried on the 1986-87 tour, when a group of exceptional cricketers like Ian Botham, David Gower, and Allan Lamb were instructed to perform as though they’d been selected from a Barmy Army beer tent on one of their thirstier days.
Furthermore, this being an era in which the Press were not only on speaking terms with the players, but also drank with them in bars and sat next to them on small aeroplanes, the visiting journalists had a crucial role to play.
My own small contribution, after the team had spent the six-week pre-series build up playing like total wallies, was to calm the mood of doom and gloom by suggesting that there were only three areas in which England could be said to be in any way deficient. And it still hurts, especially after the avalanche of MBEs in 2005, that this selfless act of patriotism never went rewarded.
As a vehicle for lulling the enemy into a false sense of security, it worked so well that one of the Australian tabloids devoted an entire front page to a single giant headline. “THEY CAN’T BAT, THEY CAN’T BOWL, AND THEY CAN’T FIELD”. Underneath which was written, in slightly smaller print: “Latest On Pathetic Poms. See Page 39.”
All across the country, news bulletins, talk shows, and current affairs programmes were devoted to a single topic. And as the volume of ridicule became louder, people were admitted to A&E departments, having fallen off their sofas laughing so much they’d broken a bone, or ruptured a spleen.
Dear old Henry Blofeld was another English patriot working behind enemy lines, undetected beneath a disguise of a bowler hat and a monocle on a Channel Nine pre-series promotion. “What you lot need is a few more bowlers!” Henry would say in his plummy Old Etonian accent, and another gale of mockery would sweep across the country.
It was the greatest act of British deception since the D-Day landings, underpinned by the brilliant wheeze of getting bowled out, everywhere they went, by left armers no-one in England had ever heard of. In Queensland, it was Tazelaar and Frei. In South Australia, Parkinson and Gladigau. In WA, it was Reid and Matthews, and if you’d asked anyone back in the UK who these people were, they’d most likely have guessed at firms of local estate agents.
The plan to get at least one of them selected for the first Test in Brisbane worked a treat. In came Matthews, only this time every ball he sent down unerringly found the middle of an English bat. And by way of a bonus he also managed to drop a sitter when Gower was on 0, allowing him to turn a parlous position into a match winning one in the company of Botham.
Botham’s century at the Gabba ranks among the all-time great Ashes innings, and the psychological effect was stunning. No-one quite knew how to kick off the Australian Press conference when Allan Border slumped into his chair, so Ross Mullins, the kindly and avuncular agency man, decided to ease his skipper in with a gentle half volley: “How do you feel, AB”?.
Border looked up. The eyes bulged, the nostrils flared, and small flecks of white foam appeared at the corners of the mouth. A mouth which opened several times, but with nothing coming out. I’m guessing that Anthony Hopkins based his reprisal of Hannibal Lecter on Border’s initial reaction to that question.
Eventually he spoke. “How do I feel. How do I feel? How do I (expletive deleted) feel? “How the (expletive deleted) do you think I (expletive deleted) feel? It was an explosion that made Krakatoa look like a bonfire night
banger. The outpouring of rage belonging to a man who has not only been beaten, but hoodwinked into believing defeat was impossible.
Sometimes, what turns out to be the blindingly obvious doesn’t become blindingly obvious until it’s too late. The 1986-87 tour was the equivalent of the citizens of Troy waking up one morning, and finding that the Greeks had upped ships and sailed home. “Oh look!” someone shouted from the ramparts. “They’ve left us a horse. How terribly kind. Can someone nip down and open the gates.”
It may not work again, of course, but the Aggers plan would have been hatched on the recent finding that humans have now fallen behind the goldfish in the length of their attention spans. In which case, the 2017-18 Ashes could yet be defined by an old Hollywood film cliche. “It’s an old trick. But it just might work.”
If there is a distinction between the two sides when it comes to the propoganda stuff, you’d have to say that England are a bit more subtle