Martin Johnson: England doing their bit again for pub conversation

That’s better. Ever since England thrashed the Aussies Down Under last winter, there hasn’t been a single decent conversation down at my local pub.  For decades, the place has reverberated with animated chatter – mostly along the lines of “they’re completely useless” and “sack the lot of them” – and quite frankly it’s just not been the same since England started giving everyone a jolly good hiding.

However, now that they’ve given us a timely reminder of how things used to be in the one-day series in  India, the boys down at the local are back to their old selves again. “Trott? Makes Tavare look exciting.” “Pietersen? Preening peacock if you ask me.” “Cook? Couldn’t captain a rowing boat.”  No one enjoys a good whinge more than your average Englishman, and while an economic recession, rising unemployment, fuel prices, and nasty inflation, are all doing their bit in that regard, nothing ever raises spirits more than the England cricket team playing like wallies.

All we need now is for the people in charge to start behaving a bit more in character, in that if there is one thing more likely to enliven the pub than England playing badly it’s when someone at the ECB comes out with an excuse for them. Preferably a preposterous one. Sadly, though, we’ve heard nothing recently about dew or Delhi belly, merely a boring acknowledgement that the boys haven’t played as well as they might have done.

Why don’t they make them like Lord Ted any more? When dear old Ted was in charge of commenting on England defeats in India, we went right through the card. If it wasn’t a prawn curry in Madras, it was smog in Calcutta and, as for the tour as a whole, we’d never have lost if the players had spent a little less time in the nets and more in front of a mirror with a razor blade. We’re still waiting for the result of the official investigation as to the effect of facial hair on performances, but the meeting was probably abandoned after ten seconds when someone mentioned WG Grace’s batting average.

Those were the days. Venus took a wrong turn somewhere near the Milky Way, captains fell off pedalos, had to turn in their trousers for forensic examination of the pockets, and ended tours complaining that the job was the equivalent of farting against thunder. They’d lose to the Australian Boy Scouts XI in warm-up games in Toowoomba, and dive bomb their own batsmen in Tiger Moths. Much better material for a lively night in the boozer than “I see Cook got another double century then”, you’ve got to agree.

Personally, I blame the people who decided to appoint Andy Flower. The merest glance at the man’s CV should have told them that here was a serious cricketing brain, and someone who broke with tradition by declining to talk in riddles. No sooner had a voice piped up “this bloke calls a spade a spade”, than his application should have been dumped straight into the wastepaper basket.

What we really want is a bit of the old Micky Stewart speak, which was roughly twenty times harder to decipher than those German codes tackled by the wartime boffins at Bletchley. I can still remember a journalist shaking his head as he constantly replayed a tape recording of one of Micky’s press conferences explaining why Michael Atherton had been left out of a one-day international.

“He’s not on the best of terms with himself sort of batting wise, obviously, and we wanted, on the tempo we were looking for in this particular game, for him not to force things outside his natural game. And therefore he’s not playing in this one.” This is the verbatim transcript, which I’ve kept for posterity, and it was on something like playback No 10 that the puzzled hack finally shouted: “I think I’ve got it! They’ve dropped him for slow scoring!”

Then, of course, there’s Andrew Strauss. What a bore he’s turned out to be. Well groomed, polite, tactically astute. Has he no sense of history? When has Strauss ever walked out of a press conference with the words: “Cheerio lads, I’m off to the theatre”…? Or headbutted a trestle table when someone asked a stupid question? Or been accused of cavorting with a barmaid at the team hotel?

It’s also safe to say that England’s run of success has had them puzzled in Australia as well. Once upon a time their pub trade relied on satellite viewings of hapless Poms trailing back to the pavilion accompanied by a cartoon duck, but ever since they’ve had to watch players waving their bats in acknowledgement of yet another glorious century, everyone stays at home and watches Neighbours.

It’s too soon to say, of course, whether this latest setback is merely a blip, or an exciting glimpse of a return to the old order. But with people like Flower on board, and selectors who no longer appear to employ the traditional methods of telephone directory, blindfold, and pin, I fear it may be the former. And that – rather than the breathaliser, smoking ban, or the ludicrous amount of tax on a pint – will be what finally sounds the death knell for the great British pub.

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