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Long may the Mitchell Johnson vs Davis Warner circus continue

David Warner and Mitchell Johnson of Australia walk out for the Cricket United charity team photo during a nets session ahead of the 5th Investec Ashes Test match between England and Australia at The Kia Oval on August 18, 2015 in London, United Kingdom
Mitchell Johnson (right) has questioned whether former team-mate David Warner deserves to pick a farewell Test - Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Elite honesty! Mitchell Johnson has peppered David Warner with a series of vicious lifters and English cricket fans are 100 per cent here for it, because there is absolutely nothing funnier in sport than the vast self-awareness gulf in how Australian cricket sees itself, and how the rest of the world sees Australian cricket.

Johnson, one-time purveyor of either unplayable or unusable fast bowling depending on the alignment of the stars, has taken aim at former team-mate Warner with the bristling hostility he was known for on the pitch, and the laser accuracy he wasn’t. He has questioned whether Warner deserves to pick a farewell Test given the opening batsman’s poor run with the bat, and – more controversially – queries whether a player at the centre of one of the most notorious cheating episodes in cricketing history deserves hero status.

“As we prepare for David Warner’s farewell series, can somebody please tell me why?” Johnson wrote in The West Australian. “Why a struggling Test opener gets to nominate his own retirement date. And why a player at the centre of one of the biggest scandals in Australian cricket history warrants a hero’s send-off?”

Johnson later said that his column had been prompted by a “pretty bad” text message he received from Warner, although he did not elaborate on the content of that message.

Whatever is going on, this is a clear violation of several major tenets of Aussie sports bloke-ness, a case of brother turning on brother in a shocking breach of mateship and definitely the most upsetting Australian thing that has happened since Helen Daniels died in Neighbours.

But for non-Aussies? Our sporting tormentors turning on each other? Yes please.

The bust-up is both an instant classic and something that could not have happened in previous generations, because the very nature of the Australian cricketer and how he sees his place in the world has been altered forever, with Johnson’s remarks on Warner forming part of an ongoing culture war between players past and present. Johnson has already called Pat Cummins “gutless”, while Ricky Ponting has come out in defence of the ousted coach Justin Langer.

Langer himself has branded those players who grew tired of his methods and forced him out as “cowards”. From the point of view of previous generations, playing hard and drinking hard have been replaced by wokeness, do-gooding and a general sense of touchy-feely modernity that is at odds with the way that vintage sees itself. Steve Smith is even advertising oat milk rather than amber nectar, the drongo.

Those of us in this hemisphere savouring the schadenfreude of the schism are in dreamland. We English sports fans who grew up in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s had a very clear idea of who the Australian player was: rough, uncompromising, ideally in possession of a bushy moustache, fond of crushing Poms under his size 13s while verbally abusing them, and sculling crate after crate of lager.

The Australian cricket team celebrate their win against England in the First Test in the Ashes series at Headingley, 13th June 1989. Tasmanian batsman David Boon is seated third from left
The kind of Australian cricketers to strike fear into the hearts of England fans in the 1970s and 80s - Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

Figures like Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and, the zenith, Merv Hughes defined for the rest of the world the idea of the Aussie cricketer, and indeed the Aussie male. Legendary sledges like “does your husband play cricket as well?” and “bowl him a piano, see if he can play that”, as well as more direct, industrial language came to exemplify the hard, aggressive, ultra-confident Aussie player on the field. The larrikin streak as typified by Shane Warne, or David Boon’s 52 tinnies on the flight from Sydney to London, shaped the image off the park: up for a good time, not taking himself too seriously, democratic, of the people. We respected them and feared them, we loved to hate them, and – in some cases – we grew to hold them in deep admiration and affection: Punter, the Evil Glenn McGrath, who turned out not to be so evil after all and, most of all, Warnie.

But something weird began to happen during the Steve Waugh era. The win-at-all-costs mentality was still there but the Test side began, consciously and deliberately, to position itself as not merely the finest cricket team in the world, but as a vessel for national identity and values. A key staging post was Waugh taking the team to visit Gallipoli in 2001. The self-mythologising, quasi-militaristic journey of The Baggy Green™ then continued into the Justin Langer years, captured unforgettably in the unintentionally hilarious, David Brentian Amazon documentary series whose weirdo mixture of nationalism, management speak and mysticism brought the concepts of “elite honesty”, “the leadership group” and “elite mateship” to a wider audience.

And there was something discordant in this, the self-styled, self-appointed guardians of the spirit of cricket, when every fan and player from every other country was thinking: hang on, are we talking about the same Australian cricket team? It all came crashing down with the Sandpapergate farrago that Johnson references, and the weeping of Steve Smith. The Mitchell versus David civil war suggests that the collective madness in Cricket Australia persists and, for those of us whose sporting lives have been pockmarked by traumatic hammerings by this mob, long may the circus continue.

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