The gloves finally come off following Fletcher's barbed Ashes appraisal
Reaction to former England coach's view of the 'weakest Baggy Green side for 30 years' reveals frayed nerves Down Under
What has been missing so far from the Ashes prologue has been a row, a good old-fashioned bit of bear-baiting. The phoney war has been fought as if it were a powder-puff convention.
England have been prominent in adopting the role of "after you Claude" whenever they have been invited to become a combatant in the cut and thrust with which this period has been traditionally invested – doubtless for fear of reprisal. Australia too have been playing goody two shoes, or at least they did until yesterday when the carefully orchestrated vow of silence was blown apart.
It was provoked by a ghost from the tourists' past and it exposed the truth that Australia are afraid, very afraid. It was also wonderful sport. In his newspaper column last week, Duncan Fletcher, England's former coach, said that Australian cricket was in a dark place and had not been in such a muddled state for 30 years when at least they had some talented players.
There might have been a grain of wisdom there but it was par-for-the-course stuff, sounding much as if Fletcher, never one to admit weakness or fault, was merely making excuses for the 9-1 hammerings his England sides suffered in Ashes matches in Australia. His lot had to play great sides, this England were facing a bunch of no-hopers, not his fault.
But what an effect it produced. Tim Nielsen, the Australia coach, reacted with incandescent rage. "You can quote me on this, we could not care less what Duncan Fletcher thinks about anything or anyone," he said. "His opinion on most things in Test cricket is irrelevant. To be honest, Duncan Fletcher does not know the first thing about playing Test cricket in Australia."
It is a fact universally acknowledged in the cod psychologists' manual that if someone goes out of his way to say that he does not care what somebody else has said about them, he cares a great deal. Fletcher, who would have reacted with characteristic taciturnity to such comments in his time with England – as he did to so many things – has inadvertently done his successors a small favour.
Nielsen might simply have said that it was up to Fletcher what he thought, quoted his abysmal record and continued to prepare his charges, whose chances of regaining the Ashes are being seriously downplayed by the Aussie public as a result of the team's struggles. Instead Nielsen, normally a reserved chap who often laughs about being born in London, was drawn into verbal conflict. "Fletcher can have his opinion, so we can have ours," he said. "He's not fit to lick Ricky Ponting's bootstraps."
Australia's selectors have taken a huge gamble by picking debutant left-arm spinner Xavier Doherty in a 13-man squad for the first Test at the Gabba on Thursday. Unless the weather turns distinctly soggy he is likely to play. The selection, which meant dropping the incumbent Nathan Hauritz, has caused a minor sensation (in the absence of anything truly sensational).
England, by contrast, continue to dwell in a happy, conciliatory place. They secured their second win from three matches of the tour on Saturday when they beat a disappointing Australia A by 10 wickets in Hobart. If Australia A really are the second-best team in the country, which is what it says on the packet, Fletcher might have had a point about the darkness of the place.
The second-string bowling attack did the trick for England, with Tim Bresnan, Chris Tremlett and Monty Panesar all taking a clutch of wickets. The first-string has been in Brisbane for the past four days acclimatising itself (the difference between Queensland and Tasmania is vast).
The main talking point among players and followers has been the water sprinkler dances instigated by who knows, but filmed by Graeme Swann in his video diary. It shows, as Swann said, the relaxed mood of the England squad.
"A few years ago I'd have had my head knocked off if I'd asked a few of the players to do that," he said. Not least by Duncan Fletcher.
Swann alluded to the former coach in a way when asked if he had sympathy for his fellow off spinner Hauritz since slow bowlers were often treated badly. "I do feel sympathy for him, some of us get left out for eight years," he said.
But Swann is taking this seriously. Like everybody else, all he wants is for the action to start. "This is the worst three or four days for me now because it's so close you can almost smell it," he said. "I just can't wait for Thursday, it's going to be amazing, I have been waiting for this for 20 years to play in the Ashes in Australia." And so say all of us.
Countdown to the Ashes
3 The number of double-hundreds scored by England batsman Wally Hammond in Ashes Test matches in Australia. He hit 251 in Sydney and an unbeaten 231 in Melbourne on the 1928-29 tour before making 200 in Melbourne in 1936.
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