"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if the English are coming, then trash talk's a must."
This is a slightly amended version of the famous rhyme about Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson's deadly prowess but holds true for how Australia favour greeting their oldest opponents. Whenever England are set to arrive on Australian shores, or indeed vice versa, the bad-mouthing and generously-termed ‘mind games’ begin long before the actual cricket. It’s largely nonsense, but often guiltily entertaining, and as much a staple of 'The Ashes' as Glenn McGrath’s predictable 5-0 prediction.
This year it was Pat Cummins who was first out of the blocks, the body-brittle but bullet-fast quick warning England to expect a lot of bouncers. As Cummins is being set up — with some justification — to take the role of Mitchell Johnson as head pom-pummeller, this was no great shock. Warning England they'll be facing "balls of decent pace just back of a good length nipping away" wouldn't really have fitted the image. More interesting will be seeing how Cummins goes about adopting a more aggressive persona on the field, or even if he needs to. He’s not known to be a particularly fiery player and recently spoke about how sledging the opposition is not part of his armoury. Perhaps he'll leave it to his captain, Steve Smith, who has plenty to say (especially when Virat Kohli’s at the crease) although the present Australian skipper might not be quite as direct as his predecessor Michael Clarke when it comes to warning the tourists about the danger of fractured limbs.
It has been vice-captain David Warner, however, who has set the bar the highest so far with pre-tour bluster, telling ABC Grandstand: “As soon as you step on that line it’s war. You try and get into a battle as quick as you can. I try and look in the opposition’s eyes and try and work out: ‘How can I dislike this player? How can I get on top of him?’” To many, the quote confirmed Steve Harmison’s claim that “Warner's mouth is three seconds quicker than his brain”, but it’s not really such terribly shocking stuff in the context of pre-Ashes verbal hostilities.
Regardless, the Sunrisers Hyderabad skipper then ended his little pep talk by saying: “You have to delve and dig deep into yourself to actually get some hatred about them to actually get up when you’re out there. History is a big part in this and that is what carries us on to the ground.” Again, no one particularly wants to hear a sportsman speaking of “hate”, but the best consequence of Warner talking of history and war is that it might remind people of his fellow countryman Keith Miller. And how silly the great all-rounder would doubtless consider such a call to arms in the context of a cricket match.
For England fans, who only follow cricket during the Ashes, it would not have been a surprise to hear this sort of thing from the man who once punched Joe Root after being incensed by a fake beard. For those keeping closer tabs on Warner, it might have been a little less so. The left-hander has recently curbed his tongue on the field, admitting he got fed up with the fines and paperwork involved in disciplinary procedures, which is not necessarily the noblest of reasons. Nevertheless, this change in character — or at least perception of change — was to such a great degree that his teammates jokingly named him 'The Reverend' due to his more sedate and conciliatory approach to the opposition. After his latest comments, he can still keep the soubriquet, but it seems for the Ashes he’s decided to revert to being more Harry Powell, Robert Mitchum’s evil priest in Night of the Hunter, than your friendly local vicar. He could always adopt and adapt the famous body art of Mitchum’s character by getting 'H.A.T.E' and 'H.A.T.E.' tattooed on his knuckles.
So Warner deserves a gentle ribbing, but probably shouldn’t be damned to eternity for being a sportsman who uses evocative, if stupid, language ahead of a big series. England itself is a country whose football fans and tabloid media love to intertwine sport with past military glories, so it’s been amusing watching the carping at a player from another nation for getting a bit bellicose. Furthermore, while that reverend nickname might have stemmed from keeping his mouth shut on the field, off it — up to this week — his talking in 2017 has actually been quite admirable. There are different views on what drove the Australian players in their dispute against Cricket Australia, but, as accusations of greed swirled, Warner became a figurehead and spoke lucidly, albeit with characteristic aggression, about wanting to get a better deal for state and female colleagues. He was an impressive advocate throughout the whole business whether you believed in the players’ reasons or not.
Warner also slightly undermined his previous image as an unthinking Walkabout lout with his efforts to rectify his technical failings between Australia’s Test series in India and Bangladesh this year. After a torrid time during the former, when he averaged just 24, he went away and worked on his batting in Asia — a process superbly assessed here — and then returned to Bangladesh to decimate the spinners who had decimated England a year earlier. The result was two hundreds and a series average of 63. Warner does his mental prowess a disservice if we are to believe his brilliance in Dhaka and Chittagong were because he put up a dartboard with Mehedy Hasan’s face on it. His success was due to the rather less headline-grabbing traits of thoughtfulness and practice rather than war and hatred.
Still, as noted, invoking battle and spouting off are unpleasant but hardly new notions ahead of The Ashes. Former Australian coach John Buchanan famously espoused Sun Tzu’s classic military tome The Art of War as a strategy document, slipping bits of it under his player’s hotel room doors to read in 2001. Nor are Warner’s words particularly standout in the long history of nonsense pre-Ashes cod psychology. In 2010, a huge hologram of Ricky Ponting and Clarke was projected on the side of Big Ben telling England, “Don’t forget to pack the urn”. In the event, Alastair Cook’s victorious team could have left it at home anyway. Ahead of the 2013-14 series, coach Darren Lehmann labelled Stuart Broad “a cheat” and said he hoped he “went home and cried”, a suggestion for which he had to apologise. When Broad did arrive on Australian shores he was greeted with a media campaign that couldn’t have been more vicious had he turned up wearing a T-shirt claiming “Barbecues are overrated”. On the same tour, Clarke named the England team in advance, getting so excited at his psychological banter he momentarily forgot how to speak English: “I seen Alastair Cook,” he told reporters. Froth all round.
Australia have actually excelled at gamesmanship more by keeping their mouths closed and cards close to their chests. This was never more evident than in the build-up to the 1974-75 Ashes series. Before the first Test in Brisbane, Thomson, then relatively unknown, wrote a newspaper article warning the touring Englishmen that he enjoyed "hitting a batsman more than getting him out. I like to see blood on the pitch.'' Not that discreet, admittedly, but what was far more canny from Australia was Test captain Ian Chappell asking the blonde laserbeam to bowl within himself when England got their first look at him during a tour match (though he used slightly more Chappellian language). When Thomson unleashed his full force during the Test series, the result was not just blood, but an England side whose collective physical and mental pain was almost as great as that felt individually by David Lloyd’s groin.
Similarly, while Shane Warne became famous for boasting of mystery balls before series which never actually transpired, one of his greatest psychological victories came ahead of his Old Trafford 'Ball of the century' to Mike Gatting via doing very little. Earlier on that 1993 tour, he deliberately took spin off the ball during a tour match to keep the full viciousness of his revolutions from the home side. The sight of him throwing up dollies at Worcester may not have surprised Ravi Shastri, who had taken Warne to the cleaners on his debut in Sydney eighteen months earlier, but it was a genius piece of rope-a-dope subterfuge.
It’s unclear what effect bits of verbal jousting like Warner’s have on actual events on the field. In truth, probably very little. His words were certainly laughed off by Jonny Bairstow this week when doing media rounds to promote his truly emotion-stirring autobiography, and the England team are unlikely to get as worked up about them as some of their fans. But his comments do mean that the Ashes phoney war is, like clockwork, well and truly upon us. Roll on the real thing.