There is a clear and present danger that the Ashes series may descend into mayhem. The brutal and excellent fast bowling of Australia, led by Mitchell Johnson, has already given the series a physically intimidating dimension but evidence mounts that the teams have a fervent and mutual dislike.
David Warner, the Australia opening batsman, who is no stranger to discord, made a hugely contentious intervention after his wonderful century on Saturday night when he derided England in general and Jonathan Trott in particular. He said: “It does look like they have scared eyes and the way Trotty got out was pretty poor and weak.”
By late on the fourth afternoon yesterday, with Australia on the verge of a momentous victory by 381 runs, the um-pires were forced to intervene in a spat between Michael Clarke, Australia’s captain, and Jimmy Anderson, England’s No 11 batsman. Clarke was picked up on a stump microphone suggesting that Anderson should be looking forward to a broken arm (expletives deleted). George Bailey, the Test debutant and generally deemed one of life’s nice guys, was also animatedly involved from short leg.
Both captains were anxious to separate on-field and off-field outbursts after Australia took a 1-0 lead in the series to present them with a genuine opportunity of securing the Ashes after more than four years. But that cannot conceal the obvious ill will between the players. Put simply, they cannot stand each other.
Cook, conceding that England had been outplayed, said: “I think the comment last night by David Warner was pretty disrespectful to any professional cricketer, really. On the pitch it’s pretty much a war anyway so there’s always going to be a few battles and a few words. That’s the way people want to watch the game being played, tough hard cricket, which on the pitch is fine.”
Cook agreed that the niggle had been aggravated by the frequency of big matches between the sides. Familiarity has bred contempt.
However, Clarke too was eager to allay thinly veiled suggestions that the players would soon be at each others’ throats. It was as if he and Anderson might have been making plans for dinner.
“I don’t think it’s worth getting into what happens on the field,” Clarke said. “There is always banter on the field and especially between Australia and England, two teams that have always played tough, hard-fought cricket.
“I still believe there is a very good mutual respect off the field, certainly from me and the Australia team; we have the ultimate respect for them as a cricket team. I’ve heard a lot worse said on a cricket field than what the Australian players or the English players said throughout this Test match.”
Banter, of course, is in this case a synonym for verbal abuse of the kind that might well lead to you being arrested if delivered in the average market town Saturday night booze-up. But the players have come to expect it and in a way to revel in it.
The idea that much or indeed any of it is laced with humour should be dismissed. A modern sledge is simply an expletive-laden insult, designed, in the phrase of the former Australia captain Steve Waugh, to cause mental disintegration.
In the match at The Gabba it was heightened by the accompaniment of outrageously fast and menacing bowling. Johnson was rightly made man of the match for his nine wickets and 103 runs for once out, but he was not alone. Ryan Harris also worked up a head of steam and meted out the short stuff regularly.
England were unquestionably rattled because they did not know how to cope. Down the years fast, accurate bouncers have tended to have their way. If they could, the tourists would reply in kind. But it seems beyond them. They picked three giant fast bowlers for this tour but they do not have the sheer velocity and awkward angles of Johnson.
There was a certain caginess in Johnson when he was asked about the approach and mindset of England’s batsmen. In short, he was not about to answer if he thought they were frightened. But he was drawn into saying that “as a fast bowler you give a bit of a stare and have a look into the eyes and, I don’t know, there might have been a little bit of fear there maybe”.
A smile played round moustachioed lips when he was asked: “Did you see the scared eyes Davey [Warner] saw?” But he stayed silent for once. His bowling had done the talking. Sitting alongside him, Clarke said: “Good answer, Mitchy, good boy.” But he sounded as if he knew the correct answer.