January 2008

Need votes? Dig out the whites

Malcolm Knox
Australia's last Prime Minister, John Howard, was a "cricket tragic". He was also routed in the November election. A look at the curious relationship between cricket and politics in Australia

The two most important jobs in Australia according to John Howard: prime minister and Australia's cricket captain © Getty Images

Every Sydney Test match since 1996, the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, slipped into the ABC radio commentary box at the SCG. It became a ritual of the New Year for the third of our "cricket prime ministers" (after Robert Menzies and Bob Hawke) to enjoy a fireside chat with listeners during his hometown Test.

This season was different. Howard couldn't wait until January. He joined the commentators during the Hobart Test in November, and only by telephone rather than in the warmth of the box. It seemed an improvised move, either sentimental or cynical in motivation, depending on the listener's opinion of Howard. Either he was doing it because he knew he wouldn't be PM any more when the 2008 Sydney Test came, or because the Hobart Test was a few days out from a national election and he was using cricket to shop for votes.

Both of these theories can - unusually for politics - coexist. Howard's love of cricket is genuine, and there is little doubt that this was one media engagement he thoroughly relished. But at the same time, his identification with the game carried a payload of symbolism that generated and nourished his appeal to conservative voters for so long. Perhaps, with opinion polls predicting certain defeat in November, he thought the country needed a reminder.

His cricket patter over the phone line was the same as ever. Howard's strong suit was self-certainty rather than imagination, which lent itself to a repetition of rhetorical plainness, as safe and comfortable as a 4/4 drumbeat. He marched to a familiar 11-year-old rhythm. As a child, he'd gone to the SCG with his father to see Bradman's last match in Sydney. As a schoolboy, he'd wanted to play cricket for Australia. As a youth, he'd played in his school 2nd XI and then in church teams. As a young man, he'd seen Garry Sobers bat.

Word-perfect, for 11 years these stories have always been the predictable milestones in Howard's cricketing life. He evokes them just as he evoked an admiration of the veterans of the First World War (in which his father and grandfather both fought), the spirit of Australian "mateship", love for the Crown and the Union Jack, and the romance of rugged individualism on the land. They are all of a piece.

Politicians' sincerity is always questioned, and Howard's knowledge of cricket, as opposed to his use of its symbols in a nationalist political agenda, has often been examined. Most observers agree that he has a sound awareness of cricket up to the mid-1960s (when his political career picked up steam) and is a little on the thin side from 1970 onwards. Certainly his repetition of the Bradman-suburban cricket in the '50s-Sobers mantra dated him.

Hawke narrowly missed an Oxford Blue but he did win the world record for drinking a yard of ale

As if aware that his routine made him sound like an old fogey, Howard would try to update the symbols by mentioning a contemporary player who embodied his idea of Australian soundness. For a while it was Mark Taylor - solid, reliable, honest. Then it was Steve Waugh - a fighter. By 2007 it was Adam Gilchrist - popular, free-spirited, ethical. Naming Gilchrist showed that Howard knew the modern game (he knew, for instance, that Gilchrist had walked when he was out, even though the umpire hadn't given him), and also the limits of Howard's knowledge (he'd never be able to say that it was the 2003 World Cup semi-final in which Gilchrist famously walked).

But political leaders speak the language of symbol, not detail. Menzies, conservative prime minister from 1939-41 and 1949-66, was Howard's model and hero in most ways. Menzies wrapped himself in a protective mantle of cricket and Queen, and he instituted the annual match in Canberra between the summer's visiting nation and his own selection of locals, the Prime Minister's XI.

Cricket is not, however, the sole possession of the Tories. The government leader's affair with the game faded after Menzies. Four conservative prime ministers followed Menzies, and none, not even the patrician Victorian Malcolm Fraser, had a particular love of cricket. The PM's XI match fell into abeyance and was only revived by the Labor Party prime minister from 1983 to 1991, Bob Hawke. A boisterous, open-collared trade-union lawyer and republican, Hawke was Menzies' opposite in ideology and image. But as a Rhodes Scholar, Hawke had narrowly missed an Oxford Blue in cricket (he did however win the world record for drinking a yard of ale). He was certainly our best player-PM, even if he is best remembered for having his glasses smashed during a press-parliamentarians' game (it is quintessential Hawke, however, that the accident happened when he tried to hook a journalist's bouncer).

Following Hawke, Paul Keating permitted the PM's XI games to continue, but he was tongue-in-cheek about it. Nobody was fooled, and Keating didn't pretend. His love was for Mahler and antique clocks, as well as Aboriginal reconciliation, land rights, and an orientation away from Europe and towards Asia. Suspiciously un-Australian in so many things, Keating was booted out of office in 1996.

Howard, who once put the Australian cricket captain on a pedestal beside the prime minister as the most important offices in the land, was opposed by four Labor leaders during his tenure. Kim Beazley, who lost two elections, was a cricket enthusiast and Hawke protégé. Simon Crean was Labor leader too briefly to press any cricketing credentials. Mark Latham, who contested the 2004 election, had played cricket (and rugby) at a reasonably competent level, and called Howard's bluff on cricket knowledge.

Tony Blair - an occasional 'sketchy middle-order bat' for the Cricket Pistols wandering side in the late 1970s - looks more solid inside 10 Downing Street © Getty Images

But prowess is not everything. During a visit to Pakistan, Howard attempted to bowl a ball in a park game. His hand would not release the ball at or near the 12 o'clock position. In fact it waited until close to the three o'clock position to let go. The ball almost hit Howard's foot. "I can't bowl, mate!" he cried, in an uncharacteristic understatement.

Howard couldn't bowl, but it didn't matter. He increased his majority against the athletic but untrusted Latham, and in doing so he repeated the Howard magic. How could a person so dun-coloured in his rhetoric, deaf in one ear, physically clumsy, uninspired and ordinary win four elections? Precisely because he was all those things. Ordinary people, outsiders, saw him as one of them. Mark Taylor called Howard a "cricket tragic", the players' term for one of those over-enthusiastic fans who would swap everything they had to be in the player's shoes.

There is something slightly pathetic in the concept of the "cricket tragic". Yet many Australians loved Howard because of it, not in spite of it.

But by 2007 the wheel had turned and the electorate decided that Howard did belong to the Bradman-Menzies-Sobers era, rather than to the future. Kevin Rudd, Howard's slayer, looks like being a non-cricket PM at heart, and nobody seems to care. It could be that the electorate has become more sophisticated. People may have grown tired of the old tricks. And perhaps cricket's place in the national mythology is about to go through another of its cyclical reassessments. Australia's thrashing of Sri Lanka in the November series provoked a Sydney Morning Herald headline of "Cricket In Crisis". Nationalist chest-thumping isn't as fun as it used to be, and a mature society can only preen in front of the mirror for so long. Perhaps with Rudd an age of healthy uncertainty has arrived.

Malcolm Knox is a former chief cricket correspondent and literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and author of six books. This article was first published in the December 2007 edition of the Wisden Cricketer