As England’s Ashes party touches down in Australia, every celebrity snapper will be polishing their lenses – and not only the professionals now that social media has empowered everybody with a mobile phone and a Twitter account.
Joe Root was in jet-lag heaven as he comfortably fended off a few desultory questions about Ben Stokes at an arrival media conference at Perth airport, but such feeling of well-being is unlikely to last. The ambush must be planned for further down the line.
As a consequence of the police investigation into Stokes’ dead-of-night behaviour outside a Bristol nightclub, however that plays out, England’s cricketers can expect to be under scrutiny from the outset.
How they react is set to become the biggest test not just of Root as a fresh-faced young captain but, more pressingly, of Andrew Strauss’s role as managing director of England cricket.
Every night out will be scrutinised as potential proof of an excessive drink culture – something that Root has already been forced to deny exists. Every hint of boorish behaviour will be gleefully displayed.
Nightclubs will be staked out, bar staff pressed for information and, if the habits of the 1980s are revisited, and if a cash-strapped newspaper industry can still raise the money, maybe even an escort girl or two will be encouraged to see what traps she can lay.
It is Strauss who must determine how England approach their task off the field which, from the moment that Stokes became front-page news, turned into just as big a challenge as the five Ashes Tests that lie in wait.
Kevin Pietersen, English cricket’s great libertarian, who prizes nothing more than his own individualism, fell out with Strauss in his playing days and he has not been short of advice for his former captain about how England should approach their down time.
Pietersen wants England to party when they can – in defiance of those who want their social freedom to be strictly curtailed. The gist of his comment was that if England don’t get hammered off the field they’ll sure as anything get hammered on it.
“When we had the great tour Down Under in 2010-11, we had the most incredible couple of nights out at the start of that tour, which brought the team so close together,” Pietersen told ESPNcricinfo in an exclusive interview.
“I know that it sounds so stupid, but if you go and get hammered as a team on a night out – as senior and junior players – so long as you don’t do something ridiculously stupid, the bonds you can create there are better than any ridiculous sessions you can do in the forest in Germany.
“You can go out as long as you’re sensible, it doesn’t matter. You have to enjoy your career, you’re away from home so much. You cannot just be ‘hotel, team coach, dressing room, practice, play, journalism, hotel, food’ … you just can’t do it, it’s just not in you.”
On this, Pietersen has a point. To feel at home on the field, it is advisable to start by feeling at home off it. Remaining cooped up in the team hotel for months on end can have a devastating effect on a player’s state of mind, and subsequently his form. That is even before the more philosophical consideration that, even in such highly-rewarded times, touring is also a life-affirming opportunity to broaden your experience.
Drink responsibly, and in company, and at sensible times, and England’s Ashes tour party should have the confidence to smile at any iPhone they come into contact with – and receive the ECB’s blessing as they do so. That Australians will give England a tough time can be taken for granted but, socially, the vast majority will respond warmly to a show of spirit and bonhomie.
The connection between alcohol and social bonding is embedded in British culture as any walk through a town centre on a weekend night will testify.
A study in the British Medical Journal three years ago calculated that James Bond, the archetypal British hero, drunk four times more than the Government-approved limit. And 007 did not have time to play sport, in which case it would probably have been even higher.
Before sweeping assumptions are made about modern-day Britain, the latest survey by the Office for National Statistics does suggest that young adults are much likelier to be teetotallers than their older counterparts, up to 27 per cent, although it should be said that abstinence is primarily affected by cultural and religious factors. The rise in craft beers, which come at a premium price, have also encouraged a shift from quantity to quality. The picture is a more complex one than it first appears.
“A study in the British Medical Journal three years ago calculated that James Bond, the archetypal British hero, drunk four times more than the Government-approved limit”
The disciplinarians within English cricket want the corporate image to be protected at all costs – this is a game, after all, which is entrusting its financial future to a new, family-friendly T20 tournament. That could be sensed in England’s tour photo with Remembrance Day poppies worn a full fortnight before the actual event.
They want England’s players to be put on a tight leash in Australia. Time even for emergency measures: a ban on leaving the hotel on match days, security officers always on hand on non-match days for the few occasions they do, and strict curfews imposed.
The brewers, Greene King, have already shelved an advert involving, among others, Stokes. And the ECB would prefer the picture of Stokes swilling back beer from a giant-sized trophy after England’s last Ashes victory in 2015 to disappear for a while.
Talk of England cricket’s drink culture can be overstated. By and large, this is a responsible era (sometimes boringly so), not the chaotic atmosphere of the 1980s. England’s players did not survive their flight around the world with endless visits to the drinks tray. Instead, they were equipped with a printout advising when to sleep and when not to, to take on plenty of water and to hit the gym as soon as possible, all intended to minimise jet lag.
Strauss does not accept that England have an out-of-control drink culture and, by inclination, he wants to give players as much personal freedom as possible. Since taking up the England team’s top job, he has advocated more personal choice over training regimes and adopted a generally liberal attitude to how players run their lives, believing that they must develop a sense of personal responsibility.
In Strauss’s absence, as the tone of the tour is set, Alastair Cook, as a former captain, and Paul Collingwood, a former stalwart added to the coaching staff, can play an important support role for Root in ensuring the balance is right.
But even Strauss’s tolerance has been sorely tested. He has made England’s players aware that further misdemeanors will not be tolerated. Not that it seemed to have an immediate impact.
Only a few days after Stokes was interviewed by police about a fight outside Mbargo nightclub, and Strass had laid down the law, Jos Buttler – as much of a global T20 superstar as England have ever produced – held his stag weekend in Amsterdam.
Strauss encouraged Root and Stuart Broad to give the trip a miss. Sure enough, a freelance photographer captured Buttler’s stag group – a mix of old mates and England cricketers including Eoin Morgan and Steven Finn – tossing around a dildo in the red-light district and staggering off a canal boat after a day’s hard drinking.
The stag weekend passed without official opprobrium, although there were a few sighs of despair. Harmless fun, lads being lads, no damage done. This is the UK: for better or worse, it is what we do.
The naivety, though, was breathtaking. If Strauss is to succeed in his wish to give England’s players freedom in Australia, then it is time that they rewarded his trust.