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'A whole nation went up in arms about someone not walking'

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'You realise how big the Ashes is when Japanese news crews turn up' (1:55)

Graeme Swann, Michael Vaughan, Mark Butcher and Kevin Pietersen discuss the impact the media has during the Ashes. (1:55)

If the stature of a sporting event can be measured by the level of media scrutiny it attracts, then England's rookie Ashes tourists are in for a treat at the Gabba later this month, when the build-up to the 2017-18 Ashes will truly get underway.

"Before a normal Test match, you'd probably have 20 media outlets on the outfield; before the Ashes you can't see a blade of grass," says Graeme Swann, who made two Ashes tours of Australia in 2010-11 and 2013-14, and will be back out there this winter as a BT Sport pundit. "It's huge and if you've never played before it's quite the eye-opener. You realise how big it is when you've got Japanese news crews there. You think: 'This is amazing, I'm going to be big in Tokyo at last!' But you can only be big in Tokyo if you win."

If the Barmy Army are England's unofficial 12th man on Ashes tours, then it could be argued that Australia's press corps perform a similar role for the hosts. They can be partisan, relentless, amusing and exhausting, endlessly probing for weaknesses in the touring party, and merciless when they find any. And given the circumstances of England's latest visit - with Ben Stokes absent following his headline-dominating exploits on the home front - it seems only a matter of time before the paper pressure gets ramped up a notch.

And if any organisation can be relied upon to light the blue touchpaper, it is Brisbane's Courier Mail, who did just that at the same stage of the tour four years ago, ahead of what would prove to be England's traumatically comprehensive - and agenda-setting - defeat in the first Test at the Gabba.

The paper's target of choice was England's Stuart Broad, who had infuriated their editors by refusing to walk for what had been, admittedly, a fairly blatant edge to slip during England's hard-fought 14-run win in the first Test of the 2013 series at Trent Bridge.

And so, five months later, Broad was greeted in Queensland by newspaper headlines that refused even to name the "27-year-old English medium pacer". The campaign was gleefully seized upon by the Gabba's famously partisan crowds although Broad, true to his reputation as a scrapper, duly responded with six wickets on the opening day of the series, and marched into that evening's press conference with a copy of the paper under his arm.

"That still makes me giggle," says Swann, his team-mate on that trip. "A whole nation went up in arms about someone not walking, and this from a nation whose catchphrase when I first went to play cricket there was 'you only walk if you miss the bus, mate'.

"The only people who weren't up in arms about that were the Australian cricket team," Swann added. "The press would have you believe we were at each other's throats, but not a sausage [from them]. As for refusing to print Broad's name, we didn't know about that until Broady went to the press conference with the paper."

"What the Aussies are going to do this time round, I've got absolutely no idea," says Kevin Pietersen, another of Broad's team-mates on that ill-fated 2013-14 tour. "I know there will be a couple of front pagers in Brisbane, but they're going to have to play well and have to do something pretty special to unite that team and get it back together, because Stokes was the core in that dressing room."

Pietersen's A-lister lifestyle meant he often acted as a lightning rod for media coverage during his England days, and as a consequence, he found that the column inches that he generated tended to be rather more intrusive than those of his team-mates.

"How quickly would a positive newspaper fail?" Pietersen says. "I mean, it would fail that quickly that you wouldn't even be able to type up your second edition.

"I had a few real bad personal experiences in Australia in front page and back page of newspapers, but that's part and parcel of playing in an Ashes series. You can take it one of two ways. You can hate it, fear it, be scared of it, run away from it, or you can take it on, accept it, understand it. Just don't challenge it."

As far as Swann is concerned, however, no amount of newsprint should ever be able to unsettle a player's equilibrium.

"The England changing-room bans newspapers anyway," he says. "It's not helpful, you're going to read a lot of stuff that's just made up. The players will find it easy to ignore that - it's the cameras that are hard to avoid - every time you turn the news on, every time you walk out of a hotel or leave the airport. You feel famous for a while. It's great!"

That said, England's arrival for this series was arguably rather low-key compared to previous tours, not least because the reporters at Perth Airport struggled to recognise many of the less familiar names in the tour party, such as Dawid Malan, James Vince and Craig Overton.

But the pressure has since been building throughout the early weeks of the tour, with injuries and form issues adding to the media frenzy as England work their way through their warm-up matches.

"In a player's mind, those three warm-up matches feel like Test matches because of the exposure around them," says Michael Vaughan, England's Ashes-winning captain in 2005, and now a BT Sport commentator. "Those little moments of a player walking off with a niggle, or one spell of bowling that pushes you into contention. They can be draining for a player, because in terms of media focus, there's almost more focus on those three games than the Test match."

"It's not a battle you can win, so there's no reason to try," says ESPN's Mark Butcher, a two-times Ashes tourist in 1998-99 and 2002-03. "But, in cricket matters, you have to be on the front foot. Don't give an inch in the press, and don't go out of your way to play the game they are playing, which is to get a rise, get a reaction, turn you confrontational. You can't win."

The only way that you can win, in fact, is to win on the field, something that Butcher remains fondly, if fleetingly, from his roles in England's victories in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne in 1998-99, and at Sydney four years later.

"The best thing is the day after, flicking through the pages of the newspapers, and seeing their incredibly loyal journalists squirming around, trying not to give England any credit for the win. It's a good word, isn't it, 'loyal'? I was trying to be safe!

"And you'll feel vindicated because, invariably, the team will have been slagged off for anything and everything. It's a bit of a fingers up to say we're not quite as bad as you think we are."

That said, Butcher concedes that the stakes have been raised in the 20-odd years since his first Ashes tour, largely due to the improvement in England's fortunes. Notwithstanding their 5-0 defeats in 2006-07 and 2013-14, England have won five of the last seven series dating back to 2005, and as a consequence, there's an edge to the media coverage that didn't exist when every series was a thrashing.

"Things have been ramped up to almost twice the fever pitch it was back then," Butcher says. "Let's face it, their press, our press, our players and their players, no-one believed we were going to beat them. There was no jeopardy there, but now neither side is a dominant force, both have frailties, both have areas that they'd prefer to be stronger.

"The one thing that Australia has as an advantage is that they are at home, and they will use that to their advantage in ways that they didn't need to 20 years ago. Back then, they had Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. The volume and psychological games were lower than now."

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