“When we come to your town, come on out, support the tour…and let freedom reign”. So said Bruce Springsteen when introducing Chimes of Freedom at a 1988 live performance in Stockholm. He was talking about supporting Amnesty International, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.
Granted, England’s 2021-2022 Ashes Tour to Australia is not quite the same as a major worldwide charity tour. And yet, the Boss’ famous words strike some similarities with the recent interview sound bites from captains Tim Paine and Joe Root, when asked about prospects for the forthcoming series. In a strange dichotomy, the home skipper spoke about supporting the tour, whilst the touring captain suggested he wanted to let freedom reign.
As our esteemed Prime Minister has told us many times during the pandemic, we the British people, are a freedom-loving nation, and for the most part our thirst for freedom has been slaked during the past few summer months. In this new normal we now live in, it seems out of kilter for Covid to be rearing its ugly head when talking about a few games of cricket.
The virus continues to hamper international cricket. Squad rotation and mental health management of players is still the way forward, with Ben Stokes’ conspicuous absence for most of this summer the latest reminder. But when it comes to the biggest test series going, priorities must be aligned.
There is no doubt about this in Paine’s mind, reflected by his bullish words when speaking to Australian national radio station SEN. And he is right, the England players “have a choice to make…either get on that plane or don’t.” His parting shot English counterpart Root that, “the Ashes are going ahead. The first Test is on 8 December, whether Joe [Root] is here or not. There will be a squad of England players coming here.”
For us ‘freedom loving’ English supporters, there has rarely been an easier target for ridiculing than the Australian cricket captain. Oh how we guffawed back in January as Paine told Ravi Ashwin how he couldn’t wait to get him to the Gabba, only for his side to spectacularly implode against Indian on that very pitch. With these latest words, Paine may have once again put a bulls-eye on his back, but on this occasion he has hit the proverbial nail on the head.
Whilst the Ashes tests will go ahead, where they will be played and under what conditions is another matter, with a myriad of statewide restrictions continuing to be in place throughout Australia.
Logistical arrangements for the tour are due to be outlined to England’s players this week. Questions will be answered on quarantine restrictions for the players and their families, but should that really dissuade participation in an Ashes series?
Central contracts, it has almost universally agreed, revolutionised the national team for the better. A previous Invitational XI, with players on their Counties’ books, was transformed into “Club England”, where the ECB became the employer. With it came a heightened degree of professionalism and player management. In Covid times, central contracts now seem to include an unwritten get out clause.
Paine is not alone in the tone of his words. Former England opener Mark Butcher recently despaired that in these uncertain times, the financial stability given to centrally contracted players is now threatening to undermine overseas tours. There is no doubt that Root and many of his team are “desperate” to play this winter but their ticket to Australia remains untouched. There might not be silence from the England players but Butcher is right that “if you’re earning enough money so you can pull out of an Ashes trip then things have taken a pretty bad pass”.
Many of those questioning this non-committal do not have families, so it is impossible to have complete empathy with the likes of Root and Jos Buttler, both of whom are also concerned of leaving behind wives and young children. The bottom line however is that playing cricket for England is their job – that is the purpose of a central contract.
Let us also not forget how the West Indies and Pakistan were parachuted in to the eye of the Covid storm to save the 2020 English summer. They faced far more stringent conditions, against a backdrop of uncertainty and fear of a virus that was still in its relative infancy. You didn’t hear Jason Holder and co. speak about the separation from their families – they got on the job in hand and pulled on their maroon caps. The ECB’s recently botched abandonment of the T20 ‘thank you’ tour to Pakistan has hardly repaid the favour to last year’s other tourists.
As Paine says, the Ashes are going ahead. It is a free world and England’s players will not be forced onto a plane in the coming winter months. Many will want to make the best decision for themselves and their families but, unlike Springsteen back in Stockholm in ’88, we are not talking about basic human rights. We are talking about doing the job you are paid to do, and the players must remember this fact above all else.