In an extract from his new book Tuffers’ Alternative Guide To The Ashes, former left-arm spinner Phil Tufnell recalls his first ever experience of the game’s greatest rivalry. Tuffers went on to win the Ashes a total of zero times in his career.
I’ll never forget the excitement of going on my first Ashes tour in 1990. We met up at a hotel near Heathrow Airport the night before the flight Down Under and the England players, officials and media had virtually taken over the whole place.
The night before and the morning of departure it was a hive of activity, full on. I could feel the buzz. Drinks and nibbles were laid on in the lounge. The representatives from the different bat manu- facturers were there, talking to ‘their boys’. Of course, no company had recognised my unique batting talents by that point – I just had a couple of free pairs of Quasar boots – so I was sitting on my tod watching all of this.
I saw the big names coming in – Ian Botham, Allan Lamb, David Gower, all my heroes right there in front of me.
Bloody hell – this is real. This is it. I’m actually going halfway round the world with these fellas.
There was a room where all the players went to collect their gear for the trip. Rails of blazers and trousers from Austin Reed in zip-up suit covers. Shirts and ties. Brogue shoes. Training gear, trainers, new sunglasses. Best of all, we were each given a per- sonalised cricket bag – ‘Phil Tufnell England v Australia 1990/91’. I was so proud to get that. Previously, I used to womble into the Middlesex dressing room carting my anonymous Slazenger ‘coffin’ and I’d look enviously at our many England players – John Emburey, Paul Downton, Mike Gatting, Norman Cowans and co. – sitting with their lovely coffins in the England colours with the Three Lions. After my first Ashes series, the Slazenger bag would be out the window and I’d take my England coffin everywhere. When I walked into away county games, people would do a double take. It was a badge that said you’d arrived. Your New Zealand, Sri Lanka tour coffins ended up in the shed, but the Ashes coffin was special.
Then you’d go back to the bar and get your gear and someone else would want you.
Press people were everywhere and occasionally players would be pulled away to speak to them.
‘Phil, we need you to do an interview.’
The next thing I knew there were a dozen journalists poking Dictaphones under my nose – something I wasn’t used to at all. The nearest I’d got to that was a bloke at Middlesex interviewing me for the match programme and the odd little chat with a local journalist. They were asking me for my thoughts about the Ashes series ahead and I think I managed to string a few sentences together.
I have to admit I was perhaps not as focused on the task in hand as I might have been, though. Sun, beaches, barbecues and crumpet . . . that was what was going through my mind, not whether the Sydney pitch would turn. The selectors usually pick a couple of young players to give them some experience and I fitted into that category. I wasn’t expecting to play too many games, and there weren’t any great expectations on me as there were on the established players. I felt like I was about to go on the best holiday ever, and my cricket heroes were coming along with me. Brilliant. I was thinking, ‘What a great 18–30 holiday this will be.’ Actually, that was pretty much the age range of the players and, as it turned out, I wasn’t far wrong in my prediction.
‘You’re giving me smart clothes . . .’, ‘Oh, you’re giving me free drinks . . .’, ‘Everyone wants to come and talk to me . . .’. I was very, very proud to be representing my country, but I didn’t have any real concept of what that actually involved and I got a bit distracted by this new world opening up to me.
In the evening I walked into the bar and there was Ian Botham and Allan Lamb sitting there having a drink. I sidled over nervously and said hello.
They turned round and looked at me blankly. Then their eyes dropped down to the George and Dragon patch on my blazer . . .
‘Oh, are you coming with us?’ said Botham. ‘Yeah, ’fraid so. I’m Phil Tufnell.’ ‘Ah, pull up a chair and have a drink, then.’ There was a bit of small talk with me mostly listening, nodding and laughing in the right places. Then, about ten minutes in, Lamby says: ‘So what exactly do you do, Phil?’
‘I’m a left-arm spinner.’ ‘That’s handy, we could do with one of them. Another beer?’ And that’s how it all began. At the airport the following day, people were clapping and shouting encouragement as we walked through check-in. Another new experience for me – it was the first time I’d been part of a team that stopped the traffic – and gave me a taste of how much the Ashes means to the English people. Just as it always has. When ‘Plum’ Warner led the England touring side in 1903/04, he’d expected a few friends to turn up to see the team off. Instead, when they gathered at London St Pancras station to start the long journey to Australia it was packed with well-wishers.
‘I was simply amazed at the sight that greeted me,’ he wrote later. ‘Every class in the community was represented, from the Lord Chief Justice of England, President of the MCC, to “Master Bones, the butcher’s boy”, who on Saturday afternoons plays for the third Eleven of the Pinner Peripatetics!’
At the airport in 1990, I was the butcher’s boy – well, the silversmith’s son anyway – but I wasn’t there just to wave the star players off, I was going with them.
Tuffers’ Alternative Guide To The Ashes, is available here.