I tried to concentrate on the cricket but I was distracted by my wife, who preferred the reality show playing on the pub’s other television set. We had gone to Churchill’s pub in Miami to watch the last day of the second England-Australia Test match. Churchill’s offered an irresistible package: a subtropical night, decent chips and reality TV. It also claimed to be one of only two places in Florida showing the cricket. But I seemed to be the only customer watching it.
“Bridget, how did you get your breasts and butt like that?” rang out as English batsmen fell. I struggled to take in events happening a day later across the planet. The lesbians at the bar beside me remained engrossed in Spanish conversation. On TV one reality show made way for another about a couple getting plastic surgery on their genitals: “I told you before, grandma. It’s on your privates.” We went home.
The Ashes Test series has gripped England and Australia but most of the planet hasn’t noticed. The English enjoy the Ashes partly because the series lets them escape from the world. Anyone who thinks we have all been globalised should search for “cricket” on the Google news websites in various languages. On Google’s Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish and Norwegian sites I found zero articles about the Ashes, though I did discover that Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela was sending Caribbean countries millions of dollars to improve their cricket stadiums, which must have cheered up poor Venezuelans.
I saw just one mention of the current Ashes series in American newspapers: “New Zealand’s stocks ended the week lower in quiet trading as Thanksgiving and the first Ashes cricket Test match in Australia reduced the number of active participants in the market.” France’s communist newspaper L’Humanité, always alert to the doings of the world’s ruling classes, offered a long essay on cricket by a British novelist living in Rio de Janeiro.
Only newspapers in German and Dutch paid the Ashes any respect but even they got confused. The NRC Handelsblad, most august newspaper of the Netherlands, continental Europe’s premier cricketing nation, managed to report Australia’s opening victory four days before it happened. “The Australian cricketers have won the first of five Test matches,” wrote the NRC after just one day’s play. “In Brisbane Australia reached a score of 346 for three.” In fact, Australia were then only midway through the first innings. Elsewhere in the Dutch media, a feature headlined “Sex, drugs en cricket” was briefly the best-read sports article on the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper’s website.
All these newspapers felt they had to explain cricket from scratch. The Algemeen Dagblad informed readers that cricket was an “elite sport”, and this theme was taken up in German-language newspapers, along with the point that cricket is boring. Austria’s Die Presse warned its readers: “90,000 spectators often wait for hours until one of the batsmen is ‘out.’ ” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung claimed that England’s “Barmy Army” of supporters chant, “We’re only losing when we’re playing”, raising the spectre of thousands of beery Brits singing in Teutonic accents. In Berlin the Tageszeitung preferred to dwell on a new attempt to spread cricket to eastern Germany. “Until the second world war, the Junker country around the Prussian metropolis Berlin was considered a blooming cricket landscape for pitchers and strikers,” the newspaper said. Oh dear. It’s hard to know where to begin a critique of that statement.
In short, the English are losing themselves to a passion that most of the world doesn’t register. This is a rare experience for the country. England today – particularly the south-east – is very globalised. Heathrow is the world’s busiest international airport, the City of London is the most international financial district, and English football’s Premiership the most globalised domestic league in any sport in history. The cliché that Britain is an island ceased to be true when the Channel tunnel opened in 1994.
Foreigners who deal with Britain – business people, students, diplomats – usually find it a pretty intelligible place. They tend to know the language and to come from countries that have dealt with Brits for centuries. But the Ashes baffle them. After an exhilarating day’s play in last year’s series, I went to meet a Catalan writer in a pub in London. He was a sympathetic observer, fluent in English and had been in the city for a month, yet the national furore had escaped him. The English had retreated into their last surviving folk custom.
It’s not that the Ashes liberate the English from globalisation. Rather, the series returns them to an earlier era of globalisation, when all the main characters were white Commonwealth types. Even the three-month Antipodean tour, longer than in any other sport, is a hangover from the prewar age of ship travel when you couldn’t just pop across for a match or two.
During the Ashes, the English loosen their bonds with every country but one: Australia. Beneath the snarling on the field, the series is a celebration of Anglo-Australian kinship. The players understand this. English cricketers have long affected slight Australian accents, because within the industry Australians are believed to epitomise masculinity.
The Ashes offer the English a brief holiday from the world. Most of their collective fears are about the world’s encroachment: in the past about the European Union, more recently about immigrants and terrorists. The latter threaten even cricket. As one American newspaper reported: “Two of the men who carried out the 2005 suicide bombings of London’s transit system reportedly had planned to unleash the nerve agent sarin that year during the Ashes cricket match between Australia and the United Kingdom.” As you begin to explain that it wasn’t the United Kingdom but England, and not a match but a series, you suddenly decide not to bother.