In great sporting events, great events happen peripheral to the great sport, adding phrases to our lexicon and images to our imaginations – consider, for example, the words “Sprinkler Dance”, “53 cans” and “Stuart Broad”. As time passes, these become a code for the initiated, and by remembering them we remember that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s like receiving a big, warm hug.
During the 1990-91 Ashes, that role was played by the “Tiger Moth” couplet. But before we get into it, some context. England had been spanked in 1989, but because they’d won the two previous series against Australia, PTSD had yet to set in so the team felt confident.
Not for long. They lost the first two Tests badly enough to earn a going-over from the captain, Graham Gooch – a development ill-received by David Gower, who’d scored 61 at the Gabba and 100 at the MCG. “David was revved up and playing so well,” says John Morris, a young player on his first tour. “As senior player and former captain, he felt he had the right to speak up and not necessarily agree.”
Gooch’s enthusiasm for being not necessarily agreed with is famously lukewarm, but nothing more was said and sure enough Gower made another century in the draw at Sydney. “One of the best you’ll see,” says Morris who, still to play in the series, watched the knock sitting on the SCG’s famous hill. “I just wanted to have that experience being part of the locals,” he explains.
Next up for England was Queensland on the Gold Coast, where Morris happened upon another experience he just wanted to have. First, though, he made 132 against an attack comprising Craig McDermott, Michael Kasprowicz, Carl Rackemann, Trevor Hohns and Peter Taylor. “A good effort,” he says, “which put me in contention for the fourth Test.”
The ground at Carrara sits opposite an airfield, and when Morris came across Gower and Lamb on a stairwell, he overheard an unusual conversation. “Biplanes had been buzzing around the ground for two days and David suggested he was going to go up in one, so I literally said, ‘Well, I’m out and there’s two seats, I’m coming with you’.”
So pair went over the road, and just after lunch, up they went in a pair of Tiger Moths. “It was an experience just sitting there in an open cockpit,” Morris recalls. “Goggles and helmets on with the wind rushing past you and this propeller only four feet in front of you. And it was perfect timing, just as Robin Smith got his hundred.”
The pilots were meant to fly at 2,000 feet, but Gower coaxed them down to 200. “David really wanted to come in behind the bowler’s arm, so we were above the sightscreens as Carl Rackemann came in to bowl and the view was amazing! Lamby stopped him and everybody looked up, he gave it the machine gun like he was shooting us down with his bat.”
So far, so brilliant: a harmless bit of fun, raising spirits of a team who were getting battered, again. Except fun – or at least the fun of others – has never resonated with English cricket suits, and trouble was soon upon the intrepid pair. When it began, Gower was, of course, out for dinner, so Morris was summoned to a meeting with the captain, coach and tour manager.
“I sat there and pleaded my innocence, ‘It was a bit of fun yer honour, nothing derogatory to the game,’” he says. The bench, though was unconvinced, spooking Morris by telling him he had endangered himself, thereby breaching his contract. “David, on the other hand – the fact he got 7,000 Test runs and I’ve only got 72 probably made him a little bit more relaxed than I was.”
To Morris’s disbelief, the aggravation didn’t end there. “They should’ve said, ‘Silly pair of buggers should’ve known better’ and drawn a line. But it carried on because of the way it was handled. Crikey, we hadn’t played well but David had played brilliantly, so the last thing you’d want to do is undermine that by getting upset about a bit of fun. But they felt that David was undermining the management.”
Both players were fined £1,000, but for Morris the repercussions continued. “I got left out, never played again, and that’s the bit that narks me – my last-ever innings is a hundred for England. In 1993 I played exceptionally well, especially against fast bowling, so should’ve been in contention to go to the West Indies. But I never got a mention, and that’s the bit that sits awkwardly with me: was this really gonna hang over me forever? It seems like that.”
It must have been hard to take, but Morris is sanguine. “Did I feel anger? Probably, but I don’t now, obviously. When you’re a professional cricketer, your goal is to play at the best level you can, and people say I didn’t fulfil my potential. I look back and think well, I didn’t have a fair crack of the whip to fulfil that potential.”
We can only imagine how that must have stung but, nearly 31 years later, here we are basking in a yarn that’s as much a part of Ashes folklore as runs scored and wickets taken, the only question now who will provide this series’ Tiger Moth? Big, warm hugs are not to be underestimated.