Why nothing in sport beats thrashing the Aussies at cricket

It’s not enough to succeed, Gore Vidal said: others must fail — a maxim that works a hundred times better when Australia do the failing

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

Adelaide airport, 2006. One of those serpentine check-in queues that bring you face to face with a long series of different people. I was leaving, everyone I knew in the queue was carrying on to Perth. See you at Lord’s, then. Sure. Safe trip.

Quiet voices. No jokes. Minimal eye contact. Listless body-language. An overwhelming sense of shared experience. Shared bad experience. We were like, in kind if not in degree, people suffering from disaster shock. As if we’d experienced an earthquake. A loss of certainties, identity, hope. Thank God I was leaving: those poor buggers from the English cricket press had another six weeks of it. Horror. Deep, visceral horror. For England had lost a Test match after declaring at 551 for six.

Lost a Test match to Australia. Lost a Test match to Australia after looking certain to win: it was too cruel to bear. Losing to Australia is painful in a way that no other sporting defeat is painful.

But beating Australia has a zing no other victory can offer. Beating Australia is champagne: beating anyone else is prosecco. Not least because we know the pain it causes Australians. It’s not enough to succeed, Gore Vidal said: others must fail — a maxim that works a hundred times better when Australia do the failing.

All of which made that extraordinary morning at Trent Bridge last week one of the great days of a sporting lifetime. Australia bowled out before lunch, with the aperitifs still wet on our lips. Humiliated. England played very well, Australia played very badly: can any sporting joy in the world be greater?

Sure, there are hundreds of national rivalries in sport: England vs France in rugby, England vs Germany or Argentina in football; invasion and warfare recapitulated: Let’s Blitz Fritz, as the Sun said in 1996. England has never been at war with Australia, but it’s ten times worse losing to them. Not least because it gives them such pleasure. Bastards.

So where did I go from Adelaide back in 2006? Back to England so that I could hate Australia and Australians from a safe distance? Not a bit of it. I went to spend some time with a family I love who live in a country I love. I went to New South Wales.

Australia has given us some of the greatest villains in sport: bowlers with stick-on moustaches and theatrical invective, batsmen with sandpaper jaws chewing gum as if it were the flesh of an enemy. Uncompromising, bullying, full of cartoon masculinity.

So England cricketers tried to be just the same. We too could be easy with the razor, we too could tell people to fuck off. Here’s one of the only two funny sledging stories in the entire history of cricket: Australian wicket-keeper Rodney Marsh to England all-rounder Ian Botham: ‘How’s the wife and my kids?’ Botham: ‘Wife’s fine, kids are retarded.’

All this was to miss the point entirely. England can upset Australians much better with a too-smooth-by-half cricketer with arrogant public-school ways. Douglas Jardine was the type specimen: ‘All Australians are an uneducated and unruly mob.’ That’s the way to get up their noses. Pseudo-Aussies don’t cut it.

I have been writing about sport for 40-odd years and, for me, partisanship is an intermittent pleasure rather than a daily duty. I tend to cheer for Sri Lanka in one-day cricket, for Roger Federer against anybody, for Fiji and Samoa in rugby union, for all African football teams against the world.

But cheering for Australia against England would be a betrayal. Worse, a kind of blasphemy. Against Australia I lose track of perspective and irony and so do most of us who are stupid enough to care about sport. And it works the other way.

It would be only logical, then, for every English person to hate being in Australia and for every Australian to loathe each second on English soil. But we don’t. Quite the opposite. Naturally we complain about each other’s climate and beer and food as we caricature each other’s national characteristics. But something deeply meaningful takes place when we step into each other’s countries.

For an English person it’s the notion of infinite possibility. It feels as if you could be anyone you want. Personal reinvention seems not only easy but inevitable. There is a sense of freedom: not least from England’s obsession with class, which is a burden — if an un-equal one — to English people of all classes.

A fantasy: if I’d gone there in my twenties, would I have worked professionally with horses? A jackaroo, perhaps? Australia represents an alternative biography for every English visitor. Australia is something new, at least compared to our own place. Australia lets us wake up from the nightmare of history.

