The column: Failing the test
Howard Jacobson used to be bowled over by all things Australian but his love has just run out - and headgear has an unreasonable amount to do with it
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 12 December 1998
Queer, that, because I have always thought of myself as a great supporter of everything Australian: Australian wine, Australian films, Australian novels, Ken Rosewall, Sidney Nolan, Barry Tuckwell - maybe not Greg Norman or Nicole Kidman, but otherwise if it's Australian I've backed it. What other Englishman would have hiked up to the World Snooker Championships in Sheffield three years running to show support for Eddie Charlton? When the Socceroos played Iran for the last remaining place in the World Cup last November I was there, joining in the songs - "One Salman Rushdie/There's only one Salman Rushdie" - shedding tears like any home-grown Aussie male when the dream turned to dust.
So why not Australian cricket? Partly simple nationalism, I suppose. I don't like to see us losing so badly. And by "us" I don't just mean England. I mean Manchester and Cambridge.
Trust me on this: when it comes to Manchester and Cambridge, I know whereof I speak. That Atherton and Crawley are actually Manchester and Cambridge is only partly to the point. That Crofty looks as though he's Manchester (though more Aberystwyth than Cambridge) is also only incidental. The significant thing is that team morale is Manchester and Cambridge. That long slow inexpectant trudge to the wicket, like George Formby looking for another lamppost to be jilted under - pure Manchester. That all round witlessness when you finally get there, that head-to-toe gaucherie - pure Cambridge. On their own, of course, neither Manchester nor Cambridge need be a disqualification - it is possible to be a depressive and still play cricket; it is possible to be lacking in all physical grace and still play cricket - but the combination is fatal. You cannot be a klutz and not believe in yourself.
At least not when you're playing Australia you can't. I'm not saying depression and self-doubt are unknown out here. Indeed, the suicide rate among the Australian young is alarmingly high. It just isn't high among the Australian cricket team.
But if masochistic Mancunian patriotism is all it's about, shouldn't I be back cheering the Aussies the minute my lugubrious townsmen fly out? So why aren't I? How come I can't bear to see Australia beating Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe or even New Zealand, either?
I've been thinking long and hard about this question and I've decided it must have something to do with the baggy green cap. You don't need to be much of a cricket aficionado to know what the baggy green cap is. The baggy green cap is what you always see Bradman wearing in old photographs. The baggy green cap is what you are given when you have been selected to play cricket for Australia, that item of schoolboy headgear which perversely makes you look like an old man the minute you put it on. Which may have been why it started to go out of fashion for a while, what with helmets and West Indian fedoras and the like.
Then everything changed. There isn't enough space here for a complete history of Australian cricket over the past decade or two, but roughly it goes - floodlights, pyjamas, Botham, tears, Border, Waugh twins, Healy, Warne, baggy green cap. The return of the baggy green cap signalled Australia's cricketing revival; with the baggy green cap came a restatement of belief in the great little Aussie battler, even if he did now wear lilac sunshades and a gold stud in his ear.
As far as talking about the baggy green cap goes, Steve Waugh seems the most unembarrassed, describing it as a symbol of the pride he takes in serving his country. And it's precisely as a stalwart servant that he is valued by a sentimentally grateful Australian public. Sitting gloomily in the Gabba on that fateful second morning of the first test when he and Heals turned the tide, I listened to a couple of weathered Anzacs singing his praises. "He's been a great figure for Australia over the years, old Stevo." "Oh, shit yeah. A legend, mate."
But no one wears the cap the way Healy wears it. Tight on the head, like a first-former's, but simultaneously floppy, like a Four-and-Twenty pie. It comes as a surprise, when he takes it off, to discover that there's a real person under it, made of flesh and blood, bone and hair, rather than some abstract of resolution and pugnacity.
Inscribed upon his cap the words, "Thou shalt not pass." The doughty digger. Gallipoli revisited.
Well, as ye sow ye reap. If we now cross the world to play a game against a nation that would rather die than lose, it's our own doing. We were the ones who got them to hurl themselves into the Dardanelles in the first place.
But that doesn't make it any the more edifying all round. You pays your money ... Either you can sit and watch a bunch of mournful Mancunians wallowing in defeat - "a mob of dills" was the description chosen by the Anzacs I came across at the Gabba. Or you can look on while an ill-humoured platoon of doughty diggers in baggy green caps snarls and paws the ground, intent upon repelling a threat that isn't there.
By God, if there's one thing sicker than being desperate to lose, it's being desperate to win
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