Wonderful tour... shame about the cricket: Flintoff's side in line of fire Down Under
The scenery is spectacular, the food and drink magnificent but for England cricketers the main experience of touring Australia is facing a barrage of hostility from the moment they step off the plane, writes Angus Fraser
Thursday 23 November 2006
"Eh, Hoggard, who's looking after your missus while you're over here? I hear she cooks a bloody good breakfast." It could hardly be described as the most charming of greetings but it is the sort of colourful banter that will be aimed at Matthew Hoggard when he positions himself at fine leg during the first Ashes Test, which started in Brisbane last night. It sounds hostile but you should hear the locals after lunch and a few glasses of the amber nectar, then they begin to get a bit personal.
Attitudes, techniques and the preparation for Test matches continue to move forward but the disposition of the Australian nation towards the Poms is never likely to change. The wags in the front row do not really mean what they say, and in many ways their comments form a rite of passage, but it is the non-stop barrage of flak that an England player receives from the moment he arrives in Australia which makes touring here the biggest challenge a cricketer can face.
I am sure the majority of Australians are delighted to see the England cricket team in town, but they tend to keep these emotions to themselves. Australia lives up to the advertising. The wine and food are magnificent, the scenery is spectacular, the hotels exceptional and the practice facilities are second to none. If it was not for the cricket, Andrew Flintoff's squad would have a wonderful time.
However, when you step foot on a cricket field you become the target of an ambitious and intensely competitive country's displeasure. Losing the Ashes to England in 2005 hurt the Aussies more than anyone could imagine, and Ricky Ponting's side will be using the next six weeks to ensure that Australia is once again viewed as a country of sporting excellence.
It is not just the Australia players who feel responsible for raising the profile of everything Down Under; the fans and the media will do their bit, too. Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, will be provided with everything he wants as he primes his side for this much anticipated Test series, but there is very little even he can do to prepare his players for the reception that greets them from beyond the boundary.
The "mental disintegration", as Steve Waugh, the former Australia captain, so tactfully put it, starts from the moment the aeroplane makes contact with terra firma, and it chips away at you until you leave this vast continent.
"Ah Fraser, back for another hiding, mate," was the greeting I received as I walked through customs on my final tour of Australia in 1998-99. "You're getting on a bit aren't you. I'd have thought you'd had enough last time. Anyway, good luck - you'll need it."
It continues while you have your boots inspected to see if there is any unwelcome soil on them. The Australian economy is reliant on agriculture and they do not want any unwanted diseases brought in by a group of dodgy Pommie cricketers. "I hope these are comfortable," they say while cleaning your bowling boots. "You'll be wearing them a lot over the next few weeks, mate." Darren Gough is the only player I know to have shut them up when he pulled his social shoes out of a suitcase and asked the bloke to give them a polish while he was at it.
Taxi drivers don't hold back either, especially when they recognise your accent. "So you're one of them Pommie cricketers are you? Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Ricky Ponting are bloody legends, mate, and you lot ain't up to much. Didn't you just get beaten by the PM's side?" is normally the gist of the conversation.
The world's media are not employed to pamper to sports stars, but nowhere do they seem to take greater joy in a visiting team's shortcomings than in Australia. The written press will highlight both your and your team's appalling record in Australia. Your achievements in other parts of the world will be belittled as, "If you ain't dun it in Australia, you ain't a bloody cricketer".
It is all part of a plan to make you feel inferior and you need to be strong to cope with it. But, no matter how resilient you may be, it eventually gets to you. It did on the three tours I made, and it is the reason why I never believed that Marcus Trescothick would complete the tour.
Television channels will ridicule the England team and the hourly sports bulletins will document the errors they have made on any particular day. Then, at the end of the spot, if you are lucky, there will be a quick summary of the score: "Andrew Strauss, who learnt his cricket playing club cricket in Sydney, scored a fortuitous 175 this afternoon as England worked their way to 473 for 3.."
The warm-up games are particularly tough, with each opposing team doing its utmost to undermine confidence and reduce morale. Vulnerable players will be attacked, in the hope they are turned in to jittering wrecks.
Monty Panesar has attracted a lot of attention already, and once the Tests start his fielding will be surgically analysed. Phil Tufnell is a completely different character to Panesar but the crowds pounced when they realised he was unsure in the field. Within two weeks of his arrival in Australia, placards advertising the "Philip Tufnell Fielding Academy" were appearing at grounds and the jeering began. "Oi Tufnell can we borrow your brain," was a famous shout from the grass bank at the Adelaide Oval. "Why?" Tufnell innocently replied. "Because we're trying to build an idiot over here - that's why, you loser."
