Adelaide airport, 2006. One of those serpentine check-in queues that bring you face to face with a long series of different people. I was leaving, everyone I knew in the queue was carrying on to Perth. See you at Lord’s, then. Sure. Safe trip.
Quiet voices. No jokes. Minimal eye contact. Listless body-language. An overwhelming sense of shared experience. Shared bad experience. We were like, in kind if not in degree, people suffering from disaster shock. As if we’d experienced an earthquake. A loss of certainties, identity, hope. Thank God I was leaving: those poor buggers from the English cricket press had another six weeks of it. Horror. Deep, visceral horror. For England had lost a Test match after declaring at 551 for six.
Lost a Test match to Australia. Lost a Test match to Australia after looking certain to win: it was too cruel to bear. Losing to Australia is painful in a way that no other sporting defeat is painful.
But beating Australia has a zing no other victory can offer. Beating Australia is champagne: beating anyone else is prosecco. Not least because we know the pain it causes Australians. It’s not enough to succeed, Gore Vidal said: others must fail — a maxim that works a hundred times better when Australia do the failing.
All of which made that extraordinary morning at Trent Bridge last week one of the great days of a sporting lifetime. Australia bowled out before lunch, with the aperitifs still wet on our lips. Humiliated. England played very well, Australia played very badly: can any sporting joy in the world be greater?
Sure, there are hundreds of national rivalries in sport: England vs France in rugby, England vs Germany or Argentina in football; invasion and warfare recapitulated: Let’s Blitz Fritz, as the Sun said in 1996. England has never been at war with Australia, but it’s ten times worse losing to them. Not least because it gives them such pleasure. Bastards.
So where did I go from Adelaide back in 2006? Back to England so that I could hate Australia and Australians from a safe distance? Not a bit of it. I went to spend some time with a family I love who live in a country I love. I went to New South Wales.
Australia has given us some of the greatest villains in sport: bowlers with stick-on moustaches and theatrical invective, batsmen with sandpaper jaws chewing gum as if it were the flesh of an enemy. Uncompromising, bullying, full of cartoon masculinity.
So England cricketers tried to be just the same. We too could be easy with the razor, we too could tell people to fuck off. Here’s one of the only two funny sledging stories in the entire history of cricket: Australian wicket-keeper Rodney Marsh to England all-rounder Ian Botham: ‘How’s the wife and my kids?’ Botham: ‘Wife’s fine, kids are retarded.’
All this was to miss the point entirely. England can upset Australians much better with a too-smooth-by-half cricketer with arrogant public-school ways. Douglas Jardine was the type specimen: ‘All Australians are an uneducated and unruly mob.’ That’s the way to get up their noses. Pseudo-Aussies don’t cut it.
I have been writing about sport for 40-odd years and, for me, partisanship is an intermittent pleasure rather than a daily duty. I tend to cheer for Sri Lanka in one-day cricket, for Roger Federer against anybody, for Fiji and Samoa in rugby union, for all African football teams against the world.
But cheering for Australia against England would be a betrayal. Worse, a kind of blasphemy. Against Australia I lose track of perspective and irony and so do most of us who are stupid enough to care about sport. And it works the other way.
It would be only logical, then, for every English person to hate being in Australia and for every Australian to loathe each second on English soil. But we don’t. Quite the opposite. Naturally we complain about each other’s climate and beer and food as we caricature each other’s national characteristics. But something deeply meaningful takes place when we step into each other’s countries.
For an English person it’s the notion of infinite possibility. It feels as if you could be anyone you want. Personal reinvention seems not only easy but inevitable. There is a sense of freedom: not least from England’s obsession with class, which is a burden — if an un-equal one — to English people of all classes.
A fantasy: if I’d gone there in my twenties, would I have worked professionally with horses? A jackaroo, perhaps? Australia represents an alternative biography for every English visitor. Australia is something new, at least compared to our own place. Australia lets us wake up from the nightmare of history.
But it works both ways. The rooted certainties of old England go deep with Australian visitors: pubs with crooked ceilings and beer just off the boil, people standing on the right of the escalator, the way a village sits in a countryside of enclosed fields, Brick Lane, Buckingham Palace…
It’s as if they’d been let off the cultural cringe: accepted into the community of grown-up nations. Australia has what we lack and vice versa — and both sides embrace this with ardour. How I used to tease my sports editor when he called during those Aussie assignments: ‘G’dye mite,’ I would greet him. ‘Oh yeah, flat out like a lizard drinking!’ For me if not for him the joke was new-made every morning.
And it was during these times that I wondered if the sporting rivalry didn’t spring from something deeper than mere enmity. Perhaps, I thought, its intense nature was the expression of a twisted kind of need… even love. Perhaps it’s a family thing: you can bear losing to anybody except your own brother. Especially if he’s older than you. Or younger.
But it’s also a time thing. England represents Time Past, Australia Time Future: pointing to one end, which is always Time Present. The real sporting action takes place now, this very minute, on this piece of ground. Perhaps this collision of times is what makes the Ashes so very vivid.
I was back in Adelaide four years on, in 2010. I got to the ground on the first day in good time, but then I always do. Just as well: in the third over Australia were three wickets down and had as good as lost: ten of the most gratifying minutes of sport I have witnessed.
Australia collapsed on the fifth morning. Haplessly. By the time I was writing it up in my hotel room, the rain that would and should have saved them was steaming down with tumultuous irony. All Australia was deeply unhappy. I was overjoyed.
But next day I was heading back to New South Wales, to see people I love in a place I love, full of the joys and freedoms that are an essential part of every English person’s experience of the beloved country. God, I love the place. And it’s 3–1 now, you bunch of bastards.