Geraint Jones: How to survive an Ashes tour Down Under
The former England wicketkeeper reveals exactly what Joe Root's side should be prepared for if they are to successfully defend the urn in Australia.
“You get the feeling the whole country is against you. You know it from the minute you get there. If you get a cricket fan at passport control, then there’s a good chance you’ll have a comment made to you.”
England’s cricketers have already negotiated that particular obstacle, after touching down in Australia at the end of October for a series in which they are outsiders in the latest cricket betting, but they will know that far bigger challenges are still to come before they reach the safety of the departure lounge in the New Year.
As former England wicketkeeper Geraint Jones can testify, an Ashes tour Down Under can be a brutal experience.
In 2006, Jones was part of the first England team in 20 years to arrive in Australia as holders of the Ashes, having taken the catch that swung what is widely regarded as the sport’s greatest ever series less than 18 months earlier.
Yet he left having won the last of his 34 caps for England, dropped midway through a 5-0 whitewash after a pair in the third Test that saw him run out while waiting for an lbw decision.
A topsy-turvy 3-2 victory in the summer of 2015 means that England are in possession of the little urn once again.
But, according to Jones, the tourists should be prepared for an altogether different challenge when facing the same opposition on home soil.
“When we got out to Australia, there was a big difference in the atmosphere between the two teams,” says Jones, who faced every other major Test-playing nation during his two-and-a-half years behind the stumps for England.
“They'd had camps and, as a team, decided they weren't going to be as friendly as they were in 2005.
“They made a point of not making the cricket game comfortable, and they did that very well.”
That starts out in the middle, with a practice coined by former Australia captain Steve Waugh as ‘mental disintegration’, whereby close fielders get in the batsman’s ear to remind him exactly how much is at stake.
Jones played the majority of his early cricket in Australia before turning professional, having moved there soon after being born to Welsh parents in Papua New Guinea.
So he is better-placed than most to know whether Australians really are better at sledging than anybody else.
“They're probably the most persistent,” he laughs, “and as a whole group they do it together.”
“Playing in Australia, you know that you are going to hear them pretty much every ball, and pretty loudly. When you're on strike, it's your turn to get it.”
Some of the most infamous sledges to have gone down in cricketing folklore have been aimed at a player’s body shape, or even his wife’s fidelity.
But Jones says that barbs in the modern-day game tend to be technical, rather than personal.
“I remember Graeme Smith called me Peter Schmeichel for pretty much the entire tour of South Africa,” he chuckles, “because he thought I'd be a better goalkeeper than wicketkeeper.”
“I think that's what people probably don't realise. The chat you get in the middle of an international is never particularly personal.
“It was more to put you off your train of thought and get you thinking 'I need some runs. They're probably right, I need a good score here’, and then, before you know it, you've chased a ball that you would have left if you were feeling a bit more relaxed.
“But I just laughed at it because that was my nature and my way of dealing with it. I tried to use it to focus me and think: ‘I'm going to stick two fingers up to these guys and show everybody that I do deserve my spot’.”
England’s squad this time around contains four uncapped players, four more with fewer than 10 Tests to their name and a handful who have already been dropped in the past.
So, what should they be prepared for so as not to be overwhelmed?
First of all, the wall of noise generated inside the enormous multi-purpose bowls in which the series will be contested.
Four of Australia’s five Test venues are significantly larger than any of their English counterparts, while the MCG, the venue for the fourth Test, is the only cricket ground in the world to boast a capacity of more than 100,000.
“Every event you know about because of the noise that comes out,” says Jones.
“Thankfully for me, being in the middle, I couldn't actually hear a lot compared to guys fielding on the boundary.
“But there's no point trying to go up against 10,000 people in the crowd near. Your best option is to show that you've got a personality and that you're out there enjoying it, playing a game you love.
“If you go the other way, it will just make it worse.”
Then you’ve got the hard, bouncy pitches on which the actual cricket will be played.
Mitchell Johnson was named Man of the Series last time England toured Australia, thanks to ferocious bowling that earned him 37 wickets.
Having faced an attack spearheaded by Brett Lee on the same surfaces, Jones has some simple advice for staying out of trouble.
“You've got to be aware that you'll be tested more on the back foot with that bounce,” he says.
“You potentially don't charge onto the front foot as much and you have to be careful of driving, and make sure that [the ball] is right under you.”
Spending your working day avoiding cricket balls flying towards your head at 90mph, all while having your self-esteem picked apart by opposition players and copping endless abuse from the crowd, means it’s important to use your downtime wisely.
Particularly when living out of a suitcase, on the other side of the world to friends and family at a time of year when most have theirs closest.
“You have to find ways to switch off,” says Jones.
“I made a real effort to not get in the routine of room service. When there's 20-odd of you including support staff, there's always going to be somebody you can go out for a meal with.
“It's a bit harder in Australia with an Ashes series on because there's so much publicity around it. You get a bit more attention walking down the street than you do on other tours.
“But a lot of it is good-natured and you've just got to see it for the passion that it is and enjoy it as much as anything.”
The same goes for the Australian press.
Four years ago they made a pantomime villain out of Stuart Broad by refusing to print his name, and they’ve already picked up where they left off by poking fun at England’s less recognisable faces.
“The media are the worst for creating cracks. The more turmoil that happens, the more they have to talk about,” reflects Jones.
“In an Ashes series especially, you still want to chill out and read the paper and watch TV. As much as you try and ignore it, it's virtually impossible to not be aware if you are the individual being targeted.”
As Jones knows, though, the press are just as likely to turn on their own and, ultimately, there is only one way to shut them up.
“You've got to want the ball to come to you,” says Jones, who celebrated his match-winning catch at Edgbaston in 2005 by cupping his ear to the press box at those who had questioned his wicket-keeping abilities.
"You compartmentalise it. You turn everything into small little events and don’t think about what is at stake with that ball.
“With that last catch, I kept telling myself: 'There will be one more opportunity and it’s more than likely going to come your way. Let's be ready for it’.”
If England’s players can seize their chance the same way that Jones pouched his, then it could define not only the series, but their entire careers as well.