The final Test of the Ashes began last night in Sydney after a sequence of compelling games packed with incident.
Many Test cricket records have been broken, sending the sport's statisticians into ecstasy, while fans in both Australia and England have been adjusting their lifestyles in order to take in and savour the matches. We have all been blessed.
Yet the real Ashes story, the subplot that threads its way under all the runs, wickets and anorak facts and figures, will probably never be told, or will take years to come out. For nothing is so hermetically sealed as a sporting tour, particularly one involving cricket. The participants will give some colour details to their newspaper ghost writers, and a few players will have books out by spring, but they will be less Angela's Ashes, bitterly frank and revelatory, more Thomas the Tank Engine – "The skipper walked past and gave the nod to Smithy to go out as night watchman, so I was a bit peeved but also a bit relieved." For the abiding code is that "what happens on tour, stays on tour", a notion too prosaic to be described as "omerta," the silence the Mafia insists upon under penalty of death. This is to do with not gossiping about anything that happened in the dressing room; about not criticising your team-mates; about not telling tales of what you or they got up to. It is about respecting "The Tour", and the penalties for disrespect can be severe.
The Tour is about a group of sportsmen of different temperaments and habits coming together for a single purpose – winning. Personal failure simply means you don't play; personal transgressions have more impact – internal punishment if they've been kept from the public; formal, military-style sanctions if they haven't. The two English cricketers who the public have most admired over the past 30 years, Ian Botham and "Freddy" Flintoff, were both stripped of rank for their offences, because their "crimes" were made public. Botham was suspended from cricket for two months after being caught smoking dope on a tour of the West Indies (other misdemeanours followed), while Flintoff's late-night drinking session, which ended with him adrift in the Caribbean on a pedalo, cost him the vice-captaincy.
Neither suffered any loss of esteem – Botham is a Knight of the Realm, Flintoff is everybody's favourite Big Lad – but you can bet the sanctions stung like a whip at the time, because they knew they had let down The Tour by allowing others a glimpse inside.
The structure of The Tour was established in the late 19th century. The team gathers, collects its blazers and equipment, travels together and abides by strictures laid down by the captain and tour manager. The last two have individual rooms but players share two to a room in the interests of comradeship and chastity. They eat and share entertainments as a group, especially the bizarre ritual of a "fancy-dress" party on Christmas Day. The team must practise when the captain demands it and follow his directives with regard to the strategy of the match. Football and rugby tours are based on the same pattern, with the fancy-dress party replaced by drinking sessions, PlayStation games and a sing-song.
So for more than 120 years, England has been sending sportsmen to compete in international tournaments and adhere to an almost unchanging code of behaviour. Take the 17-strong Test squad that left Tilbury in September 1932 – it faced a five-week voyage to Australia and a tour lasting seven months. "No wives with young children, no girlfriends allowed – a man's only comfort was his golf clubs," wrote Christopher Douglas in his richly illuminating portrait of the team's captain Douglas Jardine: Spartan Cricketer, a product of Winchester and Oxford who became the most controversial man in cricket since WG Grace.
The Bodyline Tour, as it was dubbed, involved the England team's fast bowlers, principally Harold Larwood, bowling so the ball would bounce high towards the rib-area of the Australian batsmen, most notably Donald Bradman, so that if they played a shot, they had a chance of being caught down the leg side where a cordon of fielders had been placed; or if they missed the ball they got hurt. This is a simplification of the plan Jardine devised but the Australian crowds spotted it right away and let England know they found it unsporting. Boos and shouts of "bastards" rang out around the Australian grounds. Larwood was simply obeying orders but that didn't lessen the crowd's animosity towards him and the England team, and especially Jardine, who seemed confidently immune to criticism.
The entertainer Cyril Ritchard sang this verse in a Sydney theatre within days of the First Test starting: "This new kind of cricket takes courage to stick it/There's bruises and fractures galore/After kissing their wives and insuring their lives/Batsmen fearfully walk out to score/With a prayer and a curse they prepare for the hearse/Undertakers look on with broad grins/Oh! They'd look a lot calmer in Ned Kelly's armour/When Larwood the wrecker begins."
A more formal response came from the Australian Cricket Board, who sent angry telegrams to the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) to complain about the bowling style Jardine had concocted. One of the first telegrams read:
"Bodyline bowling has assumed such proportions as to menace the best interests of the game, making protection of the body by the batsmen the main consideration. This is causing intensely bitter feeling between the players as well as injury. In our opinion it is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once, it is likely to upset the friendly relations existing between England and Australia."
The MCC defended Jardine, but some English players and the manager Plum Warner took the opposing view – Warner even went into the Aussie dressing room during the brutal third Test to apologise but was shooed away in anger. And there was the odd briefing against him to the Australian press. Jardine wrote a book justifying his actions, and though he survived to captain a tour to India, he retired from cricket shortly before the MCC accepted that Jardine's strategy had been misguided. Instructions to umpires were issued to prevent bodyline bowling returning. The 1932-33 tour therefore became everything the cricketing authorities feared – too much off-field publicity; strife within the team; an event almost of out of their control.
But see how rich this tour seems, spiced with the details that came out then or soon after, compared to the bare facts of England winning the Series 4-1, with Larwood taking 33 wickets, the inclination being to keep every Test memorialised as not much more than a glorified scorecard, denuded of the game's emotions and intrigues.
