June 12, 2013

Why the Ashes are about identity

The greatest sporting rivalries are about groups of people trying to discover who they really are

The greatest rivalries are only partly about sport. They are really about collective identity, groups defining themselves in opposition to each other. After all, before any of us knows who we are, perhaps we need to know who we aren't.

That is certainly the case with the most historic of all cricketing rivalries: England v Australia. The stereotypes have hardened into mythology. As Simon Hughes points out in his entertaining new book, Cricket's Greatest Rivalry: "The wonderful thing about England v Australia is that we are mainly from the same stock. But the players on either side are so different."

In green and gold: the doughty Aussie battler, the plucky iconoclast, the band of brothers defying the odds. In regal navy blue: the slightly superior Englishman, aloof, haughty, half-amused at his upstart enemy. "The Australians are an uneducated and unruly mob," sneered Douglas Jardine, the most controversial of all England captains.

Where Jardine looked down his angular nose at the convict colony, his perfect counterpoint, Jeff Thomson, longed to land a blow on the imperial chin. "I couldn't wait to have a crack at 'em," Thomson said between thunderbolts in 1974. "I thought, 'Stuff that stiff upper-lip-crap. Let's see how stiff it is when it's split.'"

No matter that the vast majority of both Australian and English cricketers do not fit either mould. Let's be honest. Damien Martyn stroked cover drives with the same princely understatement as Colin Cowdrey did. And put Graham Thorpe in an Australian jumper and his rear-guard resilience would inspire knee-jerk punditry about the quintessential never-say-die Aussie battler. The stereotypes of the Ashes have always relied on a powerful mixture of reality and myth. And, of course, if you repeat something often enough, myth takes on an air of truthfulness.

The infamous Bodyline series, almost cricket's original sin, gave the rivalry a personal edge. For the individuals involved, Bodyline bruised everyone it touched. It tormented Bradman, outraged the Australian public, and threatened British-Australian diplomatic relations. But the welts and bruises inflicted on Australian bodies disappeared more quickly than the shadows on English reputations. The captain, Jardine, would be forever defined by the controversy. And Harold Larwood never played for England again, lost his appetite for the game, and eventually emigrated - to Australia, of all places.

And yet from a historical perspective Bodyline deepened and enriched the Ashes. Ever since, hints of righteousness and guilt have coursed through the rivalry. Each side jostles for the moral high ground. They sledge, we banter; they stand, we walk; they scoop up catches, we trust the fielder; you started it, we just held our ground.

That is one reason why the first match of an Ashes summer carries a special tension. England will play Australia 25 times between now and next February. Round one, at Edgbaston last Saturday, provided hints about how the two boxers will approach the slugfest ahead. If you believe in augurs, Mitchell Starc's first ball bodes ill for Australia: a leg-stump gift, clipped for four by Alastair Cook. The rest of the contest was strangely bloodless. England so successfully bottled up Australia that the contest ended with a heavy points victory rather than a single knockout punch.

With India and Pakistan, the world looks to sport to deflate underlying tensions rather than inflame them. With England and Australia, we pretend there is underlying viciousness to what is really a settled diplomatic friendship

The smart money is on England, more so every day. But a part of me, conditioned by decades of Ashes suffering, refuses to believe that Australia will not rally. But perhaps I am too influenced by the weight of history to judge any Australian side with clear-eyed objectivity.

Another epic rivalry starts again this week when India play Pakistan in the Champions Trophy. It is rivalry from a very different tradition. The Ashes is as safe and harmless as a sporting rivalry could be. Even at its most ill-tempered, Australian-English relations descended only so far as a few angry diplomatic cables in 1932-33. The Ashes, a sporting conflict between two political allies, can afford to exacerbate the moments of needle and bitterness. After all, the Ashes has only been suspended by World Wars so that the two nations could fight side by side.

In contrast, India and Pakistan suspended cricketing relations between 1962 and 1977. Given the shadow of the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, real military conflict was too immediate to permit the abstraction of a sporting contest.

When the cricket resumed, players were placed in a deeply uncomfortable position. This week I've been sharing a commentary box with Aakash Chopra, the former India batsman. He told me about the pressures that faced the preceding generation of Indian players when they competed with Pakistan.

"You could do anything in the world but you couldn't lose against Pakistan. Losing to Pakistan was sinful, it just wasn't allowed. It's silly, but it was considered a betrayal of your country. If they lost, effigies of players were burnt, their houses were vandalised."

Some things have certainly changed. Chopra recalls the 2003-04 tour, when India visited Pakistan for the first time in 15 years. "We were made to feel so at home. When we went shopping, people refused to take any money. The Pakistan people were such generous hosts. And it was massive news. Cricket led the news every day."

The hopeful thought arises: can sport lead politics? Chopra doubts it can. "We are still just playing a game. Politicians have tended to use sport to suit their own ends. Sportsmen have merely been pawns."

