Every four years, Australia's test cricketers board a plane in Sydney heading for the Ashes tour of England. Once strapped into their seats, the months of rigorous preparation begin to pay off as they embark on the biggest venture of their sporting lives, the ultimate test to prove they are the finest-ever examples of Australian manhood ever to leave their shores: the four-yearly challenge to drink the in-flight trolley dry.
The Aussie Ashes boozathon is now steeped in as much tradition and arcanery as the game itself. Bearded statisticians will be able to tell you which left-hander consumed the most banana daiquiris between Singapore and Abu Dhabi. The big title, however, is held by David Boon. Before the last Ashes tour here in 1993, the moustachioed opening batsman set a new all- comers' record when he drank a staggering 57 cans of lager while still airborne.
In comparison to Boon, Paul Gascoigne is an amateur in-flight boozer, his experience limited to short hops from Rome, a couple of sniffs of a hostess's apron sufficient to addle his brain. Yet, while Boon can consume most of the output of Toohey's brewery on a plane without a hint of press interest, the moment Gazza hosts a party in first class it is all over the front pages.
The headlines roared with indignation yesterday as the Geordie lad's antics on the return flight from the England football team's tour to the Far East provoked a bout of hand-wringing hysteria everywhere from the Daily Express to the Tory backbenches.
The point is David Boon doesn't provoke press inquiry because he isn't Gazza. In-flight lager excess apart, Boon displays little of interest to the headline-writing world. He has never, for instance, stuck his tongue out at the camera during the singing of the national anthem; has never, when asked by a Scandinavian journalist if he had a message for Norwegians everywhere, suggested that they can all f*** off; has never, when challenged by the News of the World over allegations that he had enjoyed a three- in-a-bed romp with a model and her friend, responded that the girl couldn't count because, as he recalled, his mate Terry was in there as well. Boon is just a sportsman who, every four years, has a few drinks on a plane. What Paul Gascoigne did to celebrate his 29th birthday aboard a Cathay Pacific 747 was something else entirely: it was Gazza having a few drinks on a plane.
Like the poor, Gazza is always with us, forever providing us with an opportunity for moral outrage. His very nickname has come to symbolise all those aspects of our national character we find most embarrassing, the ones which provide the most opportunity for self-flagellation, traits like yobbery, drunkenness and wearing shell-suit trousers in first class.
And the great thing about Gazza is that he is incorrigible. For six years, since he burst into our consciousness at the 1990 World Cup, he has maintained his high output of outbursts: swearing, belching, wife-abusing. He may have earned enough to keep Jimmy Five Bellies in beer for a lifetime, but money has not softened him; he may have spent three years in Rome, but not for a moment did any of the eternal city's sophistication rub off on to his wobbly jowls; he may have spent the last year in Scotland, well away from Fleet Street and its spies, yet a steady stream of Gazza stories have percolated southwards. Nothing he does is original, nothing fresh, nothing as revelatory or damaging as some of his colleagues' drug and bribery escapades. It is the steady drip drip of silly Gazza-ness which is the essence that keeps us entertained.
The worrying thing about this latest Gazza controversy is, however, the sense that it might be his last hurrah. Now 29 and slowed by injury, Euro 96 may well provide his final big chance to behave childishly before, during or after a major tournament. Yobbery commentators everywhere are exercising themselves with the important question: who can follow the boy?
English football has traditionally done its bit to encourage a state of advanced puerility in its protagonists. The very seating arrangements during Gazza's flight were instructive. While the lads were billeted on the top deck of the plane, Terry Venables and the other FA officials were on the lower; indulgent grown-ups absenting themselves downstairs while the kids partied above their heads. The Far East tour was, according to Venables, a great opportunity to cement team spirit, which is football- speak for getting legless together.
Yet an influx of continental players with their fancy ideas about diet and how the athlete's body should not be abused by Australian levels of alcohol input are threatening the yob production line. Vinny Jones, for instance, the man who once bit off a reporter's nose, has let it be known he has been inspired by Eric Cantona's new-found self-control to rein in his own excesses.
There are redoubts of yobbery - Nottingham Forest players getting frisky on a summer tour to Spain, Robbie Fowler being naughty in hotel rooms - but few have yet to show Gazza's astonishing consistency. Worse, England's new generation of leading lads show little sign of even trying to emulate him. Potential successors like Jamie Redknapp, David James and Steve McManaman, who call themselves the Liverpool Hombres and spend unfeasible amounts on smart suits, smarter cars and even smarter entertainments, would never allow themselves to be photographed wearing a pair of false breasts while standing on the top deck of an open bus. No chance: it might scupper their latest modelling contract.
Indeed when Gazza goes, we may well have to look to another sport to find a fool to vilify. Fortunate, then, for cricket's public image that David Boon is to retire before next year's Ashes tour.
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