Is it ever morally OK to support the Aussies?

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. 

 

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Problems at Surrey

After two seasons in Division 1, Surrey were relegated last week at Warwickshire with only a single victory to their name.  As a fan and member of this once great club, watching them this season has been a depressing experience.  The batsmen have continually failed to post competitive first-innings totals and the inability to bowl sides out twice has been very costly.  The sight of batsmen trudging back to the pavilion after yet another ill-judged dismissal for an embarrassingly low score has become all too familiar at the Oval.  Even signing three legends of the game in Graeme Smith, Ricky Ponting and Hashim Amla hasn’t saved Surrey from the drop.  The club has been guilty of a short-term attitude for quite some time and unfortunately, it has finally caught up with them.

            Since gaining promotion in 2011, Surrey have not had the easiest of rides.  The tragic death of Tom Maynard last year overshadowed the whole season.  The fact that the club avoided relegation was an achievement in itself.  Their captain at the time, Rory Hamilton-Brown took compassionate leave and many of the players’ performances were understandably adversely affected.  It was down to the leadership of spinner Gareth Batty that they managed to stay in Division 1.

Things looked up at the start of the 2013 season.  The signing of Graeme Smith as captain was a major coup and a new crop of youngsters, like Rory Burns, Zafar Ansari and Arun Harinath were finally fulfilling their potential.  Things didn’t get off to a great start.  Smith arrived with an injury and had to return to South Africa after a month.  Early draws and defeats in the County Championship put the pressure on and in mid-June, with the team still winless in the 4-day game, the coach Chris Adams was removed.  Bowling coach Stuart Barnes and Surrey legend Alec Stewart were installed as the interim management team but the change failed to arrest the inevitable slide into Division 2.  A season that had promised so much had turned in to a complete disaster.

            So what went wrong?  In the championship winning side of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Surrey had a core of home-grown talent in their prime.  Players such as Graham Thorpe, Alec Stewart, Ali Brown, the Hollioake brothers, Martin Bicknell, Mark Butcher, Alex Tudor had all come through the age-groups at Surrey and were instrumental in its success.  Imports such as Saqlain Mushtaq, Ian Salisbury and Mark Ramprakash supplemented the core group.  The present day squad is littered with old pros at the wrong end of their careers.  Gary Keedy, Zander de Bruyn, Jon Lewis, Vikram Solanki were all signed from other clubs.  Now I admit that experience is vital in any team sport (remember, you don’t win anything with kids) but some of the purchases reeked of short-termism.  Keedy was a particular bizarre signing.  He doesn’t have a particularly impressive bowling average and the team was hardly in need of another spinner given that Ansari would be available from June onwards, yet he was promptly snapped up.  Lewis was a more understandable acquisition given that he was to advise the younger crop of fast-bowlers and Solanki has performed impressively this season as the club’s leading run-scorer.  This is also not a recent phenomenon for Surrey.  In recent past they have signed Usman Afzaal, Michael Brown, Mohamed Akram, Ed Giddins and Jimmy Ormond amongst others, all of whom had pretty unsuccessful stints at the club.  The problem with these signings is that they only ever provide a quick fix.  It is not a long-term plan that will lead to a legacy of success – just temporary solution to paper over the cracks.

            Since their title-winning years, Surrey have let an alarming amount of talent leave the club.  Current England opener Michael Carberry started his career at the club but left due to limited first-team opportunities.  A similar situation led to Tim Murtagh’s departure.  He has now gone on to become one of county cricket’s most consistent seamers.  Another Middlesex seamer, Toby Roland-Jones was on Surrey’s books as a youngster but was allowed to leave.  Rikki Clarke started his career at the Oval and was at first a great success.  After a few lean years he departed for Derbyshire and is now a key component of last year’s title winners, Warwickshire.  Surrey have some very talented youngsters and they must be allowed opportunities in the first team to showcase their abilities.  If seasoned veterans are blocking their progress then the club is suffering as a whole.

            What about the future?  In some ways, relegation to Division 2 is a good thing because it forces to club to take a long, hard look at its recruitment policy.  Without the threat of relegation, Division 2 gives more opportunities for younger players to stake a claim for first team action.  Talented 18 year-old batsman Dominic Sibley (who as I write has just become the youngest double-centurion in the history of the County Championship) must be given a chance, as should promising fast bowlers George Edwards and Matthew Dunn.  They are the future of the club.  The club needs to clear out the older deadwood and start afresh with young, hungry home-grown players.  Players like de Bruyn (who thankfully has already left), Keedy and dare I say it, Batty should all be let go.  Solanki still has something to offer the team and from what I have seen this season, he still has the hunger and desire for success.  There is also the issue of what to do with Graeme Smith.  Will he really be willing to lead the county in the 2nd Division?  In the meantime, Surrey must learn the lessons of past mistakes and look to the future with a long-term strategy.