'Scared dinkum' and dead-drunk Australians
Many things conspire to unsettle touring teams - dodgy food, unfamiliar weather, hostile media, homesickness - but in 2005, ahead of that summer's Ashes series, the hard-man image of the Australians was confirmed when a leading player was dropped for being drunk, and it then took a big knock when it emerged that the squad had been scared witless by a ghost at their Durham hotel.
The Australians had already started the tour badly, subsiding to a 100-run thumping by England in the one-off Twenty20 international. While that was dismissed as inconsequential by Australia's captain Ricky Ponting - "We've had two months off and there's rustiness" - he set himself up for a fall by adding there would be no excuses in the NatWest Series, which started four days later.
A few more eyebrows were raised when they lost the warm-up against Somerset (albeit a county side; a game in which Graeme Smith and Sanath Jayasuriya both scored hundreds), but Australia were still 100-1 on for their opening ODI against Bangladesh in Cardiff.
If publically the Australians said they realised the need to get back to winning ways, that did not extend to all the players. In his book Roy: Going For Broke, allrounder Andrew Symonds said he decided to go on a pub crawl in Cardiff the night before. "Ah, it's only Bangladesh," he reasoned. "A little bit of fizz won't be a worry."
He returned to the hotel in time for breakfast and Ponting said his suspicions were raised when he noticed Symonds was wearing the same clothes as on the night before. Michael Clarke dragged him back to his room and forced him into the shower before the squad headed off to Sophia Gardens.
Ponting recalled watching Symonds detach himself from the main body of players pre-match. "[He] leaned against a wheelie bin that was on the edge of the field," Ponting said. "As he did so he fell over."
Ponting angrily told Symonds he would not be playing and was further incensed by the reaction. "'Right,' was his response, but he said it in such a casual 'see-if-I-care' way that it wound me up even more. I was furious at a player being so disrespectful to himself, his team-mates, his opponents and his country by turning up to play a game in that state, and I blurted out, 'He can go home then!' to [Adam] Gilchrist before heading off to speak to John Buchanan."
Rather than apologise, Symonds told Buchanan: "I'm right to go. I've played like this before." That cut no ice.
While the initial explanation given to the media was that he had come down with flu, it was evident to anyone at the ground early, which included almost all the media, that as Symonds had been present at the warm-up, the real reason was not that one.
By early afternoon the Australians had to come clean, as a weary-looking Symonds nursed his sore head on the team balcony.
The day continued to go downhill for the Australians and Bangladesh romped to a five-wicket win, much to the undisguised delight of England's media and public, who after four successive home thumpings by Australia finally started to believe this could be the turning point. That sense of hope was further boosted when England beat the shell-shocked Australians in Bristol the next day.
The Australians immediately headed north for their next match at the Riverside four days later and checked in at the 700-year-old Lumley Castle hotel. If they expected an uneventful stay then there was a suspicion their backroom staff had not done their homework.
Local legend had it that the castle was haunted by a 14th-century lady of the manor who had been thrown into a well when she refused to convert to Catholicism, and in 2000, three members of the West Indies squad had checked out of the hotel early after being spooked by bumps in the night.
The day after they arrived the press were tipped off that there had been issues with some of the Australians. Contacted by the Sun, Belinda Dennett, Australia's media officer, spilt the beans perhaps more enthusiastically than was needed.
"I saw ghosts," she said. "I swear I'm telling the truth. Several of the players were uneasy, although a lot of them in the morning said they were fine but maybe they were just trying to be brave."
"I looked out of the window and saw a procession of white people walking past. It was amazing, very scary. Then I returned to bed and the blind went up again - and there was someone looking in through the window. I know I wasn't dreaming because I wrote down the message from my phone and the time. Certainly, when I started to tell my story, a lot of them didn't want to know the details."
The Sun then revealed that Shane Watson was so terrified, he had fled his own room and slept the night on Brett Lee's floor. Faced with a mocking headline - "Scare dinkum - Aussies caught by the ghoulies at 'haunted' hotel" - Dennett tried to backtrack. "I know what I thought I saw," she said. "I think perhaps the shadows and the moonlight were playing tricks on my mind."
When Australia next took to the field at the Riverside, again against England, Watson was subjected to a barrage of ridicule from spectators, some of whom turned up in Scream masks. Even out in the middle he was not safe, at one point Darren Gough sneaking up to him, doing a ghost impression.
A few days later Watson told the Sydney Morning Herald that while he had not actually seen a ghost, he had been scared by the team's bus driver into believing the local legend.
"Geoff Goodwin, our bus driver, started to wind me up massively about the place being haunted," Watson said. "He said certain rooms are more haunted than others. Then I went back to my room, and it was a tiny little room, and I had to walk through a dungeon to get there, so I got a bit spooked out.
"I didn't see anything but it was a very spooky sort of place and it definitely freaked me out - things that probably aren't there but some people believe are there. I think I've grown up a bit since then."
He did admit that he had taken refuge on Lee's floor and that he "didn't sleep for four nights" while at the hotel.
By the end of June, Watson was downplaying it further. "[It was] a pretty inconsequential story," he claimed. "But I've kept the article because I really got a good laugh out of it." By the end of the summer Watson and the Australians were not laughing.
What happened next?
- Australia won the ODI at Durham and then tied with England in the NatWest Series final at Lord's. Despite winning the first Test they lost the Ashes 2-1 to give England their first home Ashes series win in 18 years
- Andrew Symonds continued to court trouble and his international career was finally ended when he was sent home for a breaching team curfew ahead of the 2009 ICC World Twenty20 in England
- Watson scored 38 runs at 19.00 and took four wickets at 41.50 in the five ODIs he played in England in 2005
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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa