Why we need the Ashes to be competitive
Much as this may stick in innumerable craws, we really ought to thank the Americans. After all, they were the first, in 1844, to have the bright idea of staging a contest between two teams purportedly representing their country of origin or residence, bragging rights for the claiming.
True, that USA v Canada bunfight at New York's Bloomingdale Park (estimated attendance 10,000) can be seen as a catalytic catwalk for a bevy of unbeauties - the ritualisation of enmity under the cloak of friendly competition, the toxic brew of racism and nationalism, the predilection for hyperbole over judicious appraisal. Still, on balance, for its contribution to competitive theatre, sporting excellence and human bonding, both across and within borders and social classes, gratitude for the internationalisation of sport outweighs blame, however narrowly. Besides, without it we would have been deprived of that most singular of sporting rivalries, one dependent as much on mutual support as mutual antipathy, namely an often overheated 128-year-old dispute for an urnful of hotly disputed ashes.
USA v Canada may be the first contest, but can anyone seriously challenge the right of Englishmen and Australians to proclaim their love-hate relationship as the zenith of international sport? Judging by all the Gabba Gabba Hey-ing preceding the latest resumption of inhospitalities, not a chance.
Sure, India v Pakistan arouses more passions, as do footballing debates between Argentina and Brazil, let alone those bitter stud-raised battles between Croatia and Serbia. For New Zealanders and white South Africans, nothing can possibly compare with the sheer ruggedness of their thuggish rugger-buggery. Even when it comes to cricketing quality, the prospect of India's forthcoming trip to South Africa does more to titillate the taste-buds.
Nothing, though, has quite the reverberant lustre, or historical baggage, of England v Australia, not even when the protagonists both occupy middle-order berths in the ICC rankings. Think of all those trusty tabloid standbys: mother country v uppity ex-colony, toffs v oiks, warm beer v icy lager, Beatles v AC/DC, Eastenders v Neighbours, Cilla v Kylie, Queen Liz v Dame Edna, Marmite v Vegemite.
Now England are seeking their 100th Test win over the ancient enemy. Dwell on that for a moment. One hundred victories over a single international opponent. It would be a good deal more meaningful, of course, if that opponent hadn't already stacked up 132 of their own. Even if England achieved six whitewashes in a row from here, they would still be lagging. On such foundations are lifelong devotions built, preserving the inner and outer child.
Of late, though, some hard-held perceptions have been stirred, even shaken. As Australia's writers, musicians, dramatists and thespians have flourished, so the traditional cultural cringe has gone walkabout. When it comes to self-perception, we Poms are now as likely to heed the views of Germaine Greer and Clive James as those of our own countrymen. At the other end of the seesaw, in a sudden reversal of a seemingly irreversible tide, Englishmen have recently become rather fond of the smell of Australian sporting blood. And we're not just talking about the fact that they have won the nations' most recent series in all three cricketing formats, nor that they have won two of the past three duels for the urn. That this has been the handiwork of teams representing England and her Dominions, as both sides have sniped, has barely diminished either pleasure or pain.
At the last Olympics, to widespread amazement, Great Britain pipped Australia in the medals table - whereupon Canberra politicians began claiming, not entirely convincingly, that the Games were a waste of resources. In the last two rugby union tests, in Sydney and then in London, England have prevailed - on the second occasion, unthinkably, with a cunning plan that owed everything to adventure and flair, qualities habitually associated with their opponents, who had beaten the mighty All Blacks the previous weekend. No less unimaginably, over the next couple of months, as Andrews Strauss and Flower herd their men from Queensland to New South Wales, the most thrilling players on view, Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad, promise to be Poms. How the times are a-changin'.
CLAIMING NEUTRALITY WOULD BE NOT so much disloyal as dishonest. Much as I no longer give even half a hoot whether Chelsea lose to Arsenal, Middlesex to Surrey, Harlequins to Toulouse or David Haye to either of the Klitschkos, the blood still bubbles come Ashes time. Blame it on the early splendours and latter-day scars of accumulated memory.
It all began so promisingly. The initial taste came in the summer of 1968, when England lost the opening chapter at Old Trafford, then had to wait until the last five minutes, having been stymied by the weather at Lord's and Edgbaston, to square matters at The Oval, where Basil D'Oliveira seemingly booked his passage back to South Africa with a magnificent century and a key wicket. Thus did England win the most politically significant match in cricket history - not a bad way to start. Not until my fourth and fifth tastes, in 1974-75, did the baggy green 'uns snatch the edge. Then came a decade of virtually uninterrupted Pommy rule. Cue comeuppance on an instalment plan: 19 years and eight series spanning five captains, three prime ministers and the birth of the mobile phone, laptop and internet. Then, glory be, came 2005.
This time, in the unaccustomed guise of favourites, the dearth of reasons to be fearful is frightening. If those forthright warm-ups and the unfamiliar scent of Australian panic weren't enough to sap sinews and wobble upper lips for the coming long nights, what terrifying insights into the tourists' depth of confidence can we glean from the sight of Jonathan Trott letting down what remains of his hair and dancing "The Sprinkler" in Graeme Swann's video diary? Don't get me started on the unnerving clues furnished by Mitchell Johnson's positively sinister moustache. Nor, in the circumstances, would it be wise to mention the suspiciously auspicious omen that Swann is the best spinner on either side and that all England's successes in Australia since the First World War have seen them boast the superior twirlers. Or, for that matter, that when the 66th Ashes clash finally kicked off, Ian Botham, that Aussie-baiter supreme, was still celebrating his 55th birthday. Favouritism sits uneasy on pessimistic hearts.
The struggle between the two ancient enemies, nonetheless, is entering uncharted terrain. Only once before, from 1928-29 until 1934, has another stretch of four Ashes series produced alternating victors. Should Australia reclaim the urn by January, extending their sequence to W L W L W, the pendulum-esque parity will be unique. This is where partisanship surrenders to a purer sort of love.
For those of us whose affection for the game exceeds the pull of geographically imposed identity, and even for those on whom they exert an equal tug, what we crave above all is vibrancy of true competition. We want to savour and hard-drive the occasion, not simply because "our" side happens to win, but because of the contest itself. We want to see matches that showcase the competitive arts at their best, the better to reinforce the arguably grandiose notion that the Ashes symbolises the pinnacle of cricketing endeavour and grandeur, as reliant on brain as brawn, art as heart, craft as graft and skills as thrills, as appreciative of the beauty as the beastly.
From the mid-1990s, when the Waugh-Warne axis began turning a rivalry of Ali v Frazier ferocity into one more redolent of Ali v Frasier Crane, Australian friends were as eager as me for some, any, vestige of competition. Come September 2005 their natural disappointment was countermanded by relief that proper hostilities had recommenced - hence their lack of triumphalism amid the massacre of 2006-07. Even if history and custom do dictate that Australians will probably always get a bigger kick out of beating England than vice versa, I know how little I would relish a 5-0 thrashing, even now. The nearest approximation, the 5-1 drubbing of 1978-79, was undermined by the gnawing knowledge that Graham Yallop's mob were a second XI at best, the 3-0 caning in 1977 by the shadow of Kerry Packer.
Proper competition, moreover, can only be enhanced by the fact that England v Australia is now the only fixture on the international calendar that ritually encompasses five Tests, admittedly a blessing tainted, in terms of the destiny of the Ashes, by the superfluity of the final chapter in all bar one series in Australia since 1971. Five is long enough for fortunes to wax after waning (witness, in particular, 1930, 1936-37, 1954-55, 1981, 1997 and 2005), and long enough for the better men to defeat both weather and off days (let's attribute England's victorious 2009 campaign to a combination of steadier nerves and the profound unreliability of statistics). It is also long enough, above all, to sustain interest for months instead of weeks, gain a grip on the wider consciousness, and hence, potentially, inspire another generation.
Besides, even if the 2010-11 Ashes leaves no legacy other than to consign the two-Test rubber to unmourned oblivion, it will still have served its purpose admirably.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton