Australia’s on-field commanders have sent a salvo across England’s bows, but their strategy could backfire.
Every sporting event has that moment; when the hyperbolic build-up demanded by the modern media crystallises into reality. The par three competition at Augusta National, the Olympic Games opening ceremony, the FA Community Shield; regardless of the practice rounds, the disciplines that began early, the lower tier fixtures, these are the moments when the extended periods of dispassionate analysis give way to involuntary reflexes. The saliva fills our mouth, our eyes narrow to tunnel vision, our heart skips a beat.
The forthcoming Ashes series has just had its such moment of clarity. The troops have been mustered, the first manoeuvres are underway. David Warner has taken a single white Gray-Nicholls glove and swiped it across the collective face of the tourists. “As soon as you step on that line it’s war,” Warner said on ABC Grandstand. “You try and get into a battle as quick as you can”.
Glenn “5-0” McGrath has held the starter’s pistol for several years now, his biennial whitewash forecast reaching such routine levels of predictability and comedy that we half expected it to come sponsored by a betting company quoting the latest odds on an Australian rout. Warner has certainly upped the ante; his warning shot, bereft of playful banter, has altered the tone drastically.
The immediate and obvious way to interpret his call to arms is as a direct shot to the most obvious current weak spot in England’s armoury. His fighting talk neatly references the apparent actual scrapping of the talismanic Ben Stokes in the cold early morning Bristol air.
Picking up on the cue, Steven Smith was keen to ram the point home. “I certainly don’t condone that kind of behaviour. Hopefully it never happens to one of our boys. Let’s hope we never cross paths with that.” Ignoring for a moment the glaring hypocrisy of the position adopted by the captain and his understudy, given Warner’s own history of planting his fist on Joe Root’s jaw, it’s not as if this really compounds the funk England currently find themselves in. Yes, the matter is unresolved, but the ECB have managed the situation well in swiftly putting the matter into an effective holding pattern. As propaganda, this seems like old ground.
At worst, we could interpret this as Warner reprising his distasteful remarks about Jonathan Trott during the 2013 Gabba test. Only any further comments from Warner will show whether this view might be an overstretch, but such an overt challenge invites the utmost scrutiny.
It would be safe to assume that Warner does not need to talk himself into being motivated for the Ashes. Shane Warne has described how he used to pick a spurious fight with a member of the opposition to focus his mind, but this was in the context of finding motivation on a single morning of an individual test when fatigue may have started to set in. Warner, like the other 21 players who will line up for the anthems before the first test, is surely straining at the leash. Hatred, a most unhealthy emotion, is not conducive to the control required by elite sportsmen, nor is it a necessary stimulant.
However, there may be another explanation, of which Warner himself is not even consciously aware.
Whisper it; David Warner might be scared.
In the context of the intriguingly balanced series ahead, even sans Stokes, perhaps Warner cannot bear not to be in control of the situation. Taunting England in this way makes sure that he is the man currently driving the conversation, the loudest voice in the room. He is the one posing the questions; it is for England to answer.
If we assume that the proven brilliance on either side cancels each other out – Smith vs Root, Cook vs Warner, Anderson vs Starc – the differential becomes the unproven elements. Ballance vs Khawaja, Malan vs Handscomb, Finn vs Bird may be the battles that determine the destination of the urn. Given this uncertainty, Warner’s inner voice may not be able to resist trying to tip the scales.
Whether this is the case or not, England may be happy with Warner’s outburst. The story deflects attention away from other issues and provides them with a focus for their own channelled aggression. Giving England the silent treatment would have been the more intelligent play. If anything, Warner may have witlessly performed a great service for his opponents.
All in all, perhaps we are reading too much into the crass proclamations of a man with a T20 brain incapable of playing the long mental disintegration game. Time will tell. For the moment however, we must continue to shuffle our tin soldiers around our notional cricketing Risk board. When the action begins in earnest, we know that Warner can run his mouth, but can he parlay that into runs and hurt England when it really matters?