Tuesday 20 February 2018

Cricket's magical mystery tour loses all its magic and mystery

Dion Fanning

In 1969, the Flying Burrito Brothers went on tour to promote their album The Gilded Palace of Sin. Due to Gram Parsons' fear of flying, it was decided that the tour would begin by train with a journey from California to Chicago, stopping off at New Mexico where the band disembarked for a while having taken some magic mushrooms to get in the mood.

The road manager soon became known as the "road mangler" and as the tour continued, fuelled by cocaine and poker, the band's fragile health became apparent.

When they arrived in Chicago, they had a meeting with their record company during which the Burrito Brothers passed out in their food.

They headed on to Detroit with Gram Parsons at the wheel of the car they had decided to take for that leg of the journey. As he drove, Gram played poker and maintained a steady intake of cocaine while heading along the freeway, nearly missing one turn-off for Detroit before swerving across several lanes to get to it. Nobody looked up from the poker game.

Tensions rose. According to Jason Walker's biography of Parsons: "Conflict began to brew between the band and its management. Hillman, suspicious of managers, wasn't satisfied they were doing their job properly, while the managers groused that the band was just getting stoned at every moment they possibly could." Good points, well made.

Difficulties between Gram, who was the most magnetic member of the group, and the others became apparent as well. His friend Frank David Murphy had been released from a locked ward at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital to attend one of the shows. He observed that Gram enjoyed being the centre of attention while the rest of the band tried to remain serious about the music. Chris Hillman described the tour as "stupid, really . . . We weren't very good on stage. We spent a fortune and we didn't accomplish anything." In the late 1970s, their record company A&M were still receiving bills from the tour.

Perhaps only a story from those days of glory can capture the monumental failure of England's tour to Australia which continues beyond the point of reasonableness. On Friday, they celebrated a victory in a one-day international, their first triumph since they landed exactly three months before on October 24.

In those months, they have lost several squad members. Firstly and sadly, Jonathan Trott left the tour, suffering from a stress-related illness before Graeme Swann decided to announce his retirement in the middle of the series. Fast bowler Steven Finn was then sent home during the one-day series with the coach for those games Ashley Giles saying he was "not selectable".

By that stage, they were not the Burrito Brothers but Spinal Tap, turning up to find they had been billed below the puppet show and giving glimpse of the rebirth – "we hope you like our new direction."

At times it is tempting to believe that somebody in authority has simply forgotten they are still out there and that Alastair Cook may soon have to send a message home using the tone of some doomed British soldier caught behind enemy lines who details every appalling degradation he has suffered before signing off, "Merry Christmas chaps. All the best, Lofty".

At this point the administrative failure will be rectified with a gushing and slightly apologetic telegram telling Alastair Cook to return as his trip is no longer necessary.

There have been other doomed sporting expeditions. Ireland's trip to the European Championships in 2012; England's to Euro '88 and Euro '92, but they all had the relief of being brief.

England have endured spectacular failures on tour as well but they were usually accompanied by stories of wild and decadent times. It is rare for a team to fail and have so little fun doing it.

That this England team now resembles a debauched and dishevelled band with the good bits taken out is a spectacular achievement and one which must be applauded, especially as it has been achieved by functionaries such as Cook and the coach Andy Flower.

The longevity of the crisis has sort of spoiled the attempt to blame Kevin Pietersen for everything. This was just about plausible while Pietersen, England's top scorer in the Ashes series, was on the tour but since he has returned home, this line has looked less convincing.

Pietersen is England's Gram Parsons, a gifted, brilliant man but one who craves attention. His meetings with the English press are relentlessly hostile as if he resents them for not unconditionally acknowledging his brilliance and he appears to carry the same sensitivity into the dressing room.

Yet he is also said to be a batsman who encourages young players and, more importantly, he is England's best player, something that has been lost on those who, on the back of some poor shots in the Ashes, were calling for his expulsion.

In England's rigid approach, there is little room for self-expression. As a collective, they can appear as sensitive as Pietersen, determined to react to criticism as when Stuart Broad brought a copy of the local paper which had been hysterical in demonising him into the press conference after the first day of the Ashes. This was one of England's good days but Broad didn't carry the newspapers with him again.

Australia's ferocity shook them too. Pietersen became the man to blame even if Cook has looked hapless, unable to articulate a defence of England's performance and incapable of offering a way out. He has appeared like a well-brought-up schoolboy rigidly sticking to the lines he had studied and shocked when they made no sense. This tour needed something else.

A year after their disastrous tour, the Flying Burrito Brothers were among a group of musicians who headed across Canada on a train. It was no less debauched and Jerry Garcia was seen at times driving the locomotive, but a good time was had by all. As England celebrate the fact that they can no longer lose 10-0, they might take heart from rock 'n' roll history. What a long, strange trip it's been.

dfanning@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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