English cricket I'm talking about, as if you didn't know. Dead again. How many deaths is that since the Sporting Times published its first obituary, in "Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket Which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882"? How many more times, to satisfy the morbid, must English cricket curl up its heels and expire? And how can a thing die, anyway, that's dead already? Enough, lads, this is veritable body-snatching. Time to remove the armbands and let what's left of the refried corpse lie quiet. Thou'lt come no more, never, never, never, never, never.
I can't pretend I'm mystified by the funereal mood. Year in, year out, I have watched sorrowing while the Australians climb all over us like a cheap suit, do us like a dinner, make girls and galahs of us, now in their country, now in our country, now in someone else's country, now on the surface of the moon, it has sometimes seemed, where the wickets of course help their bowlers more than they help ours.
One long winter, teaching foreigners the rudiments of English culture in a language school in Oxford, I lay awake night after night listening live via a crackling radio to Lillee and Thommo breaking the spirits, not to say the bones, of every batsmen, young or old, we could persuade to go in and be humiliated in the national interest. I'm prone to sensations of melancholy at three o'clock in the morning at the best of times, but to be alone in a strange bed in a strange town, hearing English wickets tumbling in the white light of Perth and Brisbane, is a species of suffering I would not wish on anyone, except of course an Australian.
Why losing at cricket is so much more excruciating than losing at anything else I cannot say for sure. My guess is that it's the protracted nature of the game. Losing to a German or an Argentine football team is an exquisite torture, but it's all over in under two hours. Defeat in a test match grinds on for five interminable days. Unless we're playing New Zealand, that is, in which case we can expect to be out of our misery in three.
I know the feeling, that's all I'm saying. I too have given my heart unwisely to Thorpe and Ramprakash. We shouldn't be so soppy. What are we doing falling for a team of utterly unsuitable Englishmen every year when we know from long experience they are unable to reciprocate? We aren't very good at a game called cricket, is that such a disgrace? We are wonderful at other things. Compared to our usual, and indeed to our most recent test match tormentors, we are possessed of the most refined and decorous aesthetic; we don't write preposterously overblown novels; we don't make feeble camp movies like Priscilla or portentous ones like The Piano; and we dress with a snazzy know-how - which is more than you can say for them, our cousins from Auckland and Wellington, trussed up like a convention of sheepfarmers in their great-great-grandfathers' wedding suits.
So why, on top of everything else we can do, must cricket be expected of us as well? Only stop to think and you'll see you can't produce cricketers in a country which rarely gets the sun, lacks space for nets, and doesn't grow its own oranges. Fruit has always been the secret of cricket. The best cricketing countries grow the best fruit. Q.E.D. You don't develop strong bones, a perfect bowling action and the will to win on dandelion and burdock. But why is winning important to us anyway? Winning is something you do from a position of inferiority. It is inherently ungentlemanly. Compulsive winners invariably have a score to settle. Wouldn't you want to win if you were a New Zealander? I intend no criticism. To win is human. But to lose, divine.
This is why the week-long fulminations, not only against the character of our cricketers but against our moral decrepitude in general, have missed the mark. Photographs of Phil Tufnell smoking and drinking his way through a plane-load of duty-free notwithstanding, unruliness is not the problem. We suffer from an excess of virtue, not iniquity. What we lack are ruffians. In sport it's the wildest men who make the most effective contributions. Which cricketer has given us our only real sniff of success in the last twenty years? Ian Botham. Not a person of sweet temper or moderate appetites, even by his own estimation.
Similarly with the all-conquering, all-swearing Australians. Mark Waugh and Shane Warne in trouble for selling public secrets to bookies in the early hours? Not trouble exactly. Just a feathery tut-tut, a fine equivalent to a morning's earnings, then back out onto the field. Here come the Poms, let's feed them to the lions. Had they been Poms themselves we'd have slippered them, shamed them, suspended them, accused them of bringing the game into disrepute - ha! how can you bring sport into disrepute? sport is disrepute - and then, when their teeth were drawn, sent them hobbling spiritlessly into battle. You want to win? Then accept that you need ravening beasts to do the winning.
Dead! dead! and never called us mother? All that's dead is the animal in us. It's actually very good news once you find the right way of looking at it.
Howard Jacobson's new novel `The Mighty Walzer' is published by CapeReuse content