Cricket teams fraternising? It isn’t cricket

Stop trying to be friends, England and Australia. Cricket is war.

Duleep Allirajah

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Did England invite the Aussies to share a post-match drink after their 405-run annihilation at Lord’s? I think we know the answer. This is no time for fraternising with the enemy over a few convivial tinnies. This is the oldest grudge match in international cricket and the Ashes series just caught fire.

I don’t know what Alastair Cook was thinking when he invited the Aussies for drinks after England’s 169-run victory in Cardiff. Australian bowler Peter Siddle was understandably nonplussed. ‘It’s my fifth Ashes series and it’s the first time anyone’s ever gone to have a drink after one Test match’, said Siddle. Maybe the England players were still feeling all loved-up after the unusually good-natured series against New Zealand. ‘We had a beer with the New Zealand team after both Tests and we found it an enjoyable thing to do after a hard Test’, explained English pace bowler James Anderson. But just because there was no animosity between the English and the Kiwis, it doesn’t follow that the Ashes can or should be played in the same fraternal spirit. England’s cricketers have no historical beef with New Zealand. There’s no ‘previous’, no ‘bad blood’. That perhaps explains the freedom and positivity with which England played in the ODI series. They played without fear because, in the grand scheme of things, the series didn’t really matter.

Another key reason that there’s no bad blood between England and New Zealand is that, until recently, England were always the top dogs. It wasn’t the Kiwis who punctured the hubristic myth of English sporting invincibility at the Oval in 1882 – a defeat which prompted the famous obituary in the Sporting Times announcing that English cricket had died and that ‘the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia’. It was Australia who were England’s first international nemesis. It was Australia who inflicted England’s first defeat on home soil. It’s Australia whom successive generations of England players have wanted to beat more than any other Test side. The thing about rivalries is that they are only fierce if both sides are evenly matched. You can’t hate a team that’s not in the same league. That’s just not cricket. Mutual respect is the flipside of the enmity that animates a true sporting rivalry.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about professional cricketers sharing a beer after a Test match. England and Australia regularly used to have a drink together until Ricky Ponting put a stop to the practice after the Ashes defeat in 2005. Ponting felt that his players were getting too friendly with the Poms and, consequently, were losing their competitive edge. Post-match beers might seem a ridiculously trivial issue to focus on. But what Ponting’s decision illustrates is the Aussie skipper’s obsessive will to win. It reminds me of cycling guru Dave Brailsford’s philosophy – the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’. Ponting was looking to make any small tweak he could that might give his side a competitive advantage.

If I was Michael Clarke, I’d have turned down the invitation to drinks. Why? It would have been a humiliation. The Australians’ first priority was to regroup and get the team in the right frame of mind for the second Test. Perhaps Cook knew this and was attempting to play mind games. If that was the intention, the plan backfired badly. Whatever the motive, the psychological balance has now tilted massively in Australia’s favour. England suffered a collective moral collapse at Lord’s which was uncomfortably reminiscent of last year’s 5-0 whitewash in Australia. It exposed the brittle nature of English self-belief, which had briefly flourished after the ODI series against New Zealand. At Lord’s, England’s old demons came back to haunt them. The Aussie pace attack, which had looked toothless in Cardiff, once again terrorised the England top order. Once again the English batsmen were spooked by Mitchell Johnson.

Former US president Bill Clinton once described football as a ‘head game’. He meant that a game of football was a psychological contest as much as a technical and physical one. I’d suggest that cricket is far more of a head game than football, because the individual contest between bowler and batsman is one massive psychological war of attrition. This is where ‘marginal gains’ can make a big difference. If you can get into your opponent’s head through sledging, short-pitched bowling or an aggressive field placing, it might just force a mistake. What the Aussies do so well is apply the marginal-gains tactic to individual batsmen. They identify a chink in an opposition batsmen’s technique and ruthlessly target it. Adam Lyth chases balls outside his off stump while Gary Ballance doesn’t move his feet. Sure, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to spot these vulnerabilities, but the Australian bowlers, once they hit their stride, have the pace and aggression to exploit such flaws.

England now realise that they’re in a proper dogfight. And that means they need to use every weapon at their disposal to wrest back the initiative. And that includes psychological warfare. Before a ball was bowled in anger, Jimmy Anderson called for sledging to be toned down. ‘I hope it’s played in the same nature as the New Zealand series’, said the England strike bowler. I don’t know what kind of happy pills Jimmy was on, but it’s time to bin the meds and get nasty. That means no fraternising, no post-match beers, and no holding back on the sledging.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @DuleepOffside

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