As I write I am on my way to Australia – five hours from London, six from Bangkok. It’s that moment when your phone tells a time you can’t trust. A nine hour connection to Sydney awaits, and then a domestic to Brisbane sometime early Monday. A combination of bad films and a howitzer of a cold make it time to write.
I’ve wanted to travel to an Australian Ashes as a fan, so I feel very lucky to be able to report on one. There are drawbacks – saying goodbye to my girlfriend was upsetting, I won’t see her for eight weeks. That’s not a moan – it’s not that long but it gets you thinking: England have been away for a month before the Tests even start, and those who play in the World Cup that follow will have been on the road for five months. Families visit (although England have banned any from arriving until after the second Test) but how do they sustain relationships with such regular separations? It’s a reminder of the human strains in international cricket.
At Easter this year I interviewed the Reverend Andrew Wingfield-Digby discussing similar themes for TWC. Andrew is the uncle of an old friend and I’ve known him since he came and threw rugby balls around my school’s chapel years ago. It was behaviour that stuck in the mind at 14, even if his message didn’t. Back then, when he wasn’t staging indoor cricket in the aisles Andrew was chaplain to the England cricket team.
Appointed by Ted Dexter in 1991, he was the pastoral figure in the dressing room for an angry decade – think Chris Lewis, Phil Tufnell, Graeme Hick, Graham Thorpe, Dominic Cork and Mark Ramprakash among others – it was a trickier place back then. He was, he told me, just a fan who ended up in an extraordinary position.
The interview will be in February’s TWC and but for this blog I’ll stick to his recollections of one aspect of touring: you don’t have to be Herschelle Gibbs to be aware of the temptations on offer to young international cricketers. Not all are as unabashed as Gibbs – Wingers remembered several players who struggled to deal with the moral confusion caused by on-tour infidelity (he naturally mentioned no names), to the cost of their on-pitch performance. “The opportunity and the being away put them into a position where they were often unfaithful,” he said.
Denied the comforts of home, the strain on players is multiplied disproportionately when on tour. I’m not saying that is relevant for this Ashes, although touring Australia, while not possessing the trials of the subcontinent, carries its own pitfalls. In the current issue of TWC Nasser Hussain writes: “In Australia there’s always something else to do: a beach to go to, a golf course, an excellent restaurant, family and friends at Christmas, wineries. At times it can feel like cricket is getting in the way of the tour.”
England’s decision to ban families until post-Adelaide is designed to build squad unity. But at a time when the players probably feel invincible, it is more a reminder that there are many ways in which a team and individuals can quickly unravel that have nothing to do with the opposition top-six.
Wingers actually owed his appointment to our getting stuffed in the 1990-91 Ashes. Bob Simpson’s Australia had a chaplain, England didn’t, a light bulb went off in Dexter’s head and Wingers, a friend, was in. What Botham, Lamb and the rest made of it you can only imagine. It makes you wonder whether, in this ultra-modern age of endless analysts and maddening pressure, there is anyone in the current entourage just to listen?
ps. Mike Selvey wrote on Friday about the impact that the height of England’s bowlers could have on this series. Besides the technical reasons, he observed that England have never taken such a bunch of beanpoles to Australia before. A glance at those around me attempting to sleep with their knees crammed up by their ears sheds a little light on that.
Sam Collins is a former editor of thewisdencricketer.com