Last summer, I discovered the joys of test cricket, demonstrating (to myself at least) that old age can be a time of life in which new experiences are not necessarily a thing of the past. Some of my readers may remember that I waxed distinctly lyrical.
“Test cricket, it now seems to me,” I wrote, “as a mirror of the drama of human life; of its uncertainties; its failures; its triumphs; its moral quandaries; the way it can call forth exceptional achievements when they are needed, not for self-glorification, but for the common good, the needs of the team… the understanding a Test match slowly engenders that nothing can be achieved without imagination, courage and persistence and that we have always to be prepared for defeat and failure — Test cricket approaches the profundities otherwise attained only by great literature, even, at times, by religion itself.” This comparison with religion was not scoffed at by any of my commentators: one or two of you even took the comparison further, comparing Test cricket with the Old Mass and one-day cricket with the Novus Ordo.
But I wonder what I think now, after hearing the Australian spectators (I nearly said “mob”) howling and sneering, and their brutal jubilation at England’s humiliating defeat after “sledging” so vicious, even from the Australian captain, Michael Clarke, who ought surely to set some kind of example of decent and courteous behaviour, but who joined in and encouraged the unbridled bullying tactics of his team: television stump microphones picked up Clarke’s voice telling number 11 batsman James Anderson as he walked out to “get ready for a broken arm” as he faced rampant pace bowler Mitchell Johnson. Johnson himself was declared man of the match, and he was certainly more responsible for England’s collapse than anyone else: he had done it by bowling accurately and at horrendous speed, not just at England’s wicket, but at its batsmen’s bodies and heads. The Australian opening batsman David Warner called Jonathan Trott (who was clearly disoriented, indeed, distressed by Johnson’s tactics) “poor and weak”, sneering that England’s batsmen had “scared eyes”. Well, Jonathan Trott has now left the Australian Tour and gone home, suffering from a “stress-related condition”: and I am not in the slightest bit surprised.
Jonathan Howcoft, beneath the headline “Spiteful opening bodes for a rancorous summer”, wrote the following on the Back Page Lead website:
This particular series was always likely to be tetchier than most because in the northern winter Australia and its supporters, already sick to the back teeth of losing, carried a deep sense of resentment following some poor umpiring decisions and brass necked English gamesmanship. This manifested itself in a hate campaign against Stuart Broad, carelessly endorsed by Darren Lehmann (the Austraian coach), without rebuke from his employers.
The [Brisbane] Courier Mail’s embarrassing behaviour towards Broad and Kevin Pietersen in the days preceding the Test fanned the flames, helped by sundry cheerleaders like Shane Warne with… puerile (and sadly influential) taunts.
All of which appealed to the lowest common denominator of Ashes rivalry and set the scene for a contest that felt like it wasn’t about cricket at all, but about settling an old score by whatever means necessary. Like a drunk offering an old rival to step outside at closing time even though neither brawler really knew what they were fighting for, just that there was visceral enmity that had to be satisfied.
This was not exactly cricket at its most poetic: and if there was any comparison left with religion, the phrase Odium Theologicum came to mind. The Aussies weren’t just jubilant at their own team’s performance, that would be understandable: they also took a spiteful pleasure in grinding England’s faces in the dirt. Of Warner’s comments about Jonathan Trott, the England Captain, Alistair Cooke, mildly protested “I think the comments were pretty disrespectful to any professional cricketer.” One of the Australian commentators on TMS said that Cooke was “a gentleman”; well, the Australian captain, Michael Clarke, on the evidence of his behaviour during the first test at Brisbane was on the contrary emphatically NO GENTLEMAN. The Australian crowd behaved like sans culottes jubilantly decapitating members of the ancien regime . This wasn’t friendly rivalry: it sounded more like naked loathing. These people, it did seem on this evidence, really hate us. Everyone knows the Australians are poor losers: but as winners, they are insufferable.
Where is cricket in all this? “It’s not cricket” used to be a way of condemning unacceptable behaviour: you could hardly use the expression today. The Cricket Australia website has a lengthy page on The Spirit of Cricket, and a Code of Behaviour it expects to be followed by all those involved in the game. This states that “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself. The major responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains.” The code states clearly that “The Spirit of the Game involves RESPECT for your opponents” and for “the game and its traditional values”. It also says that “It is against the Spirit of the Game… to direct abusive language towards an opponent” or to “to seek to distract an opponent either verbally or by harassment… under the guise of enthusiasm and motivation of one’s own side”. It also states that “There is no place for any act of violence on the field of play”. Deliberately aiming a projectile at high speed at someone’s head is an act of violence.
As Jonathan Howcroft comments, “Is this really how we want the Ashes to be played out? Three months of acrimony, name-calling, belittling and bullying? I’m sure the answer to that question for a lot of fans is ‘as long as we win …’. But isn’t there more to it than that? Isn’t the Ashes in particular about more than that? If it’s about winning and winning alone I’d rather someone just tossed a loaded coin and put England back on a plane…”
But what a pity; what a real shame it is that so noble a game can have sunk so low. “Three months of acrimony, name-calling, belittling and bullying”. I don’t know that I shall be listening to Test Match Special any more during this Australian series, except perhaps for the Daily podcast: I can’t entirely renounce my regular TMS fix of Geoffrey Boycott. But I won’t be losing any more sleep to go through all that again.