“They don’t like it up ‘em, Captain Mainwaring.”
You read it in The Spectator Australia first, just a few short weeks ago in my Ashes preview: England would win the Ashes. However, not even the most rabid fan would have expected it to be in such an emphatic fashion. Even before the Fifth Test, which gets under way at the Oval on the 20th, it is done and totally dusted. The Ashes have been regained by England which has now won four from the last five series contested whilst Australia has not won a series in England since 2001. The two sides initially campaigned a war of inconsistency but ultimately ‘Dad’s Army’ as Australia was christened by Jason Gillespie, was decimated whilst the glorious youth of England marched on. The whole series was encapsulated by that dramatic surrender on the first morning of the Fourth Test when Australia was dispatched for just sixty runs in the shortest first innings in Test history and its third lowest score for 100 years.
I always feel a little uncomfortable when mere sport is elevated to comparisons with battle and war. Sport, not even cricket, is no such thing of course, even though important in its own intrinsic value. How can one use the horror and evil of war as attributes for what should be a fun and uplifting activity? One Fairfax journalist and writer whose work I respect, who has a much better sporting pedigree than I, and who for some unexplained reason wears a handkerchief on his head at all times in public in the manner of a Los Angeles ‘hood’ member (an interesting look for a middle aged man on Sydney’s North Shore!), chose the morning of that Trent Bridge capitulation to remind us all of the horrors of Gallipoli once again. Of course we need reminders of horrors past, ‘Lest we forget’, and he was at pains to point out that war and sport are not the same. He did, however, posit the link that if one is reminded of heroic acts of war one will go out and play better. I am not sure that is so – the participants in a game should be ready to give of their best at all times within the parameters that they are not automatons and subject to the same daily highs and lows as the rest of us. Yes, I am grateful for the sacrifices that others made on our behalf, but it does not inspire me to work better when it is a Centenary. Perhaps we should all read Wilfred Owen’s classic poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, a little more closely.
Still, the SMH journalist does have a deep interest in this historical period and Australians involvement in it. And of course he does have to think about his book sales so might as well give the subject a shove in his sport’s column.
Well it did not inspire Australia at Trent Bridge. The batting was technically abject in that already infamous first innings. I shall not recount the statistics as they have been much touted. What I will say however is that sport is nothing more than mere gossamer. England would be well beaten by a superior Australia, was pretty much the opinion of most Australians. Hubris can be a great leveller and so too can age. Australia did not read the warning signs and one by one its over- 30s fell by the wayside. First it was Ryan Harris who did not even make the start, then Shane Watson, then Brad Haddin. Much has been made of ‘Haddingate’ and of course one has much sympathy for his having to miss Australia’s only highpoint at Lord’s under the particular circumstances. His medium term replacement, who did well in parts, will be 30 next birthday and will have to be replaced himself long before England’s incumbent Jos Buttler, who is still only 24. Sport, like war, is a young man’s game as England emphatically demonstrated with Joe Root and Ben Stokes, both also only 24, to the fore throughout the series. Next to go is Chris Rogers, who has already announced his retirement and well as he played at the beginning of the series was lucky still to be playing after being hit repeatedly on the ‘lid’ in recent times. Adam Voges and Shaun Marsh will be lucky to wear the ‘Baggy Green’ again. And then comes the biggest casualty of all, the captain, Michael Clarke.
It is said that Clarke is deserving of going out on his own terms, as did so many members of the last truly strong Australian team that bridged the 20th and 21st Centuries. No sportsman deserves the right to go out on their own terms even if they have played 59 Tests or 159 Tests. The selectors pick the players to make up the composition of the side and whilst experience and loyalty are valuable commodities, the selectors need to put the best team on the pitch, They should not be swayed by sentiment and the bunkum of ‘mateship’. They made a tough call when omitting Haddin and received a lot of criticism for doing so. In particular, this criticism came from former players some of whom outstayed their tenure themselves.
Clarke was right to fall on his sword and do his Kim Hughes. He has been a marvellous player, capable on his day of greatness and has made the correct decision rather than hanging on too long for the money as some have been guilty of. Australia has been looking to the past too much, it now needs to look to the future.
Before anybody rumbles on about the inequities and importance of the toss and English conditions, it has ever been thus. I wish the same could be said of my waistline. Sitting in my hotel room in Melbourne at the start of the Fourth Test, I promised myself a square of chocolate from the minibar for every wicket that England took. The first bar disappeared almost instantaneously, quickly followed by the second as Australia’s chocolate soldiers showed no stomach for the battle.
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