England take on Australia this Saturday in the ICC Champions Trophy, the first of 26 Test and one-day fixtures against the Aussies between now and January 2014. David Gower, who skippered the England team to victory in the 1985 Ashes, sets the scene.
What is it about our rivalry with the Aussies? Is it a clash of cultures?
I’m tempted to say, how can you have a clash of cultures when you’re playing against a country with no culture? That would almost be sledging.
So if it’s not culture, what is it?
It’s history. Anyone who gets involved in an Ashes series gets a unique buzz from that knowledge. When I came into the Ashes, playing against people who’d been a big part of the last half dozen series – Dennis Lillee, Ian and Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh – there was a sense of “wow”. And then, as time went on, I became the “wow” factor. My crowning glory was the Ashes of 1985. I made a lot of runs and captained the side to victory.
Back to the sledging – how bad is it to be on the receiving end of Aussie verbals?
If you’re on the boundary you have to be very, very thick-skinned, because the Aussie crowd will try you with absolutely anything. The trouble is, if they’ve had ten cans of lager, their ability to come up with something akin to Oscar Wilde diminishes. A lot of it therefore tends to be very stereotypical. But it’s feral; if they sense weakness, they’ll come at you. It’s the same with sledging on the field. There’s a certain animal mentality, and if they sense a bit of weakness, they’ll try it on more.
How do you handle it?
The great thing is just to smile, because the smile completely confuses them. But the best way to keep an Australian bowler quiet is simply to make runs. If you’re 120 not out, they tend not to say much.
When you were batting you looked the epitome of cool – was that really the case?
It was a bit of a fallacy, in that nothing is ever that laid-back in the middle of an Ashes Test. We hide it in different ways. Ian Botham was this big, blustery sort of fellow, and when he walked out to bat his arms were swinging. He was sending a message: “I’m big and strong, Guy the Gorilla, Beefy, I’m going to destroy you.” Whereas my approach was to give the impression that I was just there for a bit of fun.
Players are drinking less and training more. Have you noticed the difference?
I’d drink a lot with Beefy in our playing days, but never as much as him. We were allowed to get away with more than they are now, so we were enthusiastic. Overenthusiastic. The great West Indies all-rounder Garry Sobers hated going to bed early, but he always had a great saying: “If I haven’t got to bed until 3 o’clock, I know I owe it to my team-mates to play well the following morning.” In a bizarre way. it spurred him on. The good thing is that cricket in the old days didn’t start until 11.30. You always had time in the morning to wake up and recover.
How optimistic are you about England’s chances against Australia, both in the Champions Trophy and in the two Ashes series coming up?
My glass is more than half full this year. Australia have lost the Ponting-Hussey axis that was vital to them. Michael Clarke is a super player, but so much rests on his shoulders. We’ve got every right to be optimistic, but no right to be overconfident.
ICC Champions Throphy: England V Australia is on Saturday at 10am on Sky Sports 1, Radio 4 and 5 Live Sports Extra