But it works both ways. The rooted certainties of old England go deep with Australian visitors: pubs with crooked ceilings and beer just off the boil, people standing on the right of the escalator, the way a village sits in a countryside of enclosed fields, Brick Lane, Buckingham Palace…

It’s as if they’d been let off the cultural cringe: accepted into the community of grown-up nations. Australia has what we lack and vice versa — and both sides embrace this with ardour. How I used to tease my sports editor when he called during those Aussie assignments: ‘G’dye mite,’ I would greet him. ‘Oh yeah, flat out like a lizard drinking!’ For me if not for him the joke was new-made every morning.

And it was during these times that I wondered if the sporting rivalry didn’t spring from something deeper than mere enmity. Perhaps, I thought, its intense nature was the expression of a twisted kind of need… even love. Perhaps it’s a family thing: you can bear losing to anybody except your own brother. Especially if he’s older than you. Or younger.

But it’s also a time thing. England represents Time Past, Australia Time Future: pointing to one end, which is always Time Present. The real sporting action takes place now, this very minute, on this piece of ground. Perhaps this collision of times is what makes the Ashes so very vivid.

I was back in Adelaide four years on, in 2010. I got to the ground on the first day in good time, but then I always do. Just as well: in the third over Australia were three wickets down and had as good as lost: ten of the most gratifying minutes of sport I have witnessed.

Australia collapsed on the fifth morning. Haplessly. By the time I was writing it up in my hotel room, the rain that would and should have saved them was steaming down with tumultuous irony. All Australia was deeply unhappy. I was overjoyed.

But next day I was heading back to New South Wales, to see people I love in a place I love, full of the joys and freedoms that are an essential part of every English person’s experience of the beloved country. God, I love the place. And it’s 3–1 now, you bunch of bastards.

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  • CarltonOnTapPlease

    All well said, Simon, but we’ll get the Ashes back from you bastards next time here,
    from an Aussie in Melbourne

  • Sue Smith

    I’m Australian and the cricket team just performed so badly it’s really unbelievable. They need to get their act together or just find a whole new group of sportsmen to replace all of them.

  • E.I.Cronin


  • Scradje

    Always nice to thump the Aussies because they always gloat so much when they win and sulk when they lose. However, nothing would have been better than hammering the Windies during their pomp, because we never did. They were able to put out a side with four of the greatest quick bowlers of all time; Holding, Garner, Roberts and Marshall. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they had Greenwich, Haynes, Richards, Lloyd, Kallicharran etc available to knock up a quick 500 before declaring. It would really have been something to have won even one series against that lot.

    • Tamerlane

      Those WIndies were a class act and there’ll never be a finer group of cricketers, both as people and players, to take the field. England back in those days fielded ten pie men and David Gower, none of whom were remotely in the same league as this lot – it was a pleasure to be beaten by them I always thought.

      • Scradje

        I share your views about these men. But no, it was not a pleasure be to be hammered over and over again. My point was that a series win against the Windies team of that era would be even more of an achievement than winning the Ashes. Unfortunately Gower was often crap against W. Indies.

        • ADW

          Except Clive Lloyd said Gower was the only Englishman he’d have chosen for his side.

    • HAL 9000

      And now the English are gloating about how the Aussies gloat, and how ‘they don’t like it up ’em’. Well, who does? (For decades, we thought you did.)

      Shall I break the news to you? You’ve started winning by…becoming like us. It was like the 2012 Olympics – you were superb hosts and your team performed brilliantly. But Sebastian Coe said that Sydney 2000 was the benchmark he was seeking to emulate. You have learned well, Grasshopper.

      • Scradje

        I think it was the Alan Border era that started a long period of Aussie domination. To paraphrase, he said words to the effect of ‘if you want to have a beer with them afterwards that is up to you, but on the pitch from now on it is going to be mean; no more friendly banter, just out-and-out hate, hostility and sledging; no quarter expected or given.’

