The recent controversy around whether Australia's poor showing in the men's Ashes could be partly attributed to the distraction of having wives and girlfriends on tour has been the topic of serious discussion in the professional circles of my industry.
As an educator involved in running "life balance" programmes for elite sport, I am intimately acquainted with research and evidence around the fact that most athletes perform significantly better when in stable relationships that help them live as "normal" a life as possible. The notion that the two spectacular collapses at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge can in any way be attributed to the presence of WAGS on tour flies in the face of common sense and athlete-welfare knowledge.
The cricketers (and coaching staff) were the first to admit they played poorly. Hard hands, playing away from the body, not enough patience… all cricket-related skills that temporarily deserted this team. It happens. Cricketers and their partners are understandably bemused at the suggestion that there may be a causal connection between the presence of the latter and nicking Stuart Broad to second slip.
For athletes who are away from home as much as Australia's cricketers are, being able to spend quality time with partners and children is likely to result in superior performance. At worst, it is unlikely to result in the opposite.
Why should that come as a surprise? They play sport, for goodness sake. It's not rocket science, it's not medical science, it's nothing more important than hitting / bowling / catching a red ball. Why would being in the company of those you care about the most possibly be a performance negative - unless that relationship is seriously dysfunctional?
Are we insulting our cricketers by suggesting that their brains are incapable of concentrating on a seaming, swinging cricket ball because they had dinner with their partner, read a bedtime story to their child, and slept in the same bed as someone they love?
Is a surgeon required to be isolated from his or her family the night before they operate? Are airline pilots quarantined from their partners before they pilot a 747? Does a barrister lock himself away in solitary confinement the night before an important court case? Is cricket such a fine art that it requires more single-minded isolation than any other complex profession - among them high-pressure occupations like neurosurgery, for example?
The simplistic notion that WAGS are a distraction over-complicates a mere game of cricket. Are we to believe that before partners were allowed on Ashes tours, previous generations of Australian cricketers played Monopoly and went to bed before Wee Willie Winkie did his nightly rounds? Surely going to bars, nightclubs and restaurants must have been at least as distracting as ordering room service with your wife? I remain unconvinced that cricketers on tour (from any country) were never to be found in the arms of strangers on nightclub dance floors or in hotel bars, with all the attendant issues that went along, to do with keeping room-mates awake and experiencing the psychological discord that goes with hiding secrets from loyal partners.
I have been on many international cricket tours, before I was married, and later with my wife. I have no doubt which tours were more restful and stable. No cricket match I ever played has come close to matching the concentration required in my role as a wildlife guide, tracking dangerous animals on foot in the African bushveld. A mistake in this job has life-threatening consequences, not just the ignominy of mere sporting failure. I'm taking my family on safari next month. It has never occurred to me that I will be compromising their safety because their presence in my life negatively affects my performance.
Yes, there will be tensions, jealousies and personality clashes between spouses. These may be heightened by the unique nature of touring with a sporting team. But balance that against not having to deal with everyday household chores and higher-than-average earnings. To not credit professional cricketers and their partners with the ability to deal with these normal life issues and turn up for work with a professional attitude (like those in any other high-pressure job) is to suggest they are incapable of managing adult lives. In fact, toxic relationships, exacerbated by separation, are more likely to be a distraction than waking up to your baby crying. Being a husband, father, nappy-changer and excellent cricketer are not mutually exclusive.
Australia have won and lost Ashes series in the past when families were not allowed on tour. Bradman's Invincibles. Aha, no WAGS, no distractions, see? Spectacular Australian collapses in 1981 at Headingley and Edgbaston. No WAGS then. Not even the tail wagged!
Despite the criticism of their technical errors at Trent Bridge, these Australian cricketers are among the best 15 or so players in the country. So they were bowled out for 60. It happens. Stuart Broad and Joe Root were brilliant that morning. It happens. Most humans go to work and live with their families, warts and all. It happens.