Pious Poms can expect another barrage
England need to play better than Australia, not sledge better than them
The post-Test press conference in the Sofitel Hotel in Brisbane was always going to be well attended. Andy Flower does not speak often but there is an understanding that the England coach pitches up after a defeat – and when England lose under Flower's guidance they tend to do it melodramatically. There are no half measures.
After England were bowled out for 51 in Jamaica in February 2009, the careful, candid manner in which Flower shared his thoughts and determinations is reckoned to have helped him get his job on a permanent basis. More recently in Ahmedabad after England had lost the first Test of the series by nine wickets he asked that we should "judge us in three matches' time". We did and concluded that Flower and the team had delivered a minor miracle. Perhaps the message would be similar.
But this time there was an unusual buzz of anticipation; rumours pinballed around the room. Hugh Morris, the outgoing cricket director of the ECB, was making a statement. Which meant something was up. Morris only ever makes statements when there is some sort of crisis. Still it did not click. Were the ECB to make some formal complaint about the sledging or the "disrespectful" comments of David Warner (Please. No)? Was there going to be surprise resignation?
Once the news of Jonathan Trott's departure was relayed it all seemed so obvious. Two days before Trott had played an inexplicable innings. Now that innings began to become explicable. Trott, a ruthless clinician for most of a superb Test career, had been out of control in Brisbane.
At the Sofitel, Morris was at pains to point out that Trott's was a long-standing condition, which had been successfully managed over the years. He stressed the importance of the ECB's duty of care in the past and in the future. We were encouraged to conclude that Trott's two frenetic innings in Brisbane had been a symptom rather than the cause of his sudden exit; that there was more to it than the cricket.
We had fleetingly seen Trott out of control before; in Johannesburg in January 2010 when Mickey Arthur, then the South Africa coach, had goaded him as he passed the opposition dressing-room on to his way to the wicket. It was not difficult to see what Arthur was getting at with that twirl of his index finger to the side of his head. Likewise on the last Ashes tour Trott looked a little rattled in Perth.
One common denominator: bouncy pitches and fast bowlers. Hence there was the inevitable debate over whether the two Brisbane innings should, in fact, be regarded as more than a symptom.
Whatever the truth (and few of us are able to give a truly informed view) there was an immediate groundswell of sympathy for Trott. It was a rare step – and a heart-wrenching one – to leave the most coveted, most dreamt-about tour on the schedule prematurely. Marcus Trescothick had abandoned the Ashes tour of 2006-07 before the first Test and now on the radio counselled that Trott had done the right thing. Likewise Michael Yardy had left the World Cup in India. A worrying phenomenon was evolving among England cricketers.
There are more distant parallels involving familiar players. Geoff Boycott and Graham Gooch (more briefly) had asked to be omitted from England teams in the '70s and '80s because they reckoned that they were not in a fit state to play international cricket. More recently, we have heard, albeit a year or two afterwards, of Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard suffering on tour, although none of them took left early.
Trott's rapid exit explained something else: England's cold anger at the remarks of David Warner at his Saturday night press conference when he described Trott's last shot
as "pretty poor, pretty weak" and he spoke of "scared eyes". Alastair Cook and subsequently Flower risked being dubbed pious Poms when they said that Warner was "disrespectful". With Trott in such a bad way, unbeknown to Warner or anyone else except England's inner sanctum, we can understand their anger.
However, there was no suggestion that Warner's remarks had anything to do with Trott leaving the tour. Instead there were questions about the intensity and the viciousness engendered by this series. Cook had said: "It's pretty much a war out there." Was it too damned British to issue a reminder that cricket is "only a game" rather than "war minus the shooting"? Probably.
Ashes series have always been pretty intense. This week's Adelaide Test is unlikely to reach the fever pitch of 80 years ago; so far there have been no special requests for extra mounted police.
Thirty years ago, Ian Botham was the centre of all attention – and there was tension all right. Post 1981, Botham was the ultimate love/hate figure in Australia. Every ground was in a frenetic state of excitement when he emerged. So how did Botham cope while waiting to bat? He played cribbage in the dressing-room. This was his way of trying to escape from the weight of expectation until his moment came.
There was no shortage of sledging in the '80s. Dennis Lillee tended a to cut an intimidating figure – much more than Mitchell Johnson. But there was a difference. The players of each side usually knew each other well. Many would spend time with their opponents after play (the likes of Botham, Allan Lamb and David Gower would be in the Australian dressing-room on a regular basis). They might receive the odd verbal barrage the following morning but maybe the sledge did not have the same impact since the protagonists had been yarning and drinking so merrily a few hours previously.
Of course they all sledge now. But it is more or less obligatory in Australia. Hence the reaction to Michael Clarke's widely broadcast threat to Jimmy Anderson. Such is the desperation here for the national team to win that there has barely been a word of chastisement. Channel Nine's apology for unwittingly dobbing Clarke in has bordered on the grovelling. For the moment anything goes on the field.
The Australians, via the lips of Johnson and Darren Lehmann, have insisted that they will not be changing their aggressive outlook in the wake of the departure of Trott who "takes his ball and goes home", according to Sydney's Daily Telegraph. Johnson surmised that England were "rattled" by the sledging.
Which misses the point badly. England were rattled by Johnson's fast bowling not by his tongue. And, although you might struggle to reach this conclusion reading the papers here in the build-up to Adelaide, the series will not be decided by who sledges the hardest but who plays the best.