January 14, 2014

Australia's Ashes win: a blast from the past

The 5-0 result was the ultimate validation of the impulse towards an idealised notion of Australian cricket

Mitchell Johnson's moustache, grown for charity, has come to represent an Australian cricket revival © Getty Images

In general political terminology, the word "radical" is meant to denote someone interested in thorough political change, at the expense of the existing social order. In contrast, a reactionary is one who seeks a return to an earlier, idealised society. Previously these two terms were used as antonyms.

However, it is obvious that some of the most radical political movements these days are essentially reactionary in nature. It is easy to be glib and cite the Taliban and the Tea Party as examples of this phenomenon, but reactionary attitudes are also prevalent in the rise of many other political forces that espouse the value of a society built on tradition while demanding comprehensive and immediate reform in order to achieve it. A facet central to the arguments of such radical reactionary movements is the idea of a loss of identity. Consequently it is repeatedly argued that aggressive measures need to be taken in order to preserve a dwindling sense of identity.

Watching the current Ashes, it was obvious that the Australian media and former players had adopted a "radical reactionary" approach. In the resolutely puritan and remarkably over-the-top outcry over Stuart Broad's (not) walking, and the employment of every masculine adjective imaginable for Mitchell Johnson's bowling, one saw the notion of an ideal that the Australian cricket team was meant to return to.

You can't underestimate the importance of "return" in that sentence. Over the past hundred years or so, reactionary politics has usually emerged in the aftermath of economic depression, and the current response by the Australian cricket fraternity followed four utterly bare years for the trophy cabinet. What they demanded was a return to winning ways, and they seemed to suggest that the way to do so was by returning to certain ideals.

The development of this sporting identity can be found in Peter Roebuck's In It to Win It, where he speculated that the Australian desire to excel at sport stemmed from the anxiety of a small, resolute nation in a vast, forbidding country to make its mark on the world

The recent fallow years in Australian cricket have, serendipitously, seen the emergence of several remarkable writers. Many of them wrote over the past few years about how attending the funeral of your girlfriend's father, wearing a ear stud, admitting to mental fragility, having an interest in your hair style, getting floral tattoos were symptomatic of the Australian cricket establishment clashing with a changing Australian society. Seeing as the team also began to lose more often during this time, it seemed to imply that Australian cricket was struggling to succeed because it was holding on to the past.

Yet when Mickey Arthur was sacked, the Australian board seemed to make a desperately reactionary move. Arthur's methods had faced a lot of criticism, and the board seemed to want a return to type. When they appointed Darren Lehmann, one attribute commonly cited was that he was more "matey".

Since I am not politically inclined towards reactionism, it seemed to me that an imagined ideal of Australian cricket was being fetishised. So it was with some astonishment that I watched this young Australian side of metrosexuals and vegans tactically (the bouncer-heavy bowling, the attacking batting) and theatrically (the moustache on Mitch's face, the "broken ****** arm") project various Platonic ideals of Australian cricket onto itself on the way to a famous victory.

And it was here that the differences between politics and sport became manifest. In politics at large, outside of elections there is no clear sense of winning and losing, while in sport there is. The merits of pursuing radical reactionism might be debatable in political terms since the "ideal society" that is being sought to be returned to doesn't exist. But in sport, the radical reactionary response of Australian cricket was seeking a return to a tangible state of winning matches, one which could be, and was, realised.

Central in making this radical reactionary urge work was the idea of the identity of Australian cricket. Like all other identities, the one of Australian cricket is a construct and can often be self-contradictory, but it is nevertheless extremely well developed. The return to identity is central to reactionary politics, and in order to succeed, that sense of identity needs to be rich.

One reason for the development of this sporting identity can be found in Peter Roebuck's excellent book on Australian cricket, In It to Win It, where he speculated that the Australian desire to excel at sport stemmed from the anxiety of a small, resolute nation in a vast, forbidding country to make its mark on the world. Whatever the reason for its formulation, this sense of identity was vital in giving the players a touchstone to aim for during the Ashes. In all likelihood, the effect of having this identity was little more than providing common purpose and a release of nerves, but the impact cannot be underestimated.

