So far, so good Ashes-wise. Two games, two victories, and everybody of an English persuasion is happy. We’ve even had some history-making moments. We have had a record score by a number 11 batsman; we have had a record 10th wicket partnership; we have had a truly outstanding delivery to dismiss the opposition’s captain and main batsman (Anderson to Clarke at Trent Bridge); we have had a bollock-clenchingly close finish; and we have had a hilariously brutal spanking. Yet, there are some who claim to feel a particular emotion that is utterly alien to almost every English cricket fan; that of sympathy towards the Aussies.
This was most notable at the end of Australia’s first innings at Trent Bridge. Ashton Agar had just been dismissed for 98 in his debut innings, an astonishing effort as everyone acknowledges. However, you could hear murmurs of ‘isn’t it a shame that the poor lad didn’t make his century. I wouldn’t have begrudged him an extra two runs.’ Excuse me? This lad has just contributed to a stand which may very well have taken the first test away from England. From a position of impregnability, we are now staring down the barrel of a 70 run deficit after the first innings. We want him out as soon as possible. Every run may be crucial.
There is something in the British psyche that looks down on winning too easily. Drumming home one’s obvious advantage is seen as vulgar, not the done thing. We root for the underdog, and often fail to acknowledge sheer sporting class because we are too busy sympathising with the loser. For example, following this year’s women’s Wimbledon final, most reports concentrated on the collapse of Sabine Lisicki’s form, rather than praising Marion Bartoli for her high-class, tactically prefect play. This may have something to do with the relative attractiveness of the two players, which is a different issue entirely (for more information write to J Inverdale Esq, BBC Sport, Chauvinism Place, Misogyny Road, I’m-no-looker-myself-ville), but also displays the British fixation with a plucky, but tearful loser over a deserved winner.
In reference to the cricket, any supporter who has lived through the barren years of 1989 to 2005 is not going to feel sorry for the Aussies in a hurry. The first Ashes series I was aware of was the 1989 fiasco which, to my mind, seemed mainly to consist of Steve Waugh scoring runs, and Graham Gooch getting out to Terry Alderman. England fielded 29 different players in that series, including such luminaries as Phil Newport, Tim Curtis and John Stephenson. Between 1991 and 2005, the following players have played Test cricket for England against Australia: Eddie Hemmings, Martin McCague, Mike Smith, Warren Hegg, Ian Ward, Jimmy Ormond, Richard Dawson. In the same period Australia have had the following selection dilemmas: which Waugh twin to play (1991); Michael Slater or Matthew Hayden (1993); which fast bowler out of McGrath, Gillespie, Reiffel or Kasprowicz to leave out (1997); Ricky Ponting or Michael Bevan (also 1997); Michael Slater or Justin Langer (2001); how are we possibly going to deal with the loss of Shane Warne, oh well better call up Stuart MacGill I suppose (2003); is our batting line-up strong enough to ignore Brad Hodge, Stuart Law, Matthew Elliott, Jamie Cox, Michael Hussey, Darren Lehmann and Michael Di Venuto (most series from 1997 onwards – the answer’s yes by the way). Given the disparity in quality and selection policy between the two teams for 16 long, predictable years, I am certainly not about to offer up any sympathy towards this current Aussie outfit. Keep your metaphorical foot on their metaphorical throat is my message to the England team. And don’t worry about the metaphorical bit.