If the planet has lacked for anything in 2017 it is hyperbole and media histrionics, so we can all be thankful that the Ashes series has finally got under way in Australia. In honour of one of cricket’s most storied and prestigious traditions of ritual mudslinging, we dedicate to the Ashes this month’s edition of the Briefing.
England, it is fair to say, are desperate to have Ben Stokes join the Ashes squad, and are seemingly willing to go to incredible lengths to get him there at the earliest possible instance. At first suggesting that Stokes’ trip to New Zealand was merely a visit with his parents, it later emerged that the ECB had packed Stokes off with a no-objection certificate to play domestic cricket in his country of birth, had mostly brokered a deal with the Canterbury provincial side, and had probably also packed Stokes a nutritious lunch to enjoy at his first List A game in Rangiora, on Sunday.
In facilitating his cricket in New Zealand, there appears to be substantial optimism that Stokes will be cleared to play, and that a best-case scenario may play out. In the ECB’s fantasy sequence, the moment police confirm Stokes will not be charged, a klaxon sounds across New Zealand, and Stokes, in the middle of bowling an over in the Ford Trophy, veers rapidly away from his run-up, tears off his Canterbury uniform mid-sprint to reveal an England Test kit beneath, dives headlong into the Boeing 777 that had been idling just outside the boundary, throws himself off the plane once it is over Adelaide, lands in mattresses arranged in the shape of a target he is sure to hit (such as the middle of Carlos Brathwaite’s bat), rides piggyback on a support staff member into a stunned Adelaide Oval, begins swearing immediately at the Australia team, and finds they have all lavishly urinated themselves, for all is now lost and their red-headed reckoning is come.
Nathan Lyon, over the course of two press conferences, took it upon himself to insult virtually everyone that came to mind. Joe Root’s modest form on that previous tour was invoked. He spoke of wanting to end opposition players’ careers. Matt Prior was accused of being so scared of Mitchell Johnson’s bowling in the 2013-14 Ashes. (Prior, at least, responded to the accusation, tweeting: “I hope the first Test goes well for Nathan”, by which he meant he hoped it didn’t go well). Then, when he was later asked if he stood by those comments, basically bragged that he had tricked the media into covering his news instead of putting scrutiny on two inexperienced team-mates.
The team culture problem
Portions of the Australian press have accused England of a problematic drinking culture within the side. That this is the very same allegation that some British media flung at the Australia side in 2013 when David Warner had taken a swing at Joe Root need not be mentioned since this Ashes is apparently impervious to irony. Nevertheless, England director, Andrew Strauss, has imposed a curfew on his side, and suggested they needed to be “smarter”. More specific advice, given that one England player was involved in an incident where a man fractured his eye socket and the recent fracas over Jonny Bairstow, might be that England need to develop a team values system where they ask for consent before making contact with someone else’s head.
That tours in Australia often find themselves mired in sledging controversies is no surprise, since Australia has a great wealth of the main ingredient believed to foster sledging: Australians.
This, apparently, has not escaped James Anderson. He wrote last week in a newspaper column that: “A bully waits until they are in the ascendancy to pounce on people – that is what Australian teams do.” Adding: “We are not interested in getting involved in any verbal or slanging match with them.”
If a tally of over 500 Test wickets despite his not possessing the perfect swing bowler’s action has not already made Anderson one of the most wonderfully ambitious men in modern cricket, then this surely seals it. Here, he reaches for the moral high ground on sledging even though he is one of the most petulant and abusive players in the game, and in doing so, reminds us not to let our circumstances hold us back.
The motivational guffaws
According to Joe Root, if Steven Smith’s laughter at the press conference following the Brisbane match “is not motivation [for England], I don’t know what is”. Now, it is likely that Smith was not laughing at England per se, and was in fact merely amused by Cameron Bancroft’s attempts to describe the incident involving Jonny Bairstow. Still, England have an opportunity here. If nothing motivates them like the laughter of the opposition captain, then for the remainder of the tour, do they not, as professional adults, owe it to themselves to put cardboard cutouts of a cackling Smith everywhere – at training sessions, team meetings, and official functions? Maybe even above the changing room urinals?
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando
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