Festive spirit pales for Ashes tourists of today

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The Independent Online

The England team may not have a great deal to celebrate, but it did not prevent them from holding their biggest ever Christmas Party here yesterday. More than 90 family members and close friends joined Andrew Flintoff and his squad on the 25th floor of the Langham Hotel to enjoy a slap-up meal and a glass or two of champagne or Sauvignon Blanc.

England still have a great deal to play for in the remaining two Tests of this Ashes series. Australia are looking to send off Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath in perfect style with a 5-0 whitewash in their last Ashes series before retirement, yet that should not deter Flintoff's team from having a couple of glasses of wine with their Christmas lunch. Total abstinence would have made very little difference to the performance of the team this morning and you can bet Warne will have enjoyed a tipple with his team-mates.

Christmas Day in Australia is a difficult one for an England cricketer. By now every wife or partner will have flown in from England and the hailstorm that hit Melbourne yesterday morning will have made those who have not been in Australia for the past month or so feel at home.

The players with young children will have been woken earlier than usual. As a father you want to relax and join in with the festivities, but it is extremely difficult when the Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground looms like an enormous grey cloud.

Playing at the 'G', a huge amphitheatre that holds in excess of 100,000 spectators, is a unique but wonderful experience. From the moment an England cricketer arrives in Australia he is told about the Boxing Day Test and, having played in two, I can testify that it is a nerve-racking but satisfying experience.

After the presents have been opened it is down to the ground for a gentle practice session. The training is light-hearted and several of the team would wear a red-and-white Santa Claus hat as they went through the warm-up and fielding drills.

Such headwear was absent yesterday, as are most of the traditional events that marked the day a decade ago. It is disappointing to see. The life of an England cricketer now seems to be far more serious than it was in the Nineties, and the players appear to take themselves far more seriously than those of previous generations.

Attitudes changed in the late Nineties when, under the guidance of the then England coach, David Lloyd, relationships between the players and media began to fracture. Under the present coach, Duncan Fletcher, the gap has widened.

On my first two tours to Australia it was traditional for every member of the touring party to wear fancy dress at the Christmas lunch. A week before arriving in Melbourne each player was given a letter or a topic and they had to go and find the relevant clothing. An afternoon was spent visiting a fancy-dress shop and kitting ourselves out.

The attitude of the wives and girlfriends was far more relaxed too. On my first tour Lyndsey Lamb, the wife of Allan, invited the women round to her room for a champagne breakfast once we had gone to practice. England were sponsored by a champagne company and they were all legless by the time we returned.

In 1990-91 I was the Jolly Green Giant and in 1994-95 Lurch out of The Addams Family. I was OK but Denise, my wife, did not particularly enjoy dressing up as Morticia. The press would put on a little sketch for the players while the photographers snapped away at us. It was tradition for the first-time tourists to produce a little show for the rest of the party too. In 1990 Michael Atherton (Lucifer), John Morris (Rommel) and Philip Tufnell (a sheikh) acted out a spoof Question of Sport. Tufnell stole the show taking off Graham Gooch, the captain, brilliantly.

Christmas lunch is somewhat different. Hot turkey, sausages, potatoes, sprouts, cauliflower and stuffing do not go down particularly well in 35-degree heat and lunch here revolves around a huge seafood spread.

Once lunch has been devoured attitudes turn towards the cricket and players begin drifting back to their rooms. After an afternoon kip and a room-service meal a nervous but excited night's sleep awaits.