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Warning for Englishmen abroad

By Martin Johnson

3 January 1998

AS England's cricketers fly off to the West Indies this morning, it is a source of great comfort to know that every player has been exhaustively briefed about what to expect when he gets there.

The obvious things they were already aware of, namely that the gentle breeze wafting past the nostrils smells too much like leather to be a Caribbean trade wind, and that, on all past evidence, they will end up with enough battered fingers to attract a sponsorship deal from Birds Eye.

However, when the wheels fell off the public relations wagon in Zimbabwe last winter, the bigwigs at Lord's concluded that a spot of extra tuition in local colour and custom was called for, to guard against a repeat attack of failing to get on with the natives.

Had this system been in place 12 months ago, England might not have touched down in Harare harbouring the apparent belief that the natives all wore loincloths, and fired poison darts from jungle blowpipes.

It was in the aftermath of the ``murdered 'em'' tour that Lord's decided to add to a list of appointments that has grown so vast that the 1998 annual meeting will probably have to be held at the Royal Albert Hall.

The latest addition to the payroll, therefore, is an ex-NATO man with the grandiose title of international teams director, whose remit includes coaching the lads in the subtle arts of local customs. Ergo, when someone with a Rastafarian hat and bloodshot pupils asks Atherton whether he would care for a bit of grass, this should not necessarily lead to the conclusion that he is the Sabina Park groundsman.

The ITM's debut seminar last month, on the other hand, was not a rousing success. When some Lord's blazer starts telling you that it can get pretty hot in the Caribbean at this time of year and that waving large banknotes around in downtown Kingston after midnight is liable to leave you requiring treatment on something more serious than a physio's couch, a cricketer's attention is prone to wander. And before long a series of suspicious mobile phone calls began to have a somewhat depletive effect on the audience.

However, evidence that the ITM's input embraces more important concepts than what factor of suncream to pack was readily available at Gatwick last Monday night, where the A team tourists were assembled in preparation for their departure to Kenya and Sri Lanka.

Approaching England Cricket Board chairman Lord MacLaurin in the hotel lobby, ITM had encouraging news. ``I've been in touch with the FO'' (civil service speak for the Foreign Office) ``and the Kenyan elections have gone beyond their wildest dreams. Apparently, they've gone off with no serious deaths.''

When you are travelling to potential trouble-spots, it can only be good for morale to know that any fatalities will be classified as minor, and Mike Gatting, who is coaching the side along with Graham Gooch, looked particularly relieved. Gatting's only worry now is the Kenyan cuisine, which Gooch is presumably hoping will add to his reservoir of Gatting after-dinner jokes. ``If that ball from Shane Warne had been a cheese roll,'' Gooch is fond of telling his brandy and cigar audiences, ``it would never have got past him.''

Another delivery which got past him sprung to Gatting's mind when the chairman of selectors David Graveney told the assembled media that at least two of the Test pitches in the West Indies Sabina Park and St John's - would be unknown quantities because they had been dug up and relaid.

It was on a relaid Sabina Park pitch in 1986 that Gatting became the first of many suspects in the ongoing ball-tampering saga, when closer inspection of the ball that struck him was found to contain a piece of bone from his nose.

Graveney was also batting on a tricky wicket at the press conference, convened to announce that Atherton would be captaining the one-day side in the West Indies, despite a groundswell of opinion that the job should go to Adam Hollioake. Graveney's actual preference was for Hollioake, but after failing to persuade either Gooch or Gatting, he announced the decision as ``unanimous''. This was fair enough in the effort to present a united front, though Gatting knows better than most about ``unanimous'' decisions from Lord's. David Gower was announced as a unanimous choice as captain in 1989, despite the fact that Gatting had already been told the job was his before losing it on Ossie Wheatley's veto.

As Gatting found out, captaincy also has something to do with keeping up appearances, which is why Atherton, somewhat bizarrely, flew back from holiday in Jamaica this week only just in time to slip into his blue England blazer and fly back out again. Not being there to lead the troops on to the plane was deemed to be poor protocol, and, in any event, solo flights back to England - usually after a visit to the X-ray department could also be regarded as an integral part of tour preparation.