        • HAL 9000

          Well, it worked. Border had spent years being one of the few bright sparks in an under-performing team. He was ‘Captain Grumpy’ for a reason.

          • Scradje

            It certainly did!

          • stephen

            before he was captain grumpy his nickname was pugsley

    • grammarschoolman

      Laughing at the crap teams they’ve had to put out for the last 15 years has made it all worthwhile, though.

  • John Carins

    Australians are in general good folk and lest we not forget mainly of British stock. Mr Barnes’ anti antipodean rant is a bit unBritish. The Australians took their defeat well and their Captain Michael Clarke was able to speak with grace and if I may say so in a more eloquent way than Alistair Cook. England’s win was only glorious because it was unexpected. I suspect though that the English batting foibles still exist and that this victory should be savoured as the next defeat is only a match away..


      Bizarre.. !!… For the first time you’ve posting something that I agree with.

      England were very good and deserve all the credits, and as always the Aussie’s know how to win / lose in the right manner.

      Both sides are a credit to the game…. This article is utter tripe.

      • Esmee Phillips

        Gloating is un-English. So is foul language in the paper of Addison.

        And the Australians are our racial kin. Some are of Irish descent and inclined to uncouthness, but there were no greater gentlemen in the sport than Bill Woodfull or the nonpareil Richie Benaud.

  • Tamerlane

    Lot of people who know a lot more about cricket than I do will tell you all of this is bunkum. Wicket preparation has become so advanced and specialised that the home team always wins the series…simple and boring as that.

    • Bob-B

      So the Lords Test was part of a cunning plot to make the Australians over-confident?

      • Tamerlane

        I was very careful to use the word ‘series’ rather than ‘match’.

  • Nick

    What on earth has Brick Lane got to do with Old England?

    • stedman_dantes

      First rule of journalism: Always shoehorn some diversity bullsh*t into any and every article you write.

  • Benjamin O’Donnell

    What Australian cricket team? We’ve cancelled all their citizenships. The hopeless buggers can stay in England where they belong! 😉

  • AJH1968

    I think the Aussies need to be thrashed every now and then; if only to humanize them.

  • Conan_the_Librarian

    “Why nothing in sport beats thrashing the Aussies at cricket”

    Beating England at just about anything does it for me. But then I don’t write for a Tory magazine.

  • dado_trunking

    Life has taught me that the way things are currently going, I will never see England win the World Cup.

    • rtj1211

      Are we talking football, cricket or something else?

  • Alex Williamson

    Beating a country with half your population, at home, really isn’t that great an achievement.

    • Ganpati23

      Tell that to West Germany in ’74 or Argentina in ’78 when they beat the tiny Dutch nation in the WC final.

      • Alex Williamson

        Winning a global tournament is hardly the same as winning a one on one match.

  • Yeah, keep the sledging, if you call it that, classy. But even our cricketers might go red-faced hearing what Kyrios has to say.

    Bring on the next Ashes and glad to see both nations put Test cricket as being so damn important!

    • rtj1211

      Nonsense – Rodney Marsh greeted Botham to the wicket with: ‘How’s your wife and my kids?’ Botham responded ‘Wife’s fine. Kids are retarded….’

      Kyrgios is no worse than cricketers 40 years ago……….

  • BigCheddar

    Brilliant piece and so true. Love Australia, what a beautiful country and there is nothing better in sport than beating them. Seeing David Warner dejected is one of the most appealing sights in sport.

  • John Hawkins Totnes

    Great article Simon. But what ever do you mean by, “Australia lets us wake up from the nightmare of history”?

  • global city

    I’m sure many, or most people who experienced England winning the FIFA World Cup would have something to say about this assertion. As for myself Liverpool winning the European cup in 1977 and then, so magically and incredibly, their fifth one in Istanbul in 2005, leaves this cricket/Aussie beaating thing in the shade.

    • rtj1211

      Everyone has their favourite sport. Many Welsh folks would put beating England at rugby far higher. Those who prefer golf might think winning the Ryder Cup at Medinah was the best of the best.