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In England’s hour of triumph, a Pom writes, cricket is a dying game

There are still a few of us in the Old Dart who find it unseemly to sneer at a fallen foe

15 January 2011

12:00 AM

15 January 2011

12:00 AM

About 30 years ago, I met Keith Miller. Those who knew Keith won’t be astonished to hear that this wasn’t at Lord’s or any other cricket ground, but at Ascot racecourse: like many cricketers (sometimes to their ultimate regret) he had a liking for the horses. On brief acquaintance he was a very nice bloke, but I was as much awestruck as charmed. Although he had hung up his boots shortly before I began watching cricket as a young boy, my early years were spent in the shadow of this extraordinary player, and his teammates on Donald Bradman’s ‘Invincibles’. That side which toured England in 1948, winning the Ashes 4–0 and unbeaten in every match, seemed to hang over my generation growing up almost as the war did.

And that’s why my feelings about the devastating defeat just inflicted by England on Australia are more than a little mixed. Some of us have been downright gloating. Last Friday BBC radio actually sent a reporter to the SCG to do just that, although he didn’t find many Australian supporters actually to gloat over, since few had turned up for the Last Rites.

There are still a few of us here who find sneering at a fallen foe unlovely and un-English — ‘In defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity’ were Churchill’s famous principles — though we’re entitled to be exhilarated. The way our whole team played was astonishing, from Alastair Cook’s feats with bat to Jimmy Anderson’s with ball to — nearly best of all — just about the best standard of catching I’ve ever seen from a Test team.

Most dramatic of all is the way that the English seem to have become Aussies and the Australians have become Poms, whinging, moping and all. Watching Allan Border’s team which thumped England 4–0 in 1989, or even more the touring side of 2001 (4–1 this time, and I really don’t know how we managed to win even the one Test), I was always struck by something.

Those Australians ten years ago, in the heyday of the Waugh twins, Gilchrist, Hayden, McGrath and Warne, may have been the best side I ever saw. Only the great West Indian team under Frank Worrell, with Sobers, Kanhai, Hall and Gibbs, which beat England in 1963 soon after an epic tour of Australia, might compare. But it wasn’t just the way Steve Waugh’s team played: even before the first ball of the day was bowled there was a swagger about them as they came on to the field. They looked confident without being cocky, smartly turned out and mustard-keen.

An old saw holds that 11 Australians in green caps playing together for their country will play rather better than you would expect taking them one by one, whereas 11 Englishmen will play rather worse. That has been stood on its head. This time it was the Poms who swaggered (down to what one correspondent calls the group-grope, man-hugs and bounce-up-and-down at the end of a match, which I could do without. Can you imagine Hutton and Tyson doing that, or Benaud and Lawry?).

As for the Aussies, there was a hangdog air to them even before disaster struck. For a moment I worried that the old ‘cultural cringe’ Australians used to complain about had become a sporting cringe. These weren’t the Australians I’d grown up with. They aren’t the heirs of Keith Miller, that roisterer off the field and cavalier on it, who served his country in war and peace, as dashing but implacable a bomber pilot as fast bowler.

What went wrong? I read from afar that cricket is in decline in Australia, overtaken in popularity by any number of sports but especially by Australian Rules. Mind you, Miller was a great footie player when he wasn’t playing cricket, but then when he first came to England he found the Compton brothers, Denis and Leslie, playing cricket for Middlesex in the summer and soccer for Arsenal in the winter. Happy days.

Most worrying of all is the thought that cricket is a dying game — yes, an Englishman writes that in our hour of triumph. More than 60 years ago George Orwell said that cricket had never really been a popular game in England, meaning a game with a mass following, although first-class county games did once attract gates which would now be quite unimaginable.

Today, no one watches first-class domestic matches in any country, and even Test matches are far from universal sell-outs. You can’t blame the local supporters if the SCG was full on the first day but not the last, apart from the large and vocal England contingent. But there have been other Test series taking place this new year.

South Africa and India, two really good teams, met in Cape Town for a game either side could have won up until the last day and thereby also won an enthralling three-match series. But the cameras couldn’t conceal (though they try to) how thin the crowds at Newlands were. As for the match in Hamilton, where Pakistan have just routed New Zealand by ten wickets, I’ve seen more spectators watching a county match in Cheltenham.

Now Australia and England embark on the loathsome travesty of Twenty20. Apart from the obvious fact that this ‘game’ is the work of the Devil and that all connected with its arrival will die in agony and go to Hell, it was always likely that it might be a veritable Frankenstein’s monster, and devour its creators. So it has proved, while the ‘IPL’ seems to have been devised by some crypto-Marxist as a hideous parody of capitalism, not to say a game whose only valid purpose is to provide the opportunity for rampant corruption.

What would Keith Miller have made of it? I can think of a few choice phrases from that great man, about Twenty20 or about his successors in green caps. But then again, he wasn’t only a brlliant sportsman, he came from a generation with a sense of proportion. I think he might have seen the difference between two Australian calamities this past week, at the SCG and in Queensland.

Asked once about the intolerable ‘pressure’ of the last innings in a Test Match, Keith famously replied: ‘A Messerschmidt up your arse is pressure. Cricket is a game.’ A consoling thought for Ricky?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, author of The Controversy of Zion, The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!, is writing a book on Winston Churchill’s reputation and legacy.

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