I should make clear here that the radical reactionism was not a strategy but an impulse, so to speak, that seemed to arise out of the subjective fear that the "Australian identity" was being lost. Moreover, it is clear that Mitch grew his facial hair for Movember and Lehmann was a good option with lots of experience against England, but all these factors came together to represent a radical return to an ideal state of what Australian cricket was meant to be. The fact that an unheralded and decent-but-not-great side won 5-0 was the ultimate validation of this impulse.

What the Ashes provided was evidence of how important the articulation of an identity is for sporting cultures. No team wins on the basis of identity alone, but it remains central in creating advantages that skills and talent can sometimes fail to provide.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on January 16, 2014, 3:35 GMT

    The comment regarding Australia's strength by having captains who pass down knowledge is very true. Whilst watching the 4th Test I thought about Cook and whether he would return as captain in 4 yrs time. I then wondered when was the last time the same captain returned for a Down Under Ashes series. Can't remember ? - I don't blame you. It was almost 100 years ago !!!! JWHT Douglas in 1911/12 and 1920/1 was the last. Even great captains and legendary players like Jardine, Hammond, Hutton, May, Dexter, Illingworth, Brearley, Gatting, Gooch and Atherton only ever did it once. Remarkable destabilisation.

  • Dummy4 on January 16, 2014, 0:00 GMT

    dear Ahmer not sure I have ever read a piece by you before, but found it very clearly thought out and well written, so thanks and I'll look out for you in future. Also found the comment of 'ziko' interesting and not much mentioned in cricket analysis.

  • ali on January 15, 2014, 12:03 GMT

    I agree with @santoshjohnsamuel that this blog is quite hard to digest. it was mainly MJ and England in decline which lead to 5-0. i dnt see this England team now winning even in NZ; mind you even last series they escaped in NZ.

    how good Australia has become will be known in series against SA.

  • rob on January 15, 2014, 8:48 GMT

    If there actually is an Aussie "type" when it comes to cricket I guess it could be summed up as fast and aggressive. We prefer to get our runs fast and our wickets faster. To do that we try to bowl teams out as opposed to keeping them quite by squeezing the run rate. .. That's not new either. We've been trying to play our cricket like that for 130 years. The Demon Spofforth taking six wickets in a session, Bradman scoring a triple ton in a single day, Doug Walters smacking a century in a session are all according to type. .. It's worked before so going back to that style is, I suppose, reactionary.

    I strongly believe that good old Mickey Arthur committed the cardinal sin of trying to change our "type". .. He wanted us to play in a way that we have a strong historical dislike for. We're not a team that likes to graft too much.

  • santosh on January 15, 2014, 4:55 GMT

    Dear Mr. Naqvi, i'm among those who are fond of your writing, but this i found hard to stomach or understand. Reads like a college-level philosophy paper. Roebuck's comment about the roots of the Australian desire to excel at sport was the only silver lining. Else the article could have been summed up thus: "Australia won 5-0, which is a very good result." To be fair, Lara had his bad days too, but we knew a big one was always around the corner.

  • Ahmer on January 15, 2014, 4:39 GMT

    @nreshgb1, WheresTheEmpire:

    Sorry if this was too confusing. However, it is a bit reductive to say that the Aussies liked winning and were committed. If that was the only reason, why did they not apply that for most of the past four years? Moreover, how did a side which was struggling for so long inflict a 5-0 defeat, one whose only previous incident was inflicted by one of the all-time great teams? Cricket is far too intriguing and layered to dismiss it as such IMO. I would try and be simpler in the future.


    Very good comment. Like managers in football, captains in cricket clearly benefit from stability and longevity. I would add that another thing passed down is the encouragement to be proactive. What I also find interesting is the sense of responsibility Aussie captains have. If you take a look at the most no. of centuries hit by captains from any team in Tests, just about every Oz captain is in the top 15.

  • naresh on January 15, 2014, 1:32 GMT

    sheesh.....that was complicated and probably ended up saying nothing.

    very very un-Brian Lara.

  • xxxxx on January 14, 2014, 19:12 GMT

    Perhaps the various, complicated, mish-mash of theories and imaginings above have some merit.

    Alternatively, perhaps the Aussie team just prefers winning to losing and was very committed to doing so after an extended losing streak.