The last week or two, Australia’s cricketers must have been sitting back chuckling with a mixture of satisfaction and disbelief. Media outlets from Australia and Britain have been competing with stories about England’s status as a team of raucous boozehounds, running a rolling frat party from state to state and scattering the Ashes hopes of a nation along the way. Indeed, it’s hard to decide which camp is more bullish about an England tour in disarray.
All this after two minor incidents, one long before the Test series started and the other from a player who's not in the squad. England's cricket boss has been the single biggest contributor: Andrew Strauss has shot himself in the foot so many times that he could use his shoe for a colander. It is comical, in this environment of weaponised sanctimony, ahead of the third and potentially deciding Test at Perth, that the home side has gone quietly about its business, while the visitors have been singled out as having an alcohol problem.
Australian cricket teams have a longer relationship with booze than they do with England, since well before Warwick Armstrong was nailing double whiskies as he walked out to bat in the early 1900s. Steve Waugh's derelict baggy green fell apart from the beer-soakings of so many Test wins rather than the years of sun soaking. Simon Katich and Michael Clarke had their Darth Vader moment over a choice of venue. Andrew Symonds skolled his own career. David Warner's beer-battered boxing is discussed ad nauseam. And Steve O'Keefe has multiple offences for being a first-rate boor while on the sauce, but was brought back in August to play a Test for his country while banned by his state.
After the corresponding Ashes fixture four years ago, Mark Taylor made a television safari into the dressing room so that players could awkwardly pour incongruous bottles of sponsor-mandated Peroni over him and each other. The 2015 World Cup was the scene of Warnie's famous thirst-based line of post-match interrogation. Brad Haddin spent an hour trying to find a way to pour liquid into a spherical trophy.
The coach, Darren Lehmann, posted photos of celebrations at sunrise, and several players were praised as good sports for getting on morning radio while still hammered. In the current era, Lehmann's player-management tactics begin with "sitting down over a beer." A few days ago, he gave a chuckle-filled reminiscence to the Guardian about drinking leftover bubbles from his helmet before going out to bat still steaming in a county game.
None of these examples are raised in criticism. Any screed against drinking from this correspondent would be a hypocrisy monolith of Uluru proportions. There are legitimate arguments against alcohol’s centrality in Australian culture, but I’m poorly placed to make them. Doctors, chefs and dive instructors will all tell you that their industry is the hardest drinking. Media types are no different, tying booze to a sense of validation about the intensity of our work. For absurd hours under pressure for mediocre reward, the standard release employs glassware.
More broadly, cricket both in Australia and England is inextricably enmeshed with booze. Andy Bull wrote tellingly about the British version: "Root's England team may or may not have a 'drinking culture', but they definitely do have an official beer, an official lager, an official cider, an official wine, and an official champagne."
Conflict of interest
Cricket Australia takes the simpler wine-and-beer approach of a low-cost wedding, though the vino jumps on the big screen every other minute, while grandstands this summer are full of the beer sponsor’s giveaway caps mimicking the baggy green. All of this is juxtaposed with the Milo kids promoting a softer beverage at lunch breaks, and the administrative focus in recent years on drawing children to the game. To refit an old joke: why does CA like XXXX? Because they can’t spell “conflict of interest”.
As for spectators, the outer has long been synonymous with getting catatonic. Start with the cans hurled at John Snow – in the days when you could bring a slab of beer per head – and end with this year's Gabba swimming pool surrounded by people drinking from shoes. My older colleagues all have tales of the nation's cricket hills in full swing. Adelaide still tries, though the punters are downgraded to midstrength beer that requires planning, endurance, and superhuman capacity to reach intoxication.
There are no such limits for the members, to whom privilege grants a false supposition of class. At Adelaide this year, an overzealous security guard shoved a spectator towards four cops so they could hold crisis talks over two miniature whiskey bottles, while one minute’s walk away the hospitality area heaved with drunks bouncing between the craft beer tent, the Pimms tent, the wine tastings, the champagne tent, and the cleverly named Vodka Bar. There may have been 50,000 through the gates, but half of them weren’t watching the game.
So, which is it? Either you’re against all this or you’re not. There are higher demands on professional athletes, but if you steep your sport so lovingly in hooch, you can’t grimace at what you draw from the still. Yes, it beggars belief that after all the negative press, a player would celebrate a non-curfew night by going to a bar and throwing beverages around. But being drunk doesn’t magically make you obnoxious. It might mean you think you’re allowed to be, if you have been before. Being a dickhead becomes an entitlement, even an expectation, all part of the unedifying macho culture so prevalent in sport.
It’s not inevitable. The night after the Adelaide Test, I ended up in the same bar as a few players from both teams. They were pleasant, understated, and genial with passers-by. No beers were dumped on heads, no heads were butted, no one shouted lad anthems. When the Englishmen pulled a Cinderella just before midnight, it seemed absurd that they should have to leave a civilised environment for something as juvenile as a curfew.
It is entirely possible to behave more like this and less like what has been reported. We all learn what you can and can’t do while under the influence, even if the process can be slow. England don’t have a drinking problem. They have a behaviour-while-drinking problem. At least for the last few weeks, the Australians have managed to abstain from that.