This is Atherton's second visit as captain, following his 1994 trip, which held a variety of differing memories. After the 46 all out in Trinidad, Atherton joined the Sun newspaper's hall of turnip fame, only to be promptly canonised - as is the way of things with the British media - after becoming only the second England captain to win a Test match in Barbados.

The first, in 1935, was Bob Wyatt, who celebrated with a fully-flannelled dip in the Caribbean. Fifty-nine years later, however, Atherton was too knackered to even crawl under the shower. ``Jump in the ocean?'' he croaked afterwards. ``I went straight to bed.''

Such is the nature of modern Test cricket, particularly against this opposition. On his last Caribbean tour, Atherton's helmet became the equivalent of a fairground coconut.

In fact, the only recorded instance of a West Indian fast bowler aiming at the stumps on that tour confirmed the now well established, subsidiary spectator sport in Test cricket - stump demolition. When England clinched their famous victory in Bridgetown, Curtly Ambrose took such a violent swing at the timber with his bat, that Alec Stewart, fielding at square leg, only had to bend down to collect his souvenir stump.

Stump wrecking has come a long way since Keith Fletcher's apologetic bail-dislodging prototype in Bangalore, as Chris Broad demonstrated in Sydney when he reduced the woodwork to a pile of cocktail sticks. The record for sheer volume of wreckage is held by a West Indian, Philo Wallace, who was so miffed by an umpiring decision that he laid waste the stumps at both ends. And yet another West Indian holds the record for maximum carnage without the assistance of a bat, when Michael Holding trashed the stumps with a hefty swing of his right boot.

The prospect of further additions to Wisden's stump abuse column may account for record travel agency bookings from England's supporters this winter. Other peripheral contests will include, in Antigua, the Barmy Army struggling to make themselves heard and noticed against the eardrum-perforating steel band and the resident transvestite disco dancer with an even louder wardrobe. The Caribbean is the England fan's favourite overseas venue, and Barbados and Antigua, in particular, are liable to sink several yards towards sea-level under the combined weight of Gullivers' Travel bags.

The other Test venues, on the other hand, are slightly less enticing. In Kingston, not even the Barmies are barmy enough to venture downtown after dark and, while it is perfectly safe to take your money out late at night in Georgetown, the catch is that there is nothing there to spend it on. The highlight of the trip used to be sitting in the back of a taxi changing your money on the black market, but even that small avenue of pleasure has disappeared with the arrival of a stabilised bank rate.

However, if you are a keen angler - such as Atherton - then Georgetown is definitely the place to be. When it rains, which is more or less every day, you can forget cricket, but you can take your rod down to deep square-leg at the Bourda Oval and catch anything from a sea trout to a lobster.

The members' bar has a high tide water mark halfway up it, and regulation dress is not so much collar and tie, as snorkel and flippers. Guyana is also so delightfully disorganised that Guyana Airways once managed to lose their one and only plane after putting it in for a routine service in the United States.

One of the more intriguing aspects of England's tour is whether, given the perceived decline of the West Indies fast-bowling, batting is as dangerous as it usually is, and that also applies inside the press box.

A local television commentator once received death threats after suggesting that a Trinidadian be dropped for his home Test, and on the 1990 tour in Antigua, an English journalist so enraged Vivian Richards that the West Indian captain, instead of leading his team on to the field, burst into the press box and told him that it would probably be healthier if he consulted the local airline's departure schedule. Viv, in fact, perspired so heavily over his notebook, the journalist half thought about sending it away for forensic analysis.

It is sobering to think that when captain Cowdrey presided over England's last successful mission to the Caribbean, Captain Armstrong had yet to be briefed by Cape Canaveral's international teams manager on how to deport himself in the event of bumping into a tribe of miniature Teletubbies offering souvenir chunks of green cheese.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 18:28