For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to visit Australia, and I’d love to see a Test match there. The last (in fact the only) time I watched every ball of a Test on site was in Barbados in March 1974 — oh God, what a long time ago that seems! — when England managed to save a tense draw after Lawrence Rowe of Jamaica had scored 302, the only triple century I’ve witnessed, for that matter. How good it would be to sit through a Test in Sydney or Melbourne, although one English friend is smitten with Perth, and another with Adelaide.
Or at least I think that’s what I’d like. Whereas there’s much more than cricket that fascinates about Australia, there’s nowadays much less about sport that captivates me.
Maybe I have illusions about my likely reception if I ever make it there. My dear friend Shiva Naipaul, with whom I used to go to Lord’s as well as enjoy long lunches, visited Australia with the intention of writing a book about the country. In the summer of 1985, not long after his return to London, he died suddenly and lamentably of a heart attack, aged only 40, and I miss him still. He never wrote the book, but he did all the same have time to regale me with stories about his antipodean travels and travails.
Like his elder brother and fellow novelist V.S. (now Sir Vidia) Naipaul, Shiva could be prickly and combative, sometimes without obviously meaning it. He fell foul of the Aussie academic-intellectual apparat, politically correct avant la lettre, by suggesting, for example, that the Aborigines might not have evolved a civilisation quite on the level of, let’s say, those of his ancestral India, or of Europe where he lived. My distant impression is that the apparat isn’t quite so dominant now, though perhaps if I came, I’d learn otherwise the hard way.
But in any case my interest is less in picking quarrels than in looking at Australia as a new country, or even a new civilisation, and at its origins in a part-loyal, part-antagonistic relationship with what Australians no longer call the Mother Country. This absorption has been encouraged, as you might understand, by writing a book about Winston Churchill. Last year I visited Gallipoli with my son, who’s studying history at university, though not in April, when many Australians go there at the time of Anzac Day.
A myth grew up that Australians had been needlessly sent to their deaths by a British higher command who despised them as inferior ‘colonials’. The man first responsible for propagating this was Keith Murdoch, whose son Rupert still held up his father’s reporting from Gallipoli as a badge of honour when he made a somewhat awkward appearance in front of parliamentary committee in Westminster not long ago.
Well, Gallipoli was a totally misconceived and futile disaster, for all that Churchill stubbornly insisted all his life that it had been a brilliant conception. But it’s hard to see how the 8,700 Australians who died there were any more victims of imperial condescension than the rest of the allied troops, 46,000 in all, who had their graves in Gallipoli, or for that matter than the 21,000 British soldiers who were killed the following year between dawn and dusk on 1 July 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme.
In the next war, when Churchill was prime minister, British relations with Australia were more tense. But then relations between the two had been shown to be quite fragile already by a sporting rather than military controversy. The Bodyline affair led to J.H. Thomas, the Dominions Secretary in London, requesting that the fast bowler Harold Larwood should be dropped, on, as the historian A.J.P. Taylor observed, ‘the only occasion when a cricket XI has been chosen by a Cabinet minister, even negatively’.
Now that ugly story was a case of English condescension, from Douglas Jardine, the haughty and unlovable England captain — who thought that ‘All Australians are uneducated, and an unruly mob’ — to MCC in London, outraged at uppity colonials who dared to complain that English conduct might be unsporting. That’s exactly what ‘bodyline’ bowling indeed was, and when I lament the way that sportsmanship isn’t what it was, I remind myself that maybe it never was.
All that came back to me with the dramas of the latest Test series, and thinking about what’s become of cricket, and all sports. Before last year’s Olympic Games in London there were cynics and doomsayers (myself among them, alas) who wondered whether it it might go badly awry. I’m glad to say that we were proved quite wrong when the games were a triumphant success. Afterwards I suggested that one of the reasons we’d enjoyed then so much were that they weren’t soccer, a game nowadays largely owned by crooks and gangsters, and played by cheats and rapists. As to the one sport I’ve covered professionally, the name Lance Armstrong should be enough to explain why I’ve grown a carapace of cynicism about pretty well any form of athletic competition.
And cricket? It has certainly changed since I watched that match in Kensington Oval nearly 40 years ago, partly for the better but also for the worse, I’m afraid. The Frankenstein’s monster known as Twenty20, undreamt of then, may yet consume the whole game of real cricket. There were no helmets then, since batsmen were expected to get out of the way of short fast balls, and umpires were expected to stop persistently dangerous bowling. There was no sledging.
Aussie crowds used to heckle Jardine, and you can’t blame them, but for players to heckle each other is something else. If I’m told I’m a whinging Pom because sledging repels me, my answer is simple. Can anyone imagine Don Bradman or Keith Miller or Richie Benaud shouting witlessly obscene abuse at a batsman to try to unsettle him? And anyway, although it pains me to point this out, if you’ve got Mitchell Johnson, who needs verbal insults?
Maybe you knew the significant fact that Sir Winston Churchill never once visited Australia, or Gallipoli either. I’ve seen the sad battlefield which you might say witnessed Australia’s ‘birth of a nation’, and I hope it’s not too long before I come and look at the nation itself, with or without cricketing humiliation.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s book Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France, is available in a new edition. He is writing a study of Winston Churchill’s reputation and legacy.