The Cricket Paper - - OPINION - MARTIN JOHN­SON

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

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