With India and Pakistan, the world looks to sport to deflate underlying tensions rather than inflame them. With England and Australia, we pretend there is underlying viciousness to what is really a settled diplomatic friendship.

Playing up to a rivalry is a lot easier - and safer - than playing it down.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Philip on June 15, 2013, 7:40 GMT

    As regards convict Aussies, I'm descended from one (that I know of). My wife is descended from two (a married couple - after release of course). She is also descended from another who did time but was not transported out here and thus stayed put! All crimes were committed by citizens of the Old Dart, in the Old Dart. I have seen no evidence of any such crimes Down Under by any of the hundreds and hundreds of known ancestors of ours, most of whom were Sunday School teacher material. Funny that innit? It's alright to have a laugh with stereotypes, but for the record, I have cousins in the Old Dart, I don't think Bodyline was unfair or that Jardine was much other than an Indian-born Scot who wanted to win, and I reckon the Poms will cruise through the Ashes. Twice over. Are the Ashes about identity? Maybe they were once, but now they're just about national bragging rights. And that's about it. I want to watch good cricket and what the modern versions of Fleet Street print is irrelevant.

  • Rajaram on June 15, 2013, 3:05 GMT

    There is no bigger Team contest IN ANY SPORT than The Ashes.

  • Anand on June 12, 2013, 15:48 GMT

    On the contrary to the popular belief that sport bridges gap created by politicians, is there a need at times for sport to actually try and bridge the very gap? We should not be superficially led to the belief that if cricket gets going between India and Pak, then relations will improve. I really hope that relations improve, but cricket is just a sport and can wait! Thousands and thousands of people have been impacted by the bitter relationship between the two countries, it would seem that a mere game of cricket can not always be used to bring the two great nations together. Ultimately the onus is on the people, and "their" elected leaders to fix relationships. Cricket is only being made a scapegoat....

  • Jason on June 12, 2013, 15:31 GMT

    @Posted by on (June 12, 2013, 14:11 GMT) , actually the english county game had players from different countries playing together 40 years ago, long before the IPL was even a glint in somones eye.

    Besides whats the IPL got to do with the Ashes.......

  • Srikkanth on June 12, 2013, 14:48 GMT

    I strongly feel that the Ashes, is the one series which strongly preserves the very true identity of traditional test cricket. With the T20 and ODI becoming so enourmously popular, i feel the traditional test cricket is going thru a downside, and it may possibily even loose its significance in the future. I strongly feel this primarily impacts the younger generation a lot; Personally when i was growing up, test cricket was one of the key lessions that you get to watch, in order learn and understand the fundamentals of proper batting or bowling, which are infact the true foundations of becoming a good cricketer; foudnations like the significance of straight bat play,the importance of patience, mental strenght and endurance and most importantly diciplin. I strongly feel Ashes is the series, which does maintain test cricket's true identity, by not just offering competitive entertainement, but also preserving the traditionals and basics of cricket itself. Cheers!!

  • Dummy4 on June 12, 2013, 14:11 GMT

    I think we need a bit less about 'identity' in cricket. Let the brontosaurus go extinct! The spot-fixing scam notwithstanding, the IPL is the best thing that has happened to cricket in the modern era. Five great things about IPL: 1. Players from different countries have played together as team mates and have become friends and the xenophobic element of cricket is thankfully much more subdued today. 2. West Indies cricketers have become deeply admired, respected and beloved among the Indian public. Almost all the IPL teams had at least one. West Indies players received standing ovations as they entered and left the from Indian fans yesterday in the Champions Trophy. 3. Indians have learned to consume high level sport without it being so strongly attached to nationalism. [Very good thing] 4. Young Indian players who may never play for India received a platform and recognition. 5. The IPL generated lots of employment and business for local people in each town where it was played.

  • Richard on June 12, 2013, 7:42 GMT

    @dinosaurus-If it makes them feel better who cares. We know who we are, a vibrant diverse society and a country that people from all over the world want to come and live in. The cultural cringe is dead and gone, and a life in Australia offers the best of what the world has to give. We're rated only just behind two or three Scandinavian countries in terms on 'liveability', and if you don't fancy the cold Australia is the place to be. We are immensely fortunate to call Oz home.

  • John on June 12, 2013, 4:59 GMT

    Interesting how the "convict ancestry" issue plays out in the two hemispheres. While the fact is that the proportion of Australians with such ancestry is really quite small (a quarter of the population is overseas born), these days such ancestry is almost "Australian aristocracy". Robert Hughes in his book makes the claim that the long and dangerous voyage acted as a strong "filter" - only the strong survived. Add to that, many of the convicts were poachers, which means the the system could be construed as a filter selecting those with sufficient initiative to break the law to feed their families. I'm 75 years old and, unusually for a person of my age, all four grandparents were born in Australia. All four families paid the full cost of their passage - all from mainland Europe, none from the offshore islands. And I must admit to regarding Balmy Army slurs as outpourings of ignorance.

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