Project Ashes: Fuelling England's tour of Australia

By Stephan ShemiltChief cricket writer
England squad
The England and England Lions squad have about 30 members of support staff with them in Australia

The night before Ben Stokes wrote himself into Ashes folklore at Headingley in 2019 he dined on "a knock-off Nando's and two bars of Yorkie Raisin and Biscuit".

Stokes is an extraordinary cricketer and his achievement that sunny Sunday in Leeds was unprecedented, so perhaps it's no surprise his choice of meal was a little eccentric.

Normally, the responsibility of keeping the England team fuelled falls to Emma Gardner, their lead performance nutritionist.

"They get sick of me telling them to eat more, particularly the fast bowlers," says Gardner.

She was speaking on the latest episode of the Project Ashes podcast, which focuses on the planning that has gone on behind the scenes for England's tour of Australia, right down to the number of cricket balls Joe Root's team need for practice sessions.

Former England wicketkeeper Jack Russell famously ate Weetabix during lunch breaks. Legendary Australia leg-spinner Shane Warne is a connoisseur of toasted cheese sandwiches. Ex-England opener Marcus Trescothick is nicknamed 'Banger' because of his love of sausages.

Now, a greater understanding of what an athlete will go through during competition shapes their food and drink intake.

In cricket, the challenge comes not only with the different formats - preparing for a Twenty20 is very different from potentially fielding for two days in a Test - but also the various roles in a team. A fast bowler can cover about 40 miles in a five-day match.

"Quantity is something I have worked on with these guys because when I first started working with them I was surprised at how little I thought they ate," says Gardner, who has been with England since 2017.

"The guys will eat a huge bowl of porridge, a banana and some eggs on toast with some beans for breakfast.

"We'd give a fast bowler a smoothie before he goes out to bowl. They'll have a lunch and we'd feed them again at tea depending on what they are doing.

"They'd eat straight after the game and again later on."

It is attention to these details that make it seem like seamer James Anderson is still improving, even in his 40th year.

"If you look back through his tests and data, he is fitter now than he ever has been, says Rob Ahmun, whose responsibility as the lead on strength and conditioning is to keep players fit.

"He is leaner than he ever has been. He plays close attention to what he eats, when he eats, and ties that in with when he trains, when he has days off."

From the current England squad, Anderson is one of five surviving members of the 2013-14 whitewash in Australia when embarrassment on the field was added to by the leaking of an 82-page documentexternal-link detailing the tourists' dietary requirements.

The pumpkin seed and goji berry breakfast bars, buckwheat pancakes, steamed pak choi or almond and cinnamon flapjacks could not prevent a 5-0 thumping.

"Our current catering guideline is three pages, very minimal," says Gardner, who has worked with the Great Britain Olympic team, Premier League club Brighton & Hove Albion and Premiership rugby union side Northampton Saints.

"When we travel anywhere, chefs give me their menu, then I know what they are capable of cooking and what they enjoy cooking, then we manipulate it to what the guys' needs are."

If dietary requirements have been slimmed down, a modern obstacle of touring is periods of Covid-related hotel quarantine.

Despite the restriction, Ahmun insists players "don't lose any fitness by being stuck in a hotel room".

"The lads get training routines to do in their rooms and we've manipulated the room-service menu. We're not just getting a burger. There are other options," he says.

"We've put some of the lads on quite bespoke programmes - eating at certain times, then training at another - some of them have had some good results."

When players are freed from their rooms, there are temptations associated with life on the road: the hotel breakfast or choosing an evening meal befitting a professional athlete.

"There are certain things they will see me swipe from the breakfast buffet," says Gardner. "A couple of days ago I removed the frosted cereal.

"For evenings I generally put a lot of Deliveroo information out, so they will say 'if I'm going to eat at Wagamama's, what are the best options?' I will give them some information on that, trying to guide them towards the best choice.

"Fizzy drinks are a big one I've tried to shift. When I first started there was always something in the dressing room. They now go searching because they know I've hidden them somewhere."

Cricket's relationship with alcohol has come into focus in light of the allegations made by former Yorkshire all-rounder Azeem Rafiq, even if there has been a modernising of attitudes towards drink. Gone are the days of Ian Botham inviting the entire Australia team to his house for a boozy barbecue during the famous Headingley Test of 1981.

"Cricket and alcohol is always a topic I'm quizzed on," says Gardner. "At the end of a Test I want us to celebrate our wins.

"If we're in the match, we're not drinking, but the guys would celebrate a win with a few beers. You'd find me in there as well."

If England are celebrating come the end of the Ashes, a ban on frosted cereal and fizzy drinks will feel like a small price to pay.

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