For me, it is often impossible to watch a sporting contest purely as a neutral. As much as I may watch for the enjoyment of sport itself, at the back of the mind there is usually one team, or one individual I want to win. This may be down to the skill of a particular performer (I always want Ronnie O’Sullivan or Roger Federer to win, as they are the most exciting players to watch, even if they are, in their own ways, arseholes); it may be down to a strange childhood obsession (I will always support Denmark at football, because of their 1986 team); it could be because of a mildly xenophobic dislike of certain countries in a sporting context (I will hardly ever root for a team or person from France, Germany, Australia or the USA); and it often stems from the peculiarly British desire to see the underdog win. For this last reason, I despise Manchester United, the New Zealand rugby union team, and Tiger Woods.
It can happen that I care not, when following a sporting event, who wins. This may be due to antipathy for the competitors (when Chelsea play Man United, the only real positive outcome for me would be if there were an unseemly brawl, resulting in a points deduction for both sides) or a liking for both the opponents. For example I would have been happy for either Rafa Nadal or Stan Wawrinka to win the recent Australian Open Final, Nadal because he comes across as a lovely, humble bloke, and Wawrinka because he was the underdog and has one of the dreamiest backhands in the game.
The current Test series between South Africa and Australia is one such occasion when victory for either side would leave me content. Like any right-minded English person, I have long held a deep-seated hatred for the Australian cricket team for many reasons: they are historically England’s cricketing rivals; I grew up watching gum-chewing, baggy cap-wearing, muscular men swatting aside the feeble challenge of some limited county pro; and their team always seemed to contain a number of highly objectionable individuals, such as Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden and Glenn McGrath (it has shaken my faith slightly in my judgement of character that McGrath comes across as one of the friendliest and most self-deprecating of men in the TMS commentary box. At least Warne’s still clearly a cock).
Therefore, even against a South African team for whom I have no real affection (Graeme Smith in particular looks a self-satisfied bully), ordinarily I would be rooting wholeheartedly for the Saffers. However, this is not necessarily the case.
Before you start accusing me here of not being a true England cricket fan, and threaten to snap my Ashes 2005 DVD before my eyes as not being deserving of it, allow me to explain. I have not got a weird sporting version of Stockholm Syndrome and developed an affection for the Aussies. I still despise Steve Smith’s piggy face, idiosyncratic batting technique and knack of taking vital wickets with some of the filthiest leg-spin this side of Scott Borthwick. I can’t stand Michael Clarke’s false bravado and ridiculous captaincy decisions, mistakenly lauded in some quarters as inventiveness. Every time David Warner flashes speculatively outside the off stump without even considering moving his feet, I want to punch him in the face, and make him say, several times, ‘it is a travesty, nay a scandal, that I have considerably more Test caps than Stuart Law.’
Instead I am searching for reassurance that England’s 5-0 mauling over the winter was not entirely down to English incompetence, but was instead thanks to an outstanding performance by a well-balanced and highly motivated team. I am still not completely over spending most of November and December quickly checking the score at 3am before enduring several hours of introspection and gloom, interspersed with dreams about Mitchell Johnson’s moustache running off with my girlfriend, while Brad Haddin taunted England by batting with a stick of celery and wearing Boycott’s mum’s pinny. If Australia could beat South Africa, then the memory of those disturbed nights might start to fade.
And, to be honest, it was quite fun watching a different team getting totally obliterated by Mitchell Johnson’s speed and aggression, while David Warner’s hopeful wafts kept on connecting, ruining Vernon Philander’s career figures. But, come the second Test I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable – as much as it was satisfying to watch Graeme Smith forced into panicking his wicket away twice, it would be less fun if this was the start of another period of Australian cricket dominance. What it needed, the right-minded amongst us felt, was a high-class fast bowler in excellent form to expose the Aussie batting line-up as the brittle fraud it is. Thankfully Dale Steyn reminded us that he is one of the great bowlers of this or indeed any generation, and as a result we have a potentially epic decider on our hands.
As previously discussed, for me it doesn’t matter who wins – an Australian victory will in some way mitigate England’s shambolic performance, while if South Africa win, then, let’s face it, Australia will have lost, which is always enjoyable. I’m looking forward to being able to follow some sport in an entirely non-partisan way.