Tufnell did not exactly help himself, with nocturnal adventures often influencing his desire and concentration the following morning. He wasn't helped by the grass - no, the stuff you play on - in Australia. Couch, a rough, coarse, hardy grass covers the outfields and it affects the roll of the ball as it makes its way towards you. Groundsmen, in order to make their pitches look attractive, cut the grass in pretty patterns, a method that causes the ball to snake its way to a boundary fielder. This proved to be too much for Tufnell who, after a high-spirited night, stood there wondering exactly what he had put in his body the previous evening. After a couple of fumbles the derision started and it all got too much for him. Mentally, Panesar is far stronger than Tufnell, but he needs to start well.
The first Test of an Ashes series is traditionally staged at the Gabba and it is a venue that has not brought tourists a great deal of success. In the last 20 years England have drawn one and lost three of their four visits.
For weeks the England players yet to play a Test in Australia will have wondered what it feels like to walk out at the Gabba, the Adelaide Oval, the WACA, the SCG and the MCG and play against those fellers wearing a baggy green cap. Television increases the legend of these stadiums, in the way that it makes them appear even more exotic than they are.
For years I had dreamt about playing in a first Ashes Test but the nerves and anxiety caused while watching England bat in 1990 were intolerable. The Gabba I played at is much different to the current one. It had a grass greyhound track outside the boundary, grass banks below the electronic scoreboard and poky little changing-rooms underneath a big stand at the Vulture Street End. Next to the changing rooms was a small treatment room and, if I was quick enough, I would lie on the physio's bed listening to my CD player trying to pretend nothing important was taking place. Sleep was the aim but it was impossible - every cheer disturbed you, and more often than not it was a wicket.
On my second tour in 1994-95, I was called up from Sydney, where I was playing grade cricket for Western Suburbs, as cover. I was not selected for the Test, a factor that allowed me to sit back and enjoy the cricket. Weeks of hard work and thought had gone in to England's preparations but the fate of the Ashes was decided by the very first ball of the series, which was cut ruthlessly for four by Michael Slater. Those of us sat in front of the changing rooms looked at each other as the ball smashed into the advertising boards. Nobody said anything, but our thoughts were exactly the same: "We're knackered here."
My last visit to the Gabba as a player, in 1998, sealed my fate as a Test cricketer. In a five-man attack I was the last to bowl and this gave the locals plenty of early ammunition. "Eh, Fraser, are you the second spinner these days? You must be shit if your bowling after Mullally and Croft, 'cos those two are pie-throwers, mate," was how it started. And on it went. On and on and on.
Eventually, I'd had enough and walked over to the hecklers, took my England cap off and the gist of what I said was: "Look chaps, this is an international cap, and it is as close as any of you uncouth fellows are going to get to one, so would you kindly be quiet."
My forthright response did the trick until, 10 minutes later, I dropped Ian Healy on the third-man boundary. The whole area erupted as I knelt pathetically on the floor. The three or four blokes I had spoken to were now hanging over the advertising boards laughing and haranguing me. I wanted the pitch to open up and swallow me, but it didn't. Healy went on to score a hundred and, once again, I had to take all abuse that came my way.
At least I did not have anything thrown at me, which has not always been the case. In certain areas at a couple of grounds - the old Bay 13 at Melbourne and The Hill in Sydney - the locals were not afraid of lobbing pies, fruit, plastic beer bottles and small balloons containing urine in the direction of anyone wearing three lions on their chest as they patrolled the boundary.
Ian Gould, the former cricketer and current first-class umpire, recalls proudly running on to the MCG wearing his new England sweater for the first time. As England's 12th man he was positioned in front of Bay 13 and within a minute a steak pie plopped on his shoulder, with gravy running all down its front.
The cricket, like the people, is tough and unflinching. The sun is hot, the pitches hard and flat and the opposition are ruthless. A domestic club structure, which limits a batsman to possibly one innings a fortnight, ensures that they make the most of every opportunity. If Australian batsmen get in they are not content to reach three figures. They want big hundreds, double hundreds.
Bowlers are encouraged to bowl fast and spin the ball hard. They are the principles that have allowed Australian cricket to produce great fast bowlers and great leg-spinners. Geographically Australia is a hard, uncompromising and beautiful country. The people are too. England's cricketers will need to show the same characteristics if they are to return home with the Ashes.
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