Cricket as warfare

Don Hodges, courtesy of SPORT, 25 November 2013, where the title is  “Ashes 2013-2014: Sooner or later, arms and ribs will be broken”

 The news that Jonathan Trott is returning to England as a result of a “long-stand stress-related” condition puts England’s defeat in the First Test at Brisbane into perspective. Cricket is not, as Alastair Cook said at yesterday’s post-match press conference, “a war”. It’s a game. A highly professional, intensely contested, increasingly well remunerated game. But a game nonetheless.

Trott_2703718b-460x288It was very clear to everyone watching Trott’s nine-ball innings on Saturday that something was not right with the England number three. Normally so unflappable at the crease, he was unable to cope with the succession of short pitched deliveries fired down at him by Mitchell Johnson. We all thought it was an issue of technique. Now we know better. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with Marcus Trescothick, the former England opener who was forced to return prematurely from their tour of India in 2006, with his own stress-related issues. But mental illness is by definition a personal condition, and no one but Trott himself is in a position to fully understand his reasons for leaving the tour. The best any outside observer can do is wish him well and leave him in peace.

Back in Australia, however, a firestorm is already breaking out over comments made by Australia’s own opener David Warner, who used a post-match press conference to taunt that the manner of Trott’s second innings dismissal was “poor and weak”. He added, “I think he’s got to get new sledges as well because it’s not working for him at the moment”.

The England management have certainly opted to draw attention to them, with coach Andy Flower saying that Warner’s comments had “got that horribly wrong”. Flower went on to claim that England specifically avoided making comments about opposition players because “we don’t know what’s going on in their dressing room, we don’t know what’s going on in their private lives”.

Flower’s anger at Warner’s jibe is understandable. The England management were aware of Trott’s issues, and will have viewed Australia’s barbs through that prism. But they shouldn’t be too quick to point accusatory fingers. Flower admitted that Trott had been “up and down” in the weeks running up to the Brisbane Test, and questions can legitimately be asked about why he was pushed into the furnace – literally and figuratively – of the Gabba when he was so clearly unprepared for his ordeal. If one of Mitchell Johnson’s deliveries had caused Trott serious injury those questions would have been searching.

What Warner’s comments do expose though, is the way cricket in general – and the Ashes in particular – is rapidly losing its perspective, its dignity and its moral compass. The day after this summer’s the Oval Test I wrote: “Over the past decade or so the actual cricket has started to become an afterthought. Instead, each Ashes series becomes enveloped in the same tedious narrative: how much ‘edge’ will there be to the contest, will the teams be sledging each other, will they all ‘have a beer afterwards’, etc”. That narrative is no longer just tedious, but has become ugly and destructive.

Yesterday, a stump mike picked up Australian captain Michael Clarke telling Jimmy Anderson he should prepare to “get ready for a broken f––––––– arm”. Given Anderson is himself incapable of beating the edge of an opponents bat without following up with a half-hour expletive-laden rant, he’s not exactly in a position to complain. But by that stage England were 388 runs behind, with one wicket left. What precisely was Clarke trying to achieve? Psyche Anderson out for fear the number eleven – Test batting average 10.4 – would slog his side to victory? Or make him so terrified that when he arrives in Adelaide he’ll start sending down 60mph long hops?

Clarke’s justification was are rehash of the tired old “it’s all part of the game” line. “There has always been banter on the cricket field and I cop as much as I give, that’s for sure”, he said. His comments were echoed by Alastair Cook who claimed “There are always going to be a few words, and I think that’s pretty much how people want to watch cricket being played.”

OK. If the captains of England and Australia both think we watch cricket because we want to see the players threatening to put each other in hospital, fine. Let’s put it to the test. At home we hear only a fraction of what is said around the stumps. Let’s hear all of it. Let’s turn up the microphones. In fact, let’s mic up all the players. Let’s hear what Ashes “banter” really sounds like.

Would we hear lots of players wittily trying to replicate Freddie Flintoff’s warning to Tino Best to “mind the windows” at Lords? Or would we hear a lot of stuff about opponent’s wives and children that would, frankly, disgust us? I have a suspicion it would be the latter. But if the players think that’s what we want, then give it to us. And not just us fans. Let the advertisers hear what’s actually being said on the pitches that sport their garish 3D logos. Let the administrators hear as they go about drawing up their latest master plan to market the game to a global audience. Let the sponsors hear what comes out of the mouths of the stars who sport their merchandise.

This may come as news to Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook, but most of us don’t actually pay upwards of £60 a ticket to see grown men running their mouths off at each other. We really do go to cricket for the cricket. Sachin Tendulkar did not reach the status of demigod in India off the back of his sledging, but through the majesty of his stroke play. Michael Holding, one of the most intimidating bowlers to ever send down a delivery, never uttered a word to an opposing batsman.

There is a difference between intensity and thuggishness, controlled aggression and arrogance. At the moment, neither England or Australia seem to have the faintest idea where the line between the two lies.

If you create an environment where the team captain is happily threatening to break arms, then sooner or later arms will be broken. Then ribs. And eventually skulls. That’s what we all want is it? To see cricket transformed into the sporting equivalent of the Hunger Games? It’s a pathetic spectacle. And if the rest of the Ashes is going to carry on in this vein, then Jonathan Trott is well off out of it.

Mike-Atherton-001  Atherton after a heroic match saving innings in South Africa … so listen to/OR READ his words …. now

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