Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Ashes, no sackcloth

A female colleague of mine once said to me that the difference between men and women is that ‘men think sport matters’.

It’s certainly true, and I make the admission with some shame, that I do tend to get a bit wrapped up in the fortunes, or more commonly the misfortunes, of England teams in international sport. Well, I’m not that fascinated by the silly game with the round ball which involves twenty men running up and down a field, with little pattern or sophistication, trying to get the ball past a goal keeper at one end or the other. Even there, though, I suspect I would be delighted by an England triumph, but since that hasn’t happened since I was thirteen – the 1966 World Cup – I really don’t have much way of knowing what it would be like.

Also let’s be clear that outside athletics and the other Olympic events, it’s England that interests me, not Great Britain. There may be people who identify with Britain, but to me it’s an amorphous structure artificially imposed on the real units with which we actually identify: England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland (OK, OK, Northern Ireland: I know that citizens of the Irish Republic like to make a big deal out of their technical independence from the rest of us).

This means that while I may gently tease people from the north of England (a Northumbrian is just a Scotsman with the generosity beaten out of him, for instance), I still feel that Northerners belong in some real sense to the same tribe as I do – these are brothers not merely cousins. Scots on the other hand are another nation and therefore deserve more deference from me (which doesn’t stop me teasing them a little too: know the one about the Scotsman who found a lost pay packet in a phone box, stuffed with cash and the accompanying pay slip? He burst into tears when he realised how much tax he’d paid).

The consequence is that while I’m moderately pleased when the Scotsman Andy Murray does well in that rather dull game with the rackets (just how often can you watch a serve – a return – a volley without eventually going outside to watch the grass grow instead?) I don’t feel the same visceral pleasure as when the England rugby team trounces the French (a splendidly frequent occurrence in recent years) or an England cricket team beats the Aussies (which happens far too seldom, making each occasion particularly joyful).

As it happens, England has just achieved a remarkable victory over Australia, and in the greatest competition between the nations, the battle for the Ashes. I know that some of my select band of readers have the misfortune to live in one of those benighted nations where cricket is not played, so for their benefit, here is a brief summary of the workings of an ‘Ashes series’ – the oldest sporting competition in the world.

The first time Australia beat England at cricket, back in 1882, an English newspaper announced the death of English cricket and declared that ‘the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia’. Ever since, with brief breaks for tedious external unpleasantness like a couple of world wars, England and Australia have played each other for the Ashes every two years (strictly speaking, there are two and a half years between a contest in England and the next in Australia, and eighteen months between a series in Australia and the next in England. This is because cricket is a summer game and we were injudicious enough to set up Australia in the Antipodes where, against all sense or reason, they have their summer in the winter months).

You have to imagine my teeth firmly gritted and the great difficulty I have in writing these next words. Overall, the Australians have outperformed the English, taking 31 series against England’s 29. Those relatively close figures mask the fact that over the last fifty years, Australia have won just under twice as often as England.

The Ashes are won or lost in a series of five matches, and each of those matches is played to the noblest and most demanding format of cricket: over five days. Many have derided a game that can last five days and still end in a draw. Two of the recent matches did just that. One of them was actually particularly good: England’s last and weakest two batsmen (batters if you’re Australian or a follower of that offshoot game, baseball) hung on at the end of the final day, resisting everything the Australians could throw at them, to rescue an unlikely draw from what had looked up to then like a clear and crushing Australian victory.

That draw gave England the opportunity to win the series and take back the Ashes. England won in 2005, the last time they were played for at home, but when they got down to Australia in 2006-2007, they were systematically taken apart – beaten five-nil. Not so much a defeat as a crushing, contemptuous extermination. So this time round, with two draws and a victory apiece, the last match was the opportunity for England to regain the Ashes and perhaps restore a little credibility. Few of us England supporters felt confident, however: we knew just how good England was at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Well, this time it didn’t happen, and it was Australia that fell apart instead. A solid but not overwhelming victory: as the England captain, Andrew Strauss, the well-deserved man of the match and indeed of the series, put it, ‘when we were bad, we were very bad, and when we were good, we managed to be just good enough.’ Yes. And he might have added this was not one of the great Australian sides of the past. A mid-strength England beat a slightly under mid-strength Australia. But who cares? A victory’s a victory, and in sport it isn’t taking part that matters, it’s winning.

And to some of us, it matters a great deal.

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