Different strokes for different folks
When the Different Strokes blog was initially launched a few years ago, the brief was simple: provide perspectives from your corner of the globe; not propaganda or jingoism but opinions and views on cricket. From Yorkshire to New York to Pakistan to Brisbane, that's been our mission, raising eyebrows, drawing ire, copping flak but always trying to do justice to the original mission statement of representing issues from differing perspectives. Different strokes for different folks indeed - it's amazing how a single issue can be dissected and digested in entirely different ways, depending on perspective.
The current Ashes series, riveting in its roller-coaster ride, is grist for the mill in terms of opinions and generalisations. Over the last few days, knowing that I write for ESPNcricinfo and knowing that I have played cricket in England and India, many of my Australian friends have posed some very interesting questions that were devoid of any malice but suggested that global stereotyping is still alive and well in cricket conversations. Here are a few of those questions and my opinion on them (remembering that the entire point of the blog is to represent a different perspective rather than resolve any factual argument).
Question: In relation to the latest rumours about the MCG pitch being switched to suit the Aussie pace attack, are the Poms a bunch of whiners?
My response: As a defining national trait, I have never encountered any signs of whingeing in the UK over the many years I spent there, studying and playing cricket. Truly wonderful people, I rate the Brits as amongst the wittiest and most self-deprecating people I've ever met, more than prepared to laugh at their own sporting failures. I put that down to many years of practice! Seriously though, whilst the tabloid press has a tendency to feed that stereotype with cheap headlines and cricket writers who hail from villages that are missing their resident Idiot, the average Brit cricket fan is probably looking at the MCG pitch thing as a complete non-issue. They realise that it is perfectly OK for home teams to prepare pitches to suit their own strengths, if that is indeed the case here. Mind you, there were some Australians who whined like Qantas jet engines when the Oval pitch was dry and dusty in 2009 but they soon shut up when I remind them that Australia chose not to play Nathan Hauritz in that game.
If the MCG pitch has been changed to suit the Aussie quicks, what's the problem with that? England should have the skills and personnel to cope with that. If they don't adjust, they don't deserve to retain the Ashes. Simple as that. Likewise, when Australia tours India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, there's a reasonable chance that spin might play a significant role in determining the outcome. Is that still not Test cricket? Of course it is. In years gone by, we prepared turning pitches at the SCG in a desperate bid to derail the West Indian juggernaut of the 1980s. Allan Border spun them out for goodness sake! I can't recall hearing the West Indians moaning about that pitch.
And all the talk of Perth's excessive bounce is a bit exaggerated anyway. Most of the key English wickets fell to the swinging ball, not throat-high bouncers that were spooned to leg gully. Yes, the bowlers may have pushed the batsmen back and then caught them on the crease with full-pitched swinging deliveries but if that's not good Test cricket, what is? I haven't (yet) heard Strauss or the intelligent British press afford this issue any more currency than it deserves. For good cricketers, Perth is not the Australian fortress that some journalists make it out to be. In recent years, India and South Africa have beaten them at this venue. If they want to replicate those conditions in Melbourne, England should be prepared to play better cricket or surrender the Ashes. I don't think we'll hear much whingeing if they get thrashed again because I don't think it's in England's nature to make excuses for poor performances. Both Andy's (Strauss and Flower) are men of substance and would not hide behind such poor excuses.
England seemed to get a lot more "in your face" in Perth. Was that likely to work against this Australian team?
Yes, I noticed that too and it struck me as an incredibly stupid thing to do, if in fact it was an orchestrated tactic rather than the aberrant behaviour of a few individuals. Why was it stupid? Well, to begin with, Aussies rarely get adversely affected by sledging. They get sledged by the midwife at birth and at every point afterwards all the way through the system, through club and Sheffield Shield ranks. I have rarely come across too many good Australian cricketers who play poorly as a result of being sledged. If anything, it tends to lift them. So why England would adopt this as a team strategy (and I'm not saying they necessarily did) when all the momentum was with them after Adelaide? Why risk waking the slumbering beast? I can understand this tactic being employed if England were trailing in the series and clutching at straws to try and change momentum but watching Jimmy Anderson's pathetic efforts to out-sledge the Aussies just made me laugh. Why not just concentrate on swinging the ball and leave the trash-talking to those who think that such behaviours define 'real men'?
Likewise, if it is true that Kevin Pietersen targeted Mitchell Johnson when he came out to bat in the first innings, the question remains: why oh why would you be that stupid? Here is a man who's lost his radar, not scoring any runs and on the verge of being over-analysed to death. Why give him any reason to turn that poor form around? Again, I can understand if Johnson was bowling the house down and Pietersen was looking for something.... anything.... to distract him. But this was a man whose form was so poor that he was walking the plank, facing inner demons and national ridicule. Where was the downside to being sledged? Even allowing for the fact that Pietersen is not the sharpest tool in the shed, you'd think someone else in his team would have told him to shut up.
On that theme, does this tense, almost fractious, atmosphere define Test cricket and the hard men who thrive under the verbal pressure?
Does it bollocks!!! In my opinion, the best Test cricket is defined by bloody good cricketers who execute their physical and mental skills to the nth degree and emerge from that contest with pride and dignity. Witness Mike Hussey. Witness Sachin Tendulkar. Witness Dale Steyn. Too many commentators (and ex-players) eulogised some of the childish antics in Perth by suggesting that this was needed to motivate players to raise their games to the next level. What? Is playing for your country in a Test Match not enough to motivate you? Do you need to be needled in order for national pride to swell in your breast? And childish it was too if the Prior/Siddle altercation is truly to be believed; that one of them suggested they settle their differences at the back of the grandstand after the day's play. How bloody ridiculous! Seriously, was that ever likely to happen, Prior and Siddle squaring off behind the Lillee Marsh Stand whilst the public were streaming out of the ground at 6 pm? If either player actually admits to this, he should be shamed for the coward he is because there is nothing courageous about an empty threat. It's like a poodle yapping ferociously at the passing Alsation whilst sitting in its owner's lap. Good on you boys - real men you clearly are NOT if that tale is true.
The whole sledging thing in Perth is just cowardice dressed up as bad manners. Some argue that it takes a bit of sledging to fire them up and that brings out the best in them. In that case, how come Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar rarely get sledged? I've rarely seen Rahul Dravid cop much either. Surely any bowler would need an extra 10% to bowl out these great players so why not sledge them and fire up the internal neurons? How come Malcolm Marshall or Curtly Ambrose were left well alone? From my experience of observing sledging, it generally tends to be frustration, poor manners or a calculated ploy targeting a perceived weak character. And that's a sign of manhood? Test cricket is much more noble than that and the truly great men who define it, Tendulkar for example, have the dignity and grace to look down with contempt at those who seek to cheapen it with uncouth behaviour.
Robert Mugabe, controversial figure though he may be, has this quote attributed to him, endearing me ever so slightly to the man: "cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen". Different strokes indeed.....
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane