Sport is there to be enjoyed. It’s not war. So why do so many Australian cricketers behave as though it were? And as though they can’t win matches simply through their skills, but need to demoralise their opponents first? First there was ‘sledging’ – Australia’s sole original contribution to the game. Close fielders try to rile the English batsmen with reflections on their appearance or their masculinity or their paternity or their wives and mothers as the bowler runs up. Of course there are ways of coping with this. (I like the story of – was it the Indian batsman Tendulkar? – who when asked by an Australian slip fielder why he was so fat, replied: ‘because every time I sleep with your wife she gives me a biscuit.’) And it’s no longer confined to the Aussies. But it’s pretty unpleasant in any case, and demeaning, in my view, to the modern Australian team.
Now it’s getting worse. First we had Australian vice-captain David Warner writing about how he needs to work up a real ‘hate’ against the English players to get him going in a match. He actually described the England-Australia rivalry as a ‘war’. And he has form: on the last Australian tour he punched Joe Root in the face. Now we have spin bowler Nathan Lyon claiming that the England team are running scared of the Aussie fast bowlers, and hoping that they can ‘end a few careers’. ‘It’s an unbelievable feeling’, he said, ‘knowing that they are broken’. Really? Better than winning? And than winning fair and square?
So, why do they present themselves as such bastards? There are reasons for it in cricketing history, but they are getting rather ancient now. (The infamous ‘bodyline tour’, when the English fast bowlers were instructed to bowl at the batsmen’s bodies rather than their wickets, was in 1932-3, for goodness’ sake.) It may be a result of colonial resentment against their old masters, despite the fact that most white Australians in colonial times were far better off and much more ‘free’ than the Britons who stayed at home. (I could understand it if they represented the Australian Aborigines; but even then it was the white settlers who were responsible for oppressing them, not – directly – the Brits.) Or is it resentment against their perception that we – the British – are looking ‘down’ on them; an attitude I came across again and again when I lived and taught in Australia, and which of course is quite unnecessary. (I had to work hard to persuade them that I wasn’t a sneering privileged Pom just because I went to Cambridge.) I’d hate to think it arose from an inferiority complex; but isn’t that what is supposed to motivate most bullies? I love Australia, more than any other country I’ve lived in, especially its natural social democracy. But this particular after-effect of Empire sometimes got me down.
I was looking forward to the upcoming Test series. Ben will be at the Melbourne game. But, back in England, I may not follow it as closely as I used to. If Australia win it will constitute a victory for a kind of cheating, which may make me feel better about it. (It won’t really count.) If England win, which apparently is unlikely without Ben Stokes, I imagine I’ll feel triumphant, but in an unpleasant – unsporting – way. ‘There, that’s taught them!’ Both reactions are unworthy. Neither is the kind that sport is supposed to give rise to. And all because of these Aussie war-mongers; who have ruined this particular series, even before it starts, for me.
‘It matters not who won or lost, but how you played the game.’ Ah, those were the days!