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That unfailing guide to the British zeitgeist, The Sun, gave over its main editorial page on Wednesday to a collection of jokes about the Australian cricket team. (Sample – Australian batsman to man in white coat: “That was never out, mate. You need glasses.” Man in white coat: “So do you, mate. I’m selling ice cream.”) Some of the jokes (Q: What’s the height of optimism?” A: An Aussie batsman applying sunscreen.”) did sound eerily familiar. In fact, I swear I have heard them many times in Australia, only with the word “Pommie” instead of “Aussie”.
If the jokes are old, the context is new. And this cultural shift may yet prove more significant and lasting than the sport’s presumed boom, which the papers have been banging on about. Cricket, dozens of headlines have implausibly claimed, is the new football.
It will be a long while – years, perhaps – before we discover whether there is even the teeniest smidgen of truth in that assertion. For the moment, the thrill of these Ashes Tests and England’s success have ensured the reintegration of cricket, at least temporarily, into the mainstream of British life and conversation. But, as sure as autumn rain in Manchester, cricket will fade after The Oval Test next week, whether England win the Ashes or not.
Australia’s reputation, however, has been changed dramatically by the
past three Test matches. Even if
they win at The Oval, the image of invincibility, built up so carefully over the past decade, is defaced beyond recognition. And the restoration job may be a long one. Australians have long abandoned “the cultural cringe”, whereby they assumed everything intellectual and artistic in the Mother Country must be superior. It is now time to abandon “the cricketing cringe”, whereby we assume everything about their cricket is better than England’s.
Unused to defeat, the Australian team have been unable to contain themselves, and Ricky Ponting, their captain, now risks being seen as a whinger – that most terrible of Australian fates. England probably have pushed the boundaries of propriety in their use of substitutes, as Ponting claimed, but they ain’t the first. They have also had the balance of advantage in umpiring decisions, and that’s explicable too.
The standard of umpiring in modern Test matches is amazingly brilliant. Any fool can assess a decision with the use of super-slomo, Hawkeye and so on. These men make split-second decisions on balls delivered at 90mph plus, and they get more than 90 per cent right. But the fielding side can induce errors in umpires as well as batsmen. The better the bowlers, the more they beat the bat. The more they beat the bat, the more they get opportunities to appeal. The more they appeal, the more likely it is that one will go their way that shouldn’t have done. England bowlers have been beating the bat more than Australia’s. QED.
You could argue that Australia have been unlucky in that they have won one Test match easily, and lost two very narrowly: the series might stand at 3-0 to Australia. But no one buys that even in Australia. A poll on the Sydney Morning Herald website this week showed that almost 95 per cent of respondents thought England were ahead either because they had played well or because Australia had played badly. Hardly anyone mentioned the subsidiary gripes.
So what has gone wrong with Australia? Clearly, they failed to react adequately to intelligence reports about England, a mistake for which someone other than Ponting – and coach John Buchanan must be in the line of fire – will have to take responsibility. But above all, it seems to me they failed to assess themselves honestly enough. The first signs of wobble in the Australian team became evident 18 months ago, in Steve Waugh’s last series, when they were given a fright at home by India. Normality was apparently restored in 2005, when Shane Warne came back from suspension and Glenn McGrath from injury.
In particular, Australia gained supremacy over India when they won a four-Test series there 2-1 last November. It was generally held that Australia were much the better team on that trip. But the series was more complicated than the bare figures suggest. India would probably have won the drawn Test in Chennai had it not poured throughout the final day. And Australia’s win in Nagpur was a highly dubious one, secured on a pitch prepared perfectly for their fast bowlers – deliberately so, according to some whisperers who know more about Indian cricket’s dark politics than is good for anybody’s sanity.
Since then, Australia have beaten Pakistan at their most absurdly self-destructive, and a weak and demoralised New Zealand. The evidence of their vulnerability, especially against anyone capable of putting them under pressure, was there if you looked.
The Australians don’t appear to have looked too hard themselves – for new strategies or for new players. The Channel 4 commentator Simon Hughes branded them “arrogant” this week. Big word, arrogant. Complacent would cover it, though.