Mike Gatting had just turned around his hitherto barren 1994-95 tour of with a double century against Queensland in Toowoomba. Then, while fielding, a ball took a rogue bounce and hit him in the jaw, breaking it and leaving him unable to bat, or shave, but worse than those, eat. England’s stocks by then were so threadbare that physio Dave Roberts, after patching up Gatting, took the field in borrowed whites. Well, he was on tour to provide relief.
It was a different time. Tours were longer, ancillary staff fewer, preparation variable. Some of the English journos had a standing arrangement to meet at 7.30 each morning for a run. One morning, also in Toowoomba, I rose to join them, but at the appointed hour found no-one in the hotel foyer. At last, after 15 minutes, one appeared, singlet back-to-front, eyes sunken, hair standing on end.
What had happened, I asked. In reply, he said one word, the name of one of the England players. With lawyers watching over my shoulder, I won’t repeat it here, but suffice to say it wasn’t who you might have expected. He had drunk the journos under the table the previous night.
The years have rolled by. Tours are shorter and sharper now, auxiliaries outnumber players, preparation is more wholesome and clinical. For England’s last tour in 2013-14, a nutritionist rang ahead with detailed instructions about meals at each ground. Piri piri, tofu, pumpkin seed and goji berry breakfast bars, mungbean curry with spinach all featured. Fairfax Media’s Chris Barrett got the leek, and also heard about the story first.
But one thing has not changed. As soon as the English arrive in , they begin dropping like the flies Douglas Jardine once was cautioned to leave alone. Some fall to injury, some mental health, some loss of form. Some pop off at the least opportune moment. In 2002-03, highly regarded seamer Simon Jones tore his ACL while fielding on the first morning of the first Test, and was not seen again on tour. He had taken an early wicket, but by day’s end, were 2-364.
In 2006-07, accomplished opener Marcus Trescothick played two early tour matches, then went home because of stress and did not play Test cricket again. There were many others. Last time, in 2013-14, Jonathon Trott went home with Johnsonintus after the first Test and Graeme Swann retired after the third, two in a procession that would see England burn through 18 players in the series. So much for the healing power of kale. At least it meant the pain of losing by whitewash was shared around.
Marcus Trescothick arrives back in England after leaving the 2006-07 Ashes tour. Photo: PA
This time, England have been in the country barely a week, and already Steve Finn has torn a cartilage and gone home, Moeen Ali and seamer Jake Ball have worrying twinges, and this tally does not include Ben Stokes, who is not here because of his own, unique injury problem. At the Adelaide Oval this week, the makeweight in borrowed whites was assistant coach Paul Collingwood. As a player, he made a Test double century there, but the rule of thumb in is that Collingwood on the Adelaide Oval means desperate days.
To lose one player is unlucky, three … unluckier. There is no ready explanation for this frailty. It is not unknown in reverse – Craig McDermott left England after one Test in 1993, Adam Gilchrist before one in ’97 – but it is rarer. Conditioning ought not to be an issue. The tyranny of distance is no more, not really. The late Peter Roebuck, when young, wrote of ns as “strange, leathery creatures”, but in truth English and n cricketers are as familiar to one another as if in one big troupe. What was instructive about Dave Warner’s recent well-publicised remark was not the idea of idea of his “hatred” for England, but that he has to work it up.
Hard pitches have an impact, hostile crowds, too. Still, they seem inadequate to explain this chronic English ague. England is the higher-ranked team in this series, and the Ashes holder, and yet English author Jon Hotten summed up the country’s mood when he asked on Twitter what might be the German-style compound noun for the general feeling of dread abroad. Mitchtwitchglitchzeig, we suggested. But maybe it is just “medic”.