Normal service resumed with gentlemen captains leading working-class professionals around newly-liberated colonies, aware of the diplomacy now required on tour. Len Hutton became the first professional to captain an England team on the 1953-54 tour of the West Indies, and had to defuse an incident involving Yorkshire fast bowler "Fiery" Fred Trueman and his robust room-mate Tony Lock. A posh white Barbadian woman complained about being "jostled" in a lift by the two players. Hutton forced them to apologise even though they maintained their innocence, and Trueman was left out of the next winter tour to Australia. Trueman, as blunt as they come, also had run-ins with his tour manager, the Duke of Norfolk, in Australia in 1962-63.
But these spats look small beer compared to England's horrific complacency towards touring apartheid South Africa. It took a while before England's cricket establishment got the picture, with the Basil D'Oliveira affair in 1968. South Africa refused admission to this "coloured" refugee turned England batsman and the tour was called off, though several England players later took part in rebel tours.
A new generation of English players, many university educated, embraced the modern tour: business-class flights; fitness trainers; local tour hosts; and, after many seizures at the MCC, visits by wives and girlfriends at the midpoint of the Test series. In this instance, cricket was ahead of football, the FA not being that enthusiastic about "wags" coming to tournaments.
Graeme "Foxy" Fowler, an opening batsman, wrote a surprisingly open account of his tour to India in 1984-85, Fox on the Run, which began with an enforced delay due to the assassination of India's President, Indira Gandhi. Twelve days of official mourning took precedence over net practice and entertainment committees.
We also learn in the diary that spinner Pat "Percy" Pocock brought his plastic dog turd along with him for pranks (it is hoped that for authenticity's sake he ran it under a hot tap before placement). We are also told that David "Lubo" Gower, the ultimate cricketing cavalier, became a roundhead as captain by marching his troops into daily nets. Clearly this was not the same Gower who later buzzed his team-mates in action at the Queensland ground in a rented Sopwith Camel.
The Christmas fancy-dress party is listed, too, a rather camp tradition that probably harks back to colonial days. Neil "Fozzy" Foster dressed as an Indian woman in a sari while Allan "Legger" Lamb became an Indian peasant, and there are numerous sheikhs and maharajahs in the team photo.
Between the larks Fowler pulls together a fair portrait of men on the road in a foreign country, keeping sane with silly games, bouts of tourism, drinks parties at the High Commission and the occasional late-night whisky. One diary entry brilliantly captures the doldrums of a long tour:
"Spent the day with 'Percy', 'Lubo' and 'Walt' (Paul Allott). We went to see the zoo. It was shut. We went to the Old Fort. It was boring. We went to the Red Fort. It is now just a glorified shopping arcade. Oh, well."
There is also a rather touching moment when Fowler, fielding in a midweek match in some dusty outpost, suddenly misses his wife and becomes distracted by the welling up of personal emotion, something The Tour frowns upon, unforgiving beast that it is.
Ian Botham crossed the line and stumbled into one of the first sporting "kiss'n'tells" by allegedly sleeping with the former Miss Barbados, Lindy Field. She claimed they had broken a bed with the force of their love-making (Botham's first nickname was Guy the Gorilla, after the famous resident of London Zoo). The Tour tests some, though not all, sportsmen who are away from home. But unless they are caught in a tabloid honey pot, or "grassed up" by a "rotter" – a news reporter seeking scandal – the illicit sex stays within the confines of The Tour. As an actress of a certain age once said to me, "DCOL – Doesn't Count on Location".
Even if they know, sports journalists face instant exile if inside knowledge was passed on. And journos may not be in a position to pass judgement. A tabloid writer and a broadsheet essayist shared a room on a cricket tour. Mr Tabloid "pulled" in the hotel bar, so when his office phoned the room, Mr Broadsheet had to cover for him, as they wanted a quick 400-word piece. Mr Broadsheet, sensing his colleague was lost for the night, scribbled the required words tabloid style and phoned them through to a copytaker. The following day the sports editor phoned Mr Tabloid to thank him for his best piece of work ever. Mr Broadsheet was handed the fee.
Now, the authorities and the press are hunting the match-fixers and illegal bookies. Footballers seem to have cornered the leg-over market. And the truth is, we'd probably rather hear about the less-tacky elements of The Tour, the inspiring team talk or the tactical plot, than "sledging" (on-field verbal abuse) which is becoming tiresome. Australian bowler to Zimbabwean batsman: "You look even fatter than you did last year." The reply: 'That's because every time I fuck your wife, she gives me a biscuit."
The recent WikiLeaks releases have revealed a sub-culture in which the participants speak their minds freely, dealing in facts and opinions thought too provocative for public consumption, but these do seem to have more truth than managed news and mediated opinions. Wouldn't it be better for sport if there were an equivalent – WicketLeaks, perhaps – in which we found out how Mitchell Johnson went from zero to hero in 10 days? How England get Ricky Ponting out? For the moment, with Twitter banned, we have to make do with Swanny's Video Diary in which our spin bowler demonstrates his Sprinkler Dance (ecb.co.uk/ashes). It's funny but not exactly Newsnight.