Michael Atherton, in The Australian, 20 November 2017, where the chosen title is “I’ve never seen a circus like this in 30 years of Ashes cricket
At one stage, it would not have been a surprise to see the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit or the March Hare on stage. In nearly three decades of involvement in Ashes cricket, I cannot recall witnessing a more bizarre post-match circus than that which presented itself after the conclusion of the Gabba Test.
Cameron Bancroft, left, and Steve Smith following Australia’s Ashes Test win at the Gabba. Picture: AAP.
First up, Jonny Bairstow. He had not had a particularly good game, so he was there for another reason, clearly. Quite why, though, he did not seem sure. Helpfully, he transported us back to the first night of the tour, when the blossom was out and hopes were high, and when he had been having a few drinks and a few laughs with the players from Western Australia, including Cameron Bancroft
Sounding like a prisoner under house arrest, Bairstow went on: “We were allowed out, no curfews and I caught up with some friends. We were in the bar, had a good laugh, Cameron and I enjoyed the evening and continued to do so. No intent or malice and, as you can see, there was no animosity between myself or any of the Aussie players.
“It was blown out of all proportion,” Bairstow added. But what was? What was, Jonny?
Next up, Trevor Bayliss, ever so slightly simmering. He, too, felt “it” had been blown out of all proportion. What was “it”? A “head-joining”, according to the head coach. “I think there was some contact, but not a headbutt. There’s a big difference.” Had the code of conduct been broken? “Certainly not.” Were the allegations false? “These were young guys on a night out, it’s come up four weeks later. We’ve given the opposition team some ammunition.”
Bayliss was angry about having to deal with the fallout after Ben Stokes. He sounded less than thrilled now, having to talk about curfews, team conduct, culture, drinking and “head-joining”. “We’re making some dumb decisions,” he said. Will their behaviour change, he was asked? “I thought that after Bristol,” he replied. “They’d be extra dumb if they don’t change their behaviour now.”
Joe Root was next, initially stern-faced, but soon relaxing into the boyish grin that is his default mode. Was he disappointed — not with the cricket, obviously — but with Jonny? “The two of them have made it pretty clear what’s gone on,” he said, possessed of deeper powers of intuition than anyone else. What Root was clear about, and he spoke with some first-hand experience, was that this was very different from David Warner’s altercation with him in 2013. “Two very different incidents,” he said.
He went on: “It’s disappointing that we have given them something to bring up, but it’s come up on the first day that Australia have had a good one on the field, four weeks later. If it was a big deal it would have come out a lot earlier, and we need to be careful not to make a big deal out of something that’s not there. Jonny made it very clear that there was no malicious intent, joshing about, boyish behaviour. You need to ask Jonny further.” We couldn’t, though. Jonny had given a statement but had not taken questions.
Enlightenment of the most glorious, comic kind came, finally, in the shape of Bancroft, who followed Root and revelled in his moment in the sun. Australia’s new opener may never peak again as he has in this his first Test. By the end of it, his average stood at 87, second only to the great Don. But the Don never gave a press conference quite like this one. On this evidence, Cammie has a rare comic gift.
Could he, perhaps, tell us what happened? Cammie could, and he did. “I remember it clearly. We’d won a Sheffield Shield game. One of our values is celebrating success, so we were, as a team. At the same time, that coincided with the English team arriving in Perth for the tour game. It was a very friendly mingling all night. Some of the players knew the English players and as the night progressed, it was great to be able to meet those guys.”
Cammie was warming to his task: “I got into a very amicable conversation with Jonny, and, yeah, he just greeted me with, just, a headbutt kind of thing. I was expecting a handshake. It wasn’t the greeting of choice I was expecting. That was the way I took it. There was certainly no malice in his action. And we continued on having a very good conversation for the rest of the evening.” Those folk from Yorkshire, eh, Cammie?
He wasn’t finished: “At the time, he said sorry. For me, personally, it was just really weird. It was so random. And I certainly didn’t expect it. As I said, a handshake or a hug would have been something I would have expected more than a headbutt. I just took it as, ‘Yeah, I don’t know Jonny Bairstow, but he says hello very differently to other people.’ We got along for the rest of the night quite well.”
We weren’t finished with Cammie, though, not by a long chalk. You get so many duff pressers, you could not cut this one short. Where, exactly, was contact made? On a scale of 1-10, someone asked, what kind of a, you know, headbutt was it? Was it a heavy blow? “No, he didn’t knock me over. I’ve got the heaviest head in the Western Australia squad. It’s been measured. There’s an actual measurement for it. So, yeah, I just took the blow quite well and moved on from it. Yeah, it was a good hit. Play on.” I knew the game had moved on, but head measuring?
Sitting next to Cammie, was Steve Smith, grinning like a man who had just scored a Test hundred and captained his team to a ten-wicket victory. He could scarcely contain his laughter. Not short on confidence, he was brazen about his team’s tactics in bringing up the headbutt, head-joining, or whatever it was, on the field. “It was about putting Jonny off his game. He got caught third man playing a pretty ordinary shot, to be fair. We tried to get into his head. It happened to work.”
Australia were winning this one at a canter. Time to hightail it down to the England team hotel, where, Andrew Strauss, the director of cricket, would be giving his thoughts. Would he be taking, in the time-honoured ECB way, a dim view? Neither he, nor we, were sure.
He said that the boys had gone for a few drinks on a non-curfew evening, in the presence of security guards, and were not inebriated. But, Bairstow had told him that he had “bumped” Bancroft. Not a headbutt, not a head-joining but a “bumping”. Strauss was surprised at this greeting — it is, for him, a firm handshake if male or the double kiss if female — but he took Bairstow at his word that nothing malicious had happened. There would be no disciplinary proceedings.
He would be reminding his players of their responsibilities and obligations. You sensed that he was building up to a right old bollocking. But for what? He was adamant that Bairstow had done nothing wrong. He had not broken any curfews, was not drunk and had not “bumped” Bancroft with malicious intent. But here we were talking about non-cricketing stuff again.
Were this team, he was asked, any different in their off-field behaviour from his team in 2010-11? No different, he reckoned, but the world of sport has moved on and, of course, in a post-Stokes world, the attention has shifted on to the players’ behaviour much more firmly. “We cannot be putting ourselves in these situations where there are distractions,” he said. “Jonny’s a bit shocked, very surprised what has been made of this and quite contrite. He’s realised that what can be a bit of fun can be misconstrued as something very different in an Ashes series.”
The Ashes! We had forgotten about those and England’s dismal ten-wicket defeat. Mind you, who wants to talk about the cricket? Who said England were losing the PR war?