Warner revels in panto villain debut
It is held by many Australians to be an indisputable fact that the English are incapable of watching cricket without yearning for it to turn into pantomime. While English crowds might be appreciative of great athletic performances, what they secretly want more than anything is the chance for a cheap laugh or two. Why applaud talent when you can have a chuckle at it?
That being the case, the Old Trafford crowd adored David Warner. Since the moment that Warner flung a punch at Joe Root in a Birmingham bar, this was the moment they had been waiting for.
Such has been the earnest debate about the Decision Review System that you might have assumed it was impossible to turn it into comedy gold. But Warner managed it, insisting on a review when he edged Graeme Swann into the knees of the wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, and on to first slip where Jonathan Trott took the catch.
It is possible that many in the crowd wrongly assumed that the ball had travelled directly to first slip, all of which deliciously heightened their sense of disbelief when Warner reviewed it. The best pantomime villains do not want for self-delusion and here, it seemed, was proof that Warner was perfectly equipped for the part.
Every conceivable oddity of DRS has been explored in this series but this was the first time that a batsman had responded to his edge by crying "oh, no I didn't" and 25,000 people had felt able to holler "oh, yes you did". He has even regrown his moustache for this series, as if to get in character, although it is a shame he could not run to a swirl of a cape.
Warner, incidentally, like all pantomime villains, should have properly come on first, but then Australia are incapable of getting their batting order right. Instead, he appeared midway through the morning session on the second day, with Australia 343 for 4, but the Old Trafford crowd knew a cue when they saw one, even one as delayed as this, and boos and catcalls rained down.
It was as visceral as booing has ever been for an Ashes villain: for the majority just a bit of fun, for others a genuine expression of disapproval.
He had grinned at Trent Bridge at the barracking he received from the crowd as he strolled around the boundary during the first Test. As Ashes villains go, he seemed a dangerous man to abuse. Especially when you looked at the scoreboard.
Naturally everybody wanted Root to bowl at Warner, just for the hell of it. It would be a great ruse, not as much a Test match spell as a bit of taunting. In the Sky commentary box, Shane Warne sounded ready to burst on to the outfield to give Root the ball. But Alastair Cook is too strait-laced a captain for such ploys. He insisted on decorum. Warner would probably have had to reach the 90s before he would have resorted to it.
As it was, he only lasted 10 deliveries but it is a fair bet that they were watched more avidly than most. Michael Clarke provided the grace, but Warner provided the devilry. He sparred at a sharply-turning ball from Swann and then used his feet to drive him expertly through extra cover for four. Billy The Trumpeter played the theme from Rocky. Then came his brainstorm.
There was a reason for Warner's confusion on being given out because he also felt his bat strike his pad and that was enough to convince him that the edge had not happened, that the umpire had got it wrong. No batsman likes to be out but there was a particular desperation about the way that he appealed to Clarke for a chance to review.
What can a captain do when his most troubled, put-upon player begs to be given an even break? Clarke allowed the review - not, one sensed, because he felt that Warner was right, but because on this occasion it mattered so much to him that it would have been inhuman to deny him. It identified Clarke again as a soft and sensitive type. Steve Waugh would have growled: "On your way, mate."
Mike Brearley knows what it is like to be an Ashes pantomime villain, this time with Australian crowds delivering the abuse. On the 1979-80 tour, he was a politely spoken, cerebral England captain, struggling for runs. Like most captains had to in those days, he also had to assume the role of England's shop steward, right down to the arrangement of net sessions, while Alec Bedser, the tour manager, sought out old Australian friends and took a more relaxed view of life. He was an ideal target.
The psychology of Ashes villain is an intriguing one. Brearley remembers how for him the role heightened every experience. When he was feeling confident in himself, he was even more determined to succeed. At the times when his confidence was low, his notoriety made him question his ability more than ever. His emotional reactions were liable to be more extreme. At a New Year revue, an actor friend told him that at least notoriety was better than being ignored.
Brearley was not the sort to reveal such extreme mood swings in the way he played, but then he did not play in the days of DRS. Perhaps even he would have reviewed against his better judgement in the hope that just for once the script would change.
Warner was always among the favourites to be an Ashes villain this summer. James Pattinson auditioned for the role at Lord's by mixing verbal aggression with a spate of wides and no-balls but Lord's, the one exception, is not really a panto audience, much preferring to regard itself as slightly operatic.
And then Pattinson suffered a stress fracture of the back and headed home anyway. It was a disappointing end, but he has considerable talent and there will be the chance of an encore. Pattinson - never far from a mirror according to his own captain - probably imagined he was too good looking for the role, but if his ill luck with stress fractures gives him a bit of a theatrical stoop, you never can tell.
Even before Pattinson departed, though, Warner was the only choice. There are two ways to become an Ashes villain. It is a role that is most often awarded to character cricketers - a recognition, variously, of the melodramatic sledging favoured by Merv Hughes or the ragamuffin fielding of Phil Tufnell - or one that arises primarily because of circumstances, a response to Ricky Ponting's anger at being run out by an England substitute, Gary Pratt, or Martin McCague's decision to play for England in defiance of his Australian upbringing.
Warner, a cricketing pugilist, is as big a character cricketer as Australia possess. He has a reputation for getting a bit chippy with the crowds, which is also a good thing. But from the moment he slugged Root in a Walkabout bar, he qualified as a villain on both counts - not just because of what he was but also because of what he had done.
Throwing a punch at Root was an embarrassment, but to come up with the alibi that he had been offended by Root's use of a green-and-gold wig supposedly to do an impression of Hashim Amla explored the boundaries of self-delusion so perfectly that the casting department had its man.
Ashes villains come into being because, for reasons good or bad, they enhance our appreciation of the day. They connect with us and, even when the jeers are at their height, we are grateful for that connection. That is just as true in a summer when Warner's behaviour has been so out of order.
As Warner stalked from the outfield, face as black as thunder, to derisive waves of goodbye from spectators on the big temporary stand, he would not have gained much comfort from that. In the last throes of the day he missed a chance to run out Cook by inches. That really would have been a twist in the plot. But, as Brearley's friend assured him all those years ago, better a pantomime villain than barely being noticed at all.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo