There were any number of contributing factors to England’s last visit Down Under ending in complete disaster, but paralysis by analysis would have to be fairly high up the list. They took enough analysts to fill an extra jumbo jet, and when their bowling plans were stolen from the dressing room in Melbourne and mockingly published in the Australian media, it became pretty clear that if Einstein or Pythagoras had been asked to study them, never mind Harmison or Hoggard, they’d have emptied a jar of Paracetemol and spent the rest of the day lying down in a darkened room.
Quite apart from the colour-coding for ideal lengths, lines and height, the section reserved for targeting Ricky Ponting took some digesting. “Tries to impose early with drive (nick/drive man) – Yorker?? (lbw-ct flicking through MW) – pulls in front of square in air (depth) – 5th slip when first in – straight mid-on – tight cover early on – backward point deeper if set??”
Ye gods. No wonder Harmy’s first ball went straight to second slip. His radar was never ultra-reliable at the best of times, but after wading through this kind of thing before turning out the bedroom light, he’d have had trouble hitting a sightscreen never mind a set of stumps.
Compare this to the bowling strategy for one of the most successful Ashes missions ever, the 1932-33 ‘Bodyline’ tour. The English captain, Douglas Jardine, summoned Harold Larwood and Bill Voce to a hotel room in London, and the rough jist of the conversation was this. “Now then, lads. If I asked you to bang it in halfway down, on the line of Bradman’s ribcage, do you think you could manage it?” “Certainly skipper.” “Righto then, that’s sorted.”
Can you imagine any set of circumstances nowadays in which an England captain could go to Australia, concoct a perfectly legal strategy to stuff the opposition, win the Ashes, and return home with the reputation of an unsportsmanlike bounder? Paul Collingwood picked up an MBE for scoring 17 runs in an Ashes series, while Jardine collected only derision for winning a series in Australia by emasculating – by his own remarkable standards, that is – the greatest batsman the world has ever seen. So allow me to launch the official campaign for a posthumous knighthood: arise, Sir Douglas.
The best captains, you see, always keep things simple. Ray Illingworth, in 1970-71, asked John Snow to stick it up the Australians’ noses, and won a six-Test series without the home umpires once awarding England an lbw decision. Which is, quite possibly, the most remarkable statistic in the entire history of Test match cricket.
And then we come to Mike Gatting, who is now twice the width he was when becoming the last English captain to return from Australia with the urn. Gatt’s strategy was every bit as simple. When Gatt drew up his list of essentials for the trip, there wasn’t much room for analysts and computer programmes once he’d loaded on his golf clubs and a dozen crates of Branston pickle. However, his best wheeze was reserved for his three major batsmen, Gower, Lamb, and Botham – all of whom were told that they could more or less do what they liked in terms of practice, knowing that all three would sooner have their toenails pulled without anaesthetic as spend half the day in the nets. In Gower’s case it was more or less a medical condition – “nettus nervosus” – and the net result, pardon the pun, was match-winning contributions from all of them.
Sir Douglas, as I shall now insist he be called, was not quite so liberal with his troops, having been brought up through the public school system with a firm belief in class distinction at all times. Ergo, shortly after boarding the boat at Tilbury, he told the lads to stay out of the sun, retired to his first class cabin, and was hardly seen again until they docked at Fremantle.
However, when it came to class distinction, Jardine was in no doubt at all that Australia was – by some margin – the world’s largest repository for hoi polloi. Which certainly helped clear his conscience about giving them a few bruises, and also – when the home crowds reacted to his haughty bearing and his Harlequin cap – helped him with any possible thought of easing up on his battleplan. “They don’t seem to like you very much,” said Patsy Hendren after one particularly hostile bout of boo-ing. “F***ing mutual,” replied Sir Douglas.
Australians have two major convictions when it comes to the Poms. Firstly, that they spend about one zillionth of their annual income on soap and water, and secondly, that they spend about nine tenths of their lives complaining. They may have a point with the former, but when it comes to the latter, you only have to bring up the Bodyline tour to promote the argument that when it comes to whingeing, the mother country comes a distant second to their lot. And we have Jardine to thank for that.
Legend has it that he was a private, aloof and fairly undemonstrative man, although the moment the plan actually came to him suggests otherwise. Despite Bradman making 232 in the final Test of 1930 at the Oval, a sprinkle of rain on an uncovered pitch had made batting awkward for a time, and the Don started hopping around a bit as the occasional ball reared from the surface. Jardine was watching film footage of the innings, and that’s when he had his Eureka moment. “I’ve got it!” he cried. “He’s yellow!”.
Jardine couldn’t have pulled it off without Larwood, of course, and given his dislike of all things Australian – “uneducated” was the kindest word he had for them – it was no great surprise when he presented Harold with a gift at the end of the series, a silver dish engraved with the words: “from a grateful skipper”. It was Larwood’s pride and joy, and many years later, when he was visited at his Sydney home by the English journalist Frank Keating, he looked on in horror when Frank unwittingly used it as an ashtray for his pipe.
So Jardine didn’t like Australians. Big deal. There’s never been any love lost between these sides, and for my money there are two on-field quotes that sum up the history of England versus Australia at cricket better than the rest. The first was in 1932-33, when Larwood felled Bill Woodfull with a bouncer, and Jardine’s sympathetic response was “well bowled, Harold!”. And the second was on the 1990-91 tour, when Phil Tufnell was bowling in the Sydney Test. Tuffers turned to the Australian umpire Peter McConnell (no neutrals in those days) and asked him how many more balls were left in the over. To which McConnell replied: “Count them yourself, yer Pommy bastard.”
Inside the England dressing room, Jardine never referred to Australia’s icon as “Bradman” or “The Don”, preferring instead to call him “the little bastard”. Which is perhaps why Bradman pointedly declined to offer a tribute when Jardine died of cancer in Switzerland in 1958. Which was also, albeit unwittingly, the finest tribute he could have paid him. If Jardine had had any idea he’d got up Bradman’s nose quite as much as that, he’d have died a happy man.