Mind Games Trump Sportsmanship as Ashes Cricketers Go to War

Most cricketing commentators have been at pains to say Jonathan Trott's stress-related illness is due to the general pressures of the game and not this particular Ashes series. They doth protest too much. For the nagging, unspoken concern is that Australia's relentless psychological war on the touring side has already taken a toll.

Most cricketing commentators have been at pains to say Jonathan Trott's stress-related illness is due to the general pressures of the game and not this particular Ashes series.

They doth protest too much.

For the nagging, unspoken concern is that Australia's relentless psychological war on the touring side has already taken a toll.

No one wants to say it, but from both the standpoint of their dominant First Test win to the pressure verbally put on Trott afterwards, Australia has wrested a harsh advantage in the mind games that have long been a crucial component of any Ashes series.

Hardened campaigners, the likes of Ian Botham and David Gower, will not admit to it because that would only make it worse. But their demeanour is one of worried dads who would like nothing more than to knock a few heads together than watch their boys be cruelly treated.

It is shaping up as the most vitriolic contest between the two sides in living memory, with England now blanking the partisan Australian press in protest.

Since 2009, barring this past year, Trott has arguably been England's best bat, cementing the number three position with an impressive consistency and resilience. England's greatest successes, indeed the success of the team as a unit, has largely been built on the dependability of James Anderson, Trott and captain Alistair Cook. They are the foundation stones of a potentially great side, and as good as Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad are, their roles have been supplementary - the icing on the cake.

In the Brisbane Test, after Trott was peppered with bouncers "whanging", as one commentator put it, around his ears he safely popped a catch to Nathan Lyon at backward square leg, ending his second innings with a despairing nine (To add to the 10 he scored in the first).

Fighting his own demons, unbeknownst to the opposition, the 32-year-old already had his problems. But was he nudged towards that subliminal precipice by the words of David Warner?

Nuggety, moustachioed Warner, the top scoring batsmen in the match (a position which normally evokes magnanimous platitudes to the losing side), twisted the knife unkindly.

"It does look like they (England) have scared eyes and the way Trotty got out was pretty poor and weak," Warner pressed his very public humiliation. "Obviously there is a weakness there and we are on top of it."

England coach Andy Flower called his remarks ''disrespectful'' and ''ignorant'', but there was no apology from anyone on the Australian side and less sympathy for Trott's plight than one might normally expect from the team and press.

It's not quite Bodyline yet, but speed, or the perception of it, is being pushed as a the factor that will determine matches. Broad was taunted by the Brisbane Courier Mail as a 'medium pacer' (his fastest ball is 93.5mph but he averages 84.7mph) in the shadow of Mitchell Johnson's regular 90mph missiles.

While Australian captain Michael Clarke's sledge to Anderson, telling him to expect "a fucking broken arm" from a fast ball cannot be fairly analysed without knowing the context in which it was spoken, it was still shocking (Peter Siddle claims Anderson started it by threatening to punch George Bailey).

But at that point in the game, when the tailenders were in, and England had no realistic chance of either winning or salvaging a draw, was that threat from the captain (setting an example for his team) absolutely necessary.

The answer is, of course, 'no'.

But this is where the tactics of Australia have become clear, not so much in the build-up or course of the game, but in the aftermath.

For in victory, Australia has not relented. The rough, bullying treatment of England will go on until the home team secures the series or loses it.

It echoes the strategy of former Australian coach John Buchanan, who espoused Sun Tzu's classic military tome The Art of War.

Australia's current coach Darren Lehmann now speaks of the 'new age' of cricket where teams play hard ball and refrain from fraternising with their opponents until the series is finished.

"Jonathan Trott's gone home and I hope he gets well soon," said Lehmann, "but we're still going to play really hard cricket, and that's what we're about.

"We copped a lot in England, and we didn't shy away from that. That's what happens - you expect it when you go away. So I don't see what the difference is from England to here, considering we're on the other end of it."

Big underdogs going into the series, Australia has had to reverse what was becoming a losing mentality.

The pasting in the press they received when in England for the last Ashes series, particularly after the Lords Test, got to the team and their play took on a harder edge from then.

At home the side has solicited the public and the press, who've responded nationalistically, barracking Broad with the bogus cheating accusation.

Some of it has been absurdist fun. The Courier Mail's refusal to mention Broad by name, even cutting him out of photos, has been as much an acknowledgement of the bowler's importance as it has been a jingoistic attempt to get under his skin.

Broad, Pietersen and Anderson have taken it in their stride, Trott, perhaps, could not.

For a team that has been comfortably on top of its game for several years the test for England now is how it responds to Australia's added ruthlessness.

I've heard a lot over the years about Australian cricketers being unsporting, but I've never believed it warranted. I think it suits the English at times to portray Australians as bad sports. In my experience the opposite is true. Australians generally respect good performances and are happy for the best man, woman or side to win. But over the past week it hasn't felt like that.

Expect to see the Australian players shift their focus to other perceived weak links. Joe Root will be in their sights. Young and already involved in the infamous fracas with Warner during the last Ashes series the pressure is on him to fill the vacuum left by Trott. Michael Carberry too.

Swann will be taken to at any opportunity.

And big Chris Tremlett, the more pedestrian of the English pace trio, will also come under pressure. There were signals in the second innings that Shane Watson was preparing to take to Tremlett and perhaps hit him out of the attack. Once the Australian batsmen manage that, the gamesmanship will start on him too.

Australia will also hope to provoke England's bowlers into a short ball war, that should favour the Aussie batsmen on the harder pitches they are used to playing on and with the intention of playing more attacking cricket.

If England were in any doubt about the mettle of their opponents they are no longer.

The public might, in fact, have to remind themselves at times that this is just a game - sport. For this series is not just going to be about who has the best bowlers, the best batsmen, the best team, it is going to be about who wants it more and who will do their worst and burn whatever bridges they need to for the win.

Enmity breeds enmity and these Ashes sides are enemies at play.

We are all in for a very interesting war.


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