Ballance, Curran, Ball – not the most obvious culprits to pay the price for the dismal showing by the England team in the recent Ashes series Down Under. Ballance did not even play in a Test match, Ball was selected for the first Test when clearly not fit and was immediately discarded and Curran performed manfully, if ineffectively, in the final two matches. One can point to others – Vince Stoneman, Broad, Ali – who performed no better, even worse perhaps, with more opportunities but who have not been dropped. How come? As usual with these things, I suspect there is more to it than meets the eye.
Throughout the tour, and even before they had set off from these shores, the team were dogged by accusations of ill-discipline and poor behaviour off the field, some of it justified but a lot of it, in my view, not worth a hill of beans. Let us get one thing straight right away – England did not lose the Ashes because they spent too much time in the boozer. Australia were by far the better team and in any case not much that happens on the field of play can be directly ascribed to previous nights’ activities. I have known players take five wickets on the morning after a convivial night out and others who have made a duck after retiring to bed at ten o’clock. Each person must prepare himself for battle on the morrow in the way that he sees fit. If he doesn’t and is as a result not mentally sharp and physically fresh for the challenge ahead, then he is a fool and unlikely to survive very long in his chosen profession. “Look, you’re no longer a student,” I was told when I first joined the staff at Hampshire, “Nobody expects you to behave like a monk but you must be ready to play at 11.00 – every morning.” How we took that advice, whether we took that advice, was up to us.
It was different in those days of course. The distinction between amateurs and professionals had been abolished a decade earlier but residual attitudes could still be found here and there. Playing for ‘fun’ was not an entirely fanciful notion in the minds of one or two of our number, especially those who had another career lined up. Take the legendary Philippe-Henri Edmonds, for example. Playing cricket (for Middlesex and England) was merely a pleasant prelude to the serious business of building a multi-million pound corporate empire. Always one with a fiercely independent streak, he fashioned his conduct, on and off the field, according to his own lights. Can you imagine what his reaction would have been if he had been placed under curfew whilst on tour? Hampshire’s own legend, Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, famously had this to say when asked about the rules governing his team’s behaviour on away trips: “I expect my boys to be in bed by midnight. If not, they are to come home immediately.” Even Richard Gilliat, a successor of Ingleby’s as captain told me many years later that one of his main concerns was making sure “you lot were in bed at a reasonable hour.”
Those days have long gone. The landscape has dramatically changed. Players are paid much more now – astronomical sums in the eyes of our generation – and therefore are expected to behave more professionally and more responsibly when on duty. Not all of them do, mind you – the incident with Ben Stokes at 3.00 am outside a seedy Bristol nightclub is one such example – but generally speaking, current cricketers take it more seriously than their forebears. I refer to lifestyle, training, diet, routine, practice, everything that happens off the pitch. I bend to no-one in my conviction that on the pitch we took it as seriously as anybody, in whatever era.
The question remains whether the unlucky trio made to pay for the debacle in Australia had been warned about their refuelling habits and ignored those warnings or whether they have been made scapegoats for other, perhaps more senior, players’ failings. The answer to that will probably come out sooner or later. The fact of the matter is that they should never have put themselves in a position where their behaviour in public could be criticised. Mobile phones, social media, instant communications, the whole digital paraphernalia of modern life, have put a completely different perspective on touring and relaxing during the evening. My opinion is that loss of privacy and freedom is a small price to pay during a short career, considering the rewards on offer. But my gut feeling is that it is all a bit of a shame. None of us got rich playing for Hampshire in the 1970s. But we had a hell of a time.