The Ashes: November 21, 1998

Sparks set to fly between Botham and Chappell

Martin Johnson

The opening day of an Ashes series is always heavy with tension but after all the hype and speculation as to who would land the first blow in cricket's longest-running feud, it was actually a bit of let-down. Australia and England slugged it out toe to toe - or to be more accurate, microphone to microphone - but when they turned out the lights in the Channel Nine commentary booth, there was not so much as a drop of blood on the carpet.

Pairing Ian Botham and Ian Chappell together in the same studio was a piece of matchmaking that belonged more to Mickey Duff and Don King than Channel Nine, who, true to the Australian tradition of fearless machismo, then went the whole hog by putting them on air at the same time. Sky, on the other hand, kept them apart, possibly because they were not quite as heavily insured against breakages.

In the world of punditry, Botham and Chappell make Jimmy Hill and Alan Hansen come across like Romeo and Juliet. It is a saga that goes back 21 years and an altercation in a Melbourne bar close to the MCG. Suffice to say that if either of them ever received a Christmas parcel from the other, and heard it ticking, he would not so much tear off the wrapping paper in the expectation of discovering a Cartier watch as drop it into a bucket of water.

Chappell has neither been a great admirer of English cricket in general down the years (sample offering: "The Poms' greatest contribution to the game? They invented it.") nor of Botham in particular. When Botham was recruited as unpaid bowling adviser, Chappell's response was suitably unflattering. "The only thing Botham can teach English cricketers is how to roll a spliff," he said.

Needless to say, when the pair made their debut on an eve-of-Test-match programme, it generated more electricity than one of Brisbane's tropical storms. Chappell did his best to get up Botham's nose by opining that England would not win a single Test match in this series, and when the interviewer wound up the show by asking whether the pair of them would be having a beer together after the game, a lengthy period of silence was broken by the Australian. "I won't be."

Botham, in turn, does not much care either for Chappell or for Australia's long-running hauteur over opposition widely derided in these parts as being just about capable of giving a game to Tasmania's second XI. When it comes to preening over their successes, Australia have few rivals and during this week's first Test build-up, The Australian newspaper published pen pictures of the team they pronounced to be the second best in the world. They were Australia reserves.

Botham and Graham Gooch, the current tour manager, were sufficiently upset to walk ostentatiously out of a dinner during the 1992 World Cup here when an Australian comedian began making jokes about the monarchy (although it was also a good excuse to get out of a turgid evening) and Alec Stewart's patience was similarly stretched on Wednesday night at another dinner at Brisbane City Hall.

Officially billed as a welcome party for both teams, England's players had to sit through an orgy of awards to seven Australian cricketers - Border, Boon, Lillee, Warne, Marsh, Healy and Taylor - not to mention a male soloist and a local youth choir belting out a rendition of the Australian theme song for this series: Go, Aussie, Go! At which point, Stewart decided there was only one team that was going and they went, England, went.

However, if England thought they might finally be free of this self-congratulatory atmosphere when the Test match came around, they were sadly mistaken. As the teams lined up yesterday morning, Mark Taylor took the rostrum to accept an award for his 100th Test appearance in a ceremony which went on for so long that the Australian captain was finally left with only four minutes to get his pads on.

It was probably a toss that Stewart was not unhappy to lose, given that the Gabba is usually fast-bowler friendly on the opening morning. Even so, this was not a pitch that was as firm and bouncy as it was predicted to be, as we witnessed when Tony Greig managed to sink the obligatory car key into the surface. Cricket's commercial exploitation even manages to embrace this little ceremony nowadays and as Greig's key slipped into the turf, the cameras honed in to reveal that it also slipped into the ignition of an Avis Rent-a-Car.

Australia's decision to bat postponed the duel between Michael Atherton and Glenn McGrath, in which the Australian had publicly promised to lay on his own fitness test for Atherton's back by providing him with plenty of bending exercises. This, too, according to Stewart anyway, helped in England's motivation and there is little doubt that they are (for the moment, anyhow) a much happier and focused team than we have seen abroad for some time.

There was even a lighter side to the John Crawley business up in Cairns, where the local police are investigating allegations that he was punched by a local. Gooch, calling a press conference when the team got to Brisbane, smilingly informed the media that the inquiries were being conducted by ("straight up, I'm not kidding") an Inspector Wardrobe. Cue jokes about an open and shut case and hanging offences.

It also helps that those in charge of the team have a decent relationship, which was certainly not the case on England's last visit here in 1994-95. It got to the point where Raymond Illingworth was so openly dismissive of Keith Fletcher that the mild-mannered Fletcher finally cracked at a Sydney press conference, where he referred to his meddling boss as "that fwipping man Illinwurf".

Here, in stark contrast, the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, is happy to leave the team's day-to-day affairs to a (thus far) equally relaxed David Lloyd. Neither does Graveney share Illingworth's capacity for grumbling should places like Australia turn out to be something other than carbon copies of his native Pudsey.

Graveney is far too genial a man to go around moaning if he can't find a decent pint of Tetleys, or fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, although his unflappable nature may yet be tested by his recent attempt to pack in cigarettes. He is in the right place for it, given that Australia is so anti-puffing that they might yet bring in legislation to have the latest hit film here renamed Lock, Stock, and Two Non-Smoking Barrels.

The players are also being better looked after than has sometimes been the case in the past, and Gooch was recalling the other day that the expenses for the World Cup here in 1992 were so mean that he negotiated a new deal after spotting Stewart and Graeme Hick carting their coloured clothing off to a Melbourne laundromat.

Their accommodation here in Brisbane also has them verging on the pampered and when Gooch went down to the hotel brasserie the other night for a management meeting, the waiter asked him what kind of beer he'd like. Gooch replied, tongue in cheek, that he rather fancied a pint of Adnams but while the waiter regretfully announced that this was not possible, he then despatched a taxi to one of the local bottle shops to bring back some cans of Theakstons.

"Just the one can," said Gooch, perhaps mindful that England selection meetings in the past have aroused the suspicion that several gallons of Old Headbanger must have been involved. One of the more staggering statistics from the past five (losing) Ashes series is that Australia have used 33 players, and England 56.

This time, though, they have at least avoided the negative selection that many feared, even if Robert Croft's credentials as a balancing addition to the attack was slightly tempered by his end-of-season position in the domestic averages -142nd out of 144. There was also plenty of aggression from the quicker bowlers, although Steve Waugh is such an old hand at this sort of thing that he clearly found Alan Mullally's keenness to engage him in short-syllabled conversation mildly amusing.

Meantime, up in the commentary box, Botham was nobly resisting the urge to remind Chappell about his innings of 138 when England came to Brisbane as even bigger underdogs than they started here, and won at a canter. Mind you, this would only have given Chappell the chance to compliment Botham on his long memory. It is a hideous thought, is it not, that the man who celebrated his 100th Test yesterday had not even played his first when England clinched their last Ashes series in December, 1986.