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Spiteful opening bodes for a rancorous summer

Jonathan Howcroft


Jonathan Howcroft

Written on Monday, 25 November 2013 08:56

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As crushing as Australia's 381-run victory was, and as euphoric as the celebrations deserved to be, this Test and much that surrounded it was dishearteningly classless.

The scene that will catch the eye of the world's media will be of Australia's captain, Michael Clarke, indicating to England's James Anderson that he should expect a broken arm. But this was just one of many incidents related to the Test that left a sour taste after what was an exhilarating four days of cricket.

This particular series was always likely to be tetchier than most because in the northern winter Australia and its supporters, already sick to the back teeth of losing, carried a deep sense of resentment following some poor umpiring decisions and brass necked English gamesmanship. This manifested itself in a hate campaign against Stuart Broad, carelessly endorsed by Darren Lehmann, without rebuke from his employers.

The Courier Mail's embarrassing behaviour towards Broad and Kevin Pietersen in the days preceding the Test fanned the flames, helped by sundry cheerleaders like Shane Warne with his puerile (and sadly influential) taunts.

All of which appealed to the lowest common denominator of Ashes rivalry and set the scene for a contest that felt like it wasn't about cricket at all, but about settling an old score by whatever means necessary. Like a drunk offering an old rival to step outside at closing time even though neither brawler really knew what they were fighting for, just that there was visceral enmity that had to be satisfied.

For two days the contest was aggressive but controlled, but as Australia surged into the ascendancy on day three the pent up frustration at a bothersome year began to escape. David Warner's comments were the public manifestation of a rising confidence, and his brash assertions could be politely described as unhelpful.

That set the tone for day four, one of utter domination by the home side who deservedly and gleefully crushed their opponent with physical and mental force.

Where the line of appropriate behaviour is in such situations is hard to identify, and that's from the vantage point of a sofa. On-field in the heat of battle it must be near impossible to behave with sangfroid so close to an accomplishment that has taken many months to plan and four hot days of physical exertion to deliver.

Therefore the sight of Australia goading England's tail as the last rites were read and Michael Clarke threatening a broken bone have to be given context. Unfortunately, in the context of this particular Test, and its build up, they were not inappropriate.

Which is my concern. Not that Australia's captain said what he did (I am in the 'what's said on the field should stay on the field' perspective - within reason - and England are deserving of a serve after behaving less than angelically themselves in recent years) but that this incident is not out of place in the current climate, and further, that it is celebrated as a triumph of Australian mongrel, as a quick glance at Twitter (and I'm sure the comments section below!) would confirm.

Is this really how we want the Ashes to be played out? Three months of acrimony, name-calling, belittling and bullying? I'm sure the answer to that question for a lot of fans is 'as long as we win ...'. But isn't there more to it than that? Isn't the Ashes in particular about more than that?

If it's about winning and winning alone I'd rather someone just tossed a loaded coin and put England back on a plane so we can start looking forward to football season again.

Australia isn't renowned throughout the rest of the world as the most gracious of winners, a reputation understandably ignored in some quarters as a by-product of success. But in this situation it jars more than most. This is a side that hasn't won a Test since January, has gone through all manner of turmoil since then, and yet still has the chutzpah to disparage its higher-ranked opponent.

The lack of official fire fighting is notable too. The Cricket Australia website on Monday morning offers no indication an official response is on the way regarding Clarke's comments, nor is there any suggestion that Warner might have chosen his words more judiciously over the weekend. In fact, the lead news story at the time of writing has a précis that fingers Alastair Cook for 'stoking the flames'.

Elsewhere on cricket.com.au is a page dedicated to the Spirit of Cricket. It's debatable if such a Corinthian concept remains relevant in the cutthroat world of modern sport, but so long as it exists it bears reference.

"Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game," it says. "Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself. The major responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains."

Accidental or not, Clarke's audible obscenity must surely come under the jurisdiction of section four of the code: "The Spirit of the Game involves RESPECT for ... Your opponents", or section five: "It is against the Spirit of the Game ... To direct abusive language towards an opponent or umpire".

Jonathan Agnew shared similar sentiments to mine in an article in September, ironically in a feature on England's behaviour. "The win at all costs mentality that England players speak proudly about might help you win matches, but few friends," wrote Agnew. "Of course, winning is the bottom line, but the team is also responsible for playing in the right way in order to showcase cricket in its best light and leave the game in the best possible condition for the next generation to enjoy."

Hopefully Australia can compete with the same skill they showed in Brisbane for the rest of the Ashes. Hopefully the boorish, spiteful atmosphere that has hung around the series so far stays in Queensland.

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