November 8, 2013

Broad's mighty challenge

Few England players in the modern era have been booed to the extent Broad will be. Will he rise to the occasion?

Stuart Broad does not know what is about to hit him. He cannot because there is no precedent. Hundreds of England players have been lucky enough to experience Bay 13's unique take on the concept of banter, but in the modern era - when fan-player interaction took on a slightly different hue - none have been booed to the extent Broad will be.

As with England fans booing Ricky Ponting, a gesture that was at best misplaced and at worst disgraceful, it is difficult to understand why Broad should be quite so unpopular. He recently won a poll to find the English cricketer who most got under Australians' skin, finishing above Douglas Jardine and Sir Ian Botham with nearly half the vote. All because he did that most Australian of things: he did not walk.

The Australian culture of not walking is so entrenched that Adam Gilchrist said he felt "very lonely" in the dressing room after walking against Sri Lanka in the 2003 World Cup semi-final. Broad will feel even lonelier out in the middle because he did not walk at Trent Bridge last summer. It is arguable that the real villains of that infamous incident were Aleem Dar, who failed to spot a pretty clear edge, and Michael Clarke, who had frivolously used up both of Australia's reviews.

The whole thing has the feel of a media construction - or perhaps a social-media construction, a textbook example of modern society's new favourite sport, faux outrage, and increasing aversion to independent thought. The desire to castigate Broad has led to thousands of people wilfully ignoring the fact that he edged the ball to Brad Haddin, who fumbled it to first slip. The story goes that Broad middled one to slip and did not walk. It wouldn't be a complete surprise if, by the year 2050, the story goes that he slapped one to cover, refused to walk and head-butted Ashton Agar.

A Melbourne company, which specialises "in T-shirts protesting wrongs which deserve attention such as Japanese whaling, notorious civil wrongs and the like" have identified the existence of Stuart Broad as one of society's principal ills. They have released a t-shirt that reads: "Cheating is a Broad church. Never forgive." The company website says "the artwork on the T-Shirts is confronting and designed to raise awareness by peaceful protest". Which should not be confused with cynically cashing in, at A$40 a pop, on a story that wasn't particularly interesting in the first place, never mind four months later.

There are reasons why Australians might dislike Broad: he is good-looking and can be petulant, but against that he has qualities that Australia traditionally admires in its cricketers. Few pretty boys have such a hard nose. Broad has plenty of mongrel, is capable of genuinely great performances and - deceptively important, this, as Phil Tufnell and Devon Malcolm will tell you - is a brilliant fielder. His villain status does not really stand up to cursory scrutiny.

Maybe that's the point. The England cricketers Australia loves to hate are often those for whom they have a grudging or latent respect, with Jardine, Botham and John Snow the most obvious examples.

Broad has plenty of mongrel, is capable of genuinely great performances and - deceptively important, this, as Phil Tufnell and Devon Malcolm will tell you - is a brilliant fielder

Mike Brearley was a different story. Although the quote that defines him - "he has a degree in people" - came from Australia, he is not venerated as he is in England. The image of Brearley seems to be that of an effete, effeminate intellectual, who grew a beard to try to show he was hard, and who - worst of all - wasn't good enough to get in the team anyway.

The Australian way of picking the XI and then the captain would have meant no room for Brearley. But then it might have meant no room for Ray Illingworth, who, while also an Ashes villain, is the subject of much greater respect. Just as love is often undefinable, so can hate be, a judgement that is maybe one part logic, three parts instinct. Often it comes down to nothing more than whether someone is fair dinkum or the cut of their jib is likeable. Then again, with Illingworth, maybe Australians unconsciously recognised Lancashire and Yorkshire as suburbs of their own country.


That didn't help the Yorkshire-born Rockley Wilson during his only Ashes tour in 1920-21. Wilson and Percy Fender wrote for some English newspapers while on tour, and one piece in which Wilson was critical of the umpiring was relayed to Australia. That led to him being barracked by the crowd; when he responded by bowing, things got worse. England asked for police protection at one stage, and crowds chanted "Please Go Home Fender", a play on Fender's initials, for much of the rest of the tour.

Often the hatred is of the pantomime variety: Tufnell's brain and the building of an idiot, or the pig with "Hemmings" and "Botham" daubed on each side. But there is no doubt Australian cricket fans are the harshest judges around. Just as bands are nothing until they have cracked America, so cricketers are nothing until they have cracked Australia. The simplest way to do that is to have ticker and tekkers, to be a talented, attacking cricketer with heart and personality.

Most do not get close to satisfying this Australian demand. "Everything about Chris Tavaré annoyed the Australians in the early 1980s, right down to his acute accent: he was the antithesis of their idea of a cricketer," writes Matthew Engel on Tavaré's ESPNcricinfo profile.

It is a cricket culture that has had never had much time for those who are perceived to be boring. Geoff Boycott and Trevor Bailey were others. But slow scoring is not a crime per se: Mike Atherton, "the cockroach", was hugely respected by Australian crowds and players for his obvious toughness. Even when he eventually became Glenn McGrath's bunny, he never lost Australia's respect.

The primary reason is Atherton never showed weakness, even when he could barely move because of his back. Australians resent weakness, whether it's Steve Harmison's wide, Gubby Allen's refusal to bowl Bodyline, or Ian Bell's constant struggles from 2005 to 2009. Bell's Ashes character arc is almost cinematic: he was a chump, widely ridiculed, compared to a hopeless virgin from a teen film, yet last summer he produced arguably the greatest performance by an England batsman in a single series for the last 40 years.

It's one thing to not be good enough for Test cricket - such players are held in complete contempt - and another to be good enough but not strong enough mentally to fulfil your talent. In Australian eyes that is probably a worse crime, and it was certainly perceived of players like Mark Ramprakash, Andy Caddick, Graeme Hick, and for a time Bell. They formed a sub-genre: the Ashes villain as victim, nothing more than Poms to the slaughter. Interestingly weakness is sometimes excused: Graham Gooch asked to be dropped during the 1989 Ashes, anathema to the Australian cricket culture, yet his reputation survived because of the credit he already had in the bank.

Martin McCague was in debit before his Test career started. McCague, christened the "rat who joined the sinking ship", probably got the worst stick of all the Australian-born players to represent England, although Alan Mullally and Craig White were not too far behind. On the 1994-95 tour McCague hailed a taxi after a dinner at the British Embassy. The driver wound down his window, saw McCague and said, "Oi. You're that bloody English traitor. Clear off mate. I'm not taking you."

Stuart Broad is wise enough not to hail too many taxis on his own over the next three months. He should not really be one of the great Ashes villains, but he is going to feel like one.

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