Overblown head-butt incident could derail fragile England

Bairstow’s actions were innocuous but ECB have taken a grim view of Perth incident

Cameron Bancroft, his anonymity beyond Perth and Bristol now entirely blown, delivered a scorching straight drive and the Test match was won by Australia with chilling certainty after 70 minutes of play. Unbeaten on 82 on his debut he had batted most impressively alongside David Warner to ensure Australia's emphatic 10-wicket victory. Job done – or so we thought.

Forty minutes later Bancroft played even better in front of the assembled press corps, who only had a modest interest in his debut as an Australia cricketer. The headline news was the "head-butt". Of course, this was ridiculous but the way of the world. In front of the microphones Bancroft was immediately asked about the head-butt rather than the straight drive. He was funny, wittingly or not it was hard to tell, which only added to the merriment, though perhaps he was not quite so funny as Steve Smith, next to him, seemed to think. For the Australian captain, renowned as a bit of a comic in his youth, Bancroft had morphed into Billy Connolly.

However every representative of the England and Wales Cricket Board remained deadly serious. Andrew Strauss was busy and visible though Colin Graves was not sighted as a crisis loomed. There was obviously some fire-fighting to be done. The wagon was missing a wheel or two.

The initial effort was not an unqualified success. Jonny Bairstow appeared and gave an unscripted statement, which explained that everything had been "blown out of proportion". There was no "intent or malice". But somehow this posed more questions and sadly Bairstow was not going to take any questions to clarify what had happened on England's first night on Australian soil. Up stepped Trevor Bayliss. He loves talking cricket; he is relaxed when talking cricket but dealing with cunning, forensic questions from the likes of Fox News is not really his forte. He was unusually nervous and, no doubt, detesting the turn of events. All this was light years from his old Aussie cricketing upbringing. Perhaps Strauss, the politician, should have joined Bairstow in front of the microphones instead, though this would have indicated that the situation was terribly grave. Where was Malcolm Tucker when you needed him?


Absence of malice

Then Bancroft gave his detailed account of the evening, confirming the absence of malice and the friendly conversations; manna from heaven for the ECB until he mentioned the head-butt, which he took to be a weird northern English greeting. Perhaps it is. Even so amid the hoots of laughter Bancroft might have helped Bairstow’s predicament.

Yet it still felt ominous that Strauss was soon speaking to the English press in the same hotel that the announcement of Jonathan Trott’s departure was relayed four years ago. Arguably that was the moment the 2013-14 tour began to disintegrate. So there must have been a problem and Strauss was asked to identify it. He extended his arms like a weatherman to indicate that the very fact he had to discuss head-butting was the problem. Preposterously this constituted news, which did not reflect well on England’s tour party.

This saga should all pass by rapidly, but that is not absolutely guaranteed. There are dangers as the players pack their bags for Adelaide. An innocent incident born of high spirits can undermine a tour. On the 1990-91 Ashes tour there was the self-inflicted wound of the Tiger Moth incident. It was impossible to blame the Aussie news outlets for that; they just looked on aghast when the England management, comprising Peter Lush and Graham Gooch, took such a dim view of David Gower's little wheeze.

On Monday Mike Atherton was on hand to recall how he had received the first invitation from Gower for a deregulated flight but the young shrewdie, as he was then, declined the offer, which was more eagerly taken up by John Morris. The crass manner in which the management handled that affair resulted in a significant downturn on the field. Gower had been playing brilliantly in the Tests; he disintegrated quite spectacularly thereafter. At the Adelaide Oval he was greeted by the refrain of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines before wafting to leg slip just before lunch. Gooch and Gower did not leave the field of play together.

Bairstow will not be punished in any way for his head-butt by the management – and quite rightly so. But in all probability the squad will all receive an ear-bashing from Strauss about avoiding being in any situation that can be exploited by the opposition. They have to be smarter and the sad upshot is that the players’ freedom, which had already been tightened after Bristol, will be ever more restricted. It will be harder for them to enjoy the tour, which can mean it will be harder for them to play well.

Smith is probably still chuckling away, mindful of how a similar, though less amicable, incident at the Walkabout bar in Birmingham had adversely upset Australia’s 2013 tour of England. Australia had good reason to think that they had been stitched up in Birmingham. England now know how that feels.

As ever the Australians have been more candid. Smith freely admitted he and his team tried to use this “head-butt” incident to their advantage. “It was basically about trying to get Jonny off his game. And I think it worked with the way he got out. He got caught at third man playing a pretty ordinary stroke. We were just trying to get into his head and it happened to work”. The same candour was in evidence when he volunteered, without prompting, that the England tail “now know what to expect” in this series – namely a succession of bouncers.

So the crucial Adelaide Test is an even greater source of apprehension for England fans. The extensive news coverage of “Head-butt-a-mate” might easily have got into Bairstow’s head as well as exercising those of a grim-faced management team. A winning England side could laugh all this off over a beer (just one or two, of course) but however ridiculous the story a losing side in Australia can become alarmingly fragile in these circumstances. Over the next four days the management will need to be as smart as they wish their players to be in the build-up to the Adelaide Test.

(Guardian service)