Tuffer’s Alternative Guide to The Ashes – Phil Tuffnell

The 2023 Ashes Series is starting on Friday 16th June, for those of you who don’t follow cricket this is one of the oldest bilateral sports tournaments in the world, starting in 1877 and pits Australia versus England at cricket in a series of five day matches. It’s worth noting that it didn’t gain the name of ‘The Ashes’ until the ninth test match between the two sides, which took place in England in 1882 and which England somehow managed to lose from what should have been a winning position. This led to a mock obituary appearing in The Sporting Times on 2nd September 1882.

The urn containing ‘the ashes’ was presented to the captain of the touring England team in Australia that Christmas and is now kept at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London as it is extremely fragile, only rarely being removed from its glass display case for ceremonial occasions, and has only actually travelled to Australia twice in the intervening years. It isn’t the official trophy for the tournament but symbolises the rivalry between the two countries but replicas and images of this tiny, 6 inch (15cm), vase are to be seen whenever the two teams play each other and its silhouette can be seen on the front cover of this book between the words ‘The’ and ‘Ashes’.

This year there are five games to be played in June and July at various venues across England, five games is the most common number of matches but it does sometimes alter. Phil Tufnell played in five of these series and both his first and last test matches for England were against Australia. It should be noted that at the time the England team were pretty weak and the Australians very good so he never got near to being on the winning side in an Ashes series. Tufnell retired from playing serious cricket in 2003 and gained a job as a summariser on The BBC Test Match Special which he still does and he continued to play cricket for celebrity teams for many years after his official retirement.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but thought it would probably be descriptions of his experiences and whilst those do appear, the book is a whole lot more than that. In fact it is a highly entertaining look over the entire existence of the tournament from the first matches and includes the origin story of the Ashes urn but also lots of stories of players and games over the entire, almost 150 years, that England and Australia have faced each other on the cricket grounds in both countries. These range from when in 1903, back before aeroplanes existed and it would take three weeks by boat each way to get to the tour, the England team on their way out managed to lose a game of deck cricket against a team of female passengers. In 2001 The Australians hosted a charity function in Manchester and the first auction item was a chance to train with the team, bidding was slow as the room hadn’t really got going when they started this so a couple of Australian players decided to bounce the bids on a bit, which was fine until Steve Waugh ended up winning the auction and paying £500 to train with his own team-mates.

Scattered through the book are lists of ten players in various categories including, ten fast bowlers Tuffers was happy to have never faced, ten Ashes blockers and ten Ashes bashers amongst other selections. These are fun as it’s not just a list but reasons why. Chris Tavare is probably the best of the blockers that I have seen and he once spent ninety minutes at the crease without scoring anything at all and had on a different occasion taken two hours to score nine, not entertaining but incredibly frustrating for the Australian bowlers and winding them up led to mistakes.

My copy is the first edition hardback from 2013 published by Headline and I have to wonder why it has languished on my shelves for ten years its been a really fun read and here’s hoping for an equally fun summer of cricket.

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Steve Smith’s men – Geoff Lemon

20190625 Steve Smith's Men

The moment you pick this book up you notice the texture of the printed title, it looks and feels like the sandpaper that caused all the trouble and the crash and burn of Australian cricket in South Africa that March day in 2018. Geoff Lemon has covered the team for many years and this is his analysis not just of what happened in Cape Town but also just how did the Australian national team come to be in this mess in the first place. However as Lemon points out at the start of chapter three

This book is not a detective story. It won’t give you every detail of what happened in the Cape Town dressing rooms…

… Only once careers finish will talk begin. Someone can write the comprehensive history then.

What Lemon does do is look deeply at the team and make as good attempt as can be done now as to what happened and why.

For those people who don’t know the background to this, Cameron Bancroft was seen rubbing the ball with sandpaper to roughen it and make it swing more during the Test Match against South Africa. More details can be found on the BBC website here which details the bans given to Bancroft and also the captain Steve Smith and his vice-captain David Warner after this incident.

However this isn’t just about cricket it is also a look at the psyche of a team that formed an effectively closed group and how harmful attitudes were just amplified as there was nobody from the outside to point out how the worst things became normal and then continued on a downward spiral egged on by certain members. As such it can be read as a useful resume of just how groups can deteriorate if left to their own devices. As Lemon points out the team became self selecting, performance on the field became secondary to being mates and being seen to fit the culture that had been created. At times it reads like a real life Lord of the Flies, and just as self-destructive, no matter how good you were you wouldn’t get in the national team unless you were one of the gang and that gang was so tight knit that they rejected all suggestions that things might be wrong.

Things had been going wrong for years and Lemon looks back over that time not just at the team but also at the governing body, Cricket Australia, to try to track why Australia had become the most disliked team in world cricket. Chapter 21 “Australia’s Cricket Culture” starts with five pages of quotes all riffing on the theme that they “never cross the line” meaning that they play hard but not beyond limits, the problem was that the Australian team wanted to set the limits and wanted them further in the distance for them than their opponents. Although stressing that this was a much older problem Lemon decides to focus of the England tour of Australia over 2017/8 to emphasise the build up to the South African debacle. This was a pretty bad tempered few months with Australia emerging the clear victors so they should have gone to South Africa on a high especially given their record in that country, but things started to go wrong soon after they arrived at the first test match. The sledging on both sides was distinctly unpleasant, Warner had taken considerable offence to references to his wife and this had led to a fight almost breaking out after they left the field which unfortunately was caught on camera. That it was Warner, who is probably the nastiest sledger in world cricket, who took offence is ironic in the extreme but that set the tone for what was to come. The Australians claimed that the attempt to alter the ball in the third test was the first time it had been done but nobody believed them so the one caught along with the captain and vice captain had to go, not because of the cheating, but because they were caught out telling bare-faced lies that just kept the story going. If they had just held a press conference at the end of the day and admitted to what had been done then there would have been fines from the match referee but probably not much more.

The book is not only incisive but funny and difficult to put down, the one problem with it getting a wider readership may well be the frequent use of expletives, the ‘f’ and ‘c’ words appear a lot. Now that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Lemon is trying to show where things had got to and on-field abuse hurled at the opposition, known as sledging, is often quoted verbatim and this may put off some readers. I think he was justified in the use of language because of the story he is trying to tell and it is a thoroughly good read.