England cricket fans should embrace losing. It’s what makes those rare wins such fun

To the fan, losing is just as crucial, if not more crucial, than winning

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Spring has sprung, the days suddenly intimate the warmth that is to come, and England is welcoming back an old friend who will still be with us when summer has been and gone and winter comes again – our old friend, failure.

He’s been lurking on the fringes for a while now, he never fully goes away, but we had started, in recent times, to forget his familiar face.

It was not so long ago that a man who won double athletics Olympic gold in his hometown couldn’t even make it into the top three in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year vote. Trouble is, all our victories came at once. Medinah, Flushing Meadows, Stratford, Munich and the Champs-Élysées, the whole pasture was ours.

Now, suddenly, what for so long was our agonising normality appears to have returned. Ireland are better than us at cricket (and we’ve nicked their best player), the gulf in quality between England and the world’s best football teams is probably wider than at any point in history, everyone’s all but out of the Champions League and, looming on the horizon, are a home Ashes series that will be horrific and a Rugby World Cup which we will host having all but confirmed we are just not on the same level as the best. Last month Great Britain returned from the Track Cycling World Championships in France without a single gold, leaving us lower down the medal table than Colombia.


“Just don’t watch the Ashes,” said the now retired England batsman Mark Butcher earlier this week. “Hide behind the sofa.”

But we will, he knows, do nothing of the sort. If England fans in any sport turned their backs to the sight of failure, the seats in our stadiums would all be installed to face the exits. We would be a nation permanently doing the Poznan. No one would have cast an eye over Butcher’s entire career. (It was he who was at the crease, as it happens, when I was fortunate enough to watch a solitary over of Test cricket in the company of Geoffrey Boycott. “They should have strangled him at birth,” was his typically restrained appraisal.)

No, no. We will turn and face the shame and humiliation. We will do our duty as we have done before. To the fan, losing is just as crucial, if not more crucial, than winning. In fact, it is the absolutely central question of fandom. Which is the more important emotion, which feeds the addiction more: winning or losing? Is the misery of, say, relegation, more potent than the euphoria of winning the FA Cup? The answer to that question divided Wigan fans in 2013, when they did both in a week.

Failure is the gold standard to which success must always be tethered. As Prospero cautions in The Tempest, “too light winning maketh the prize light”. We know that the agony of injustice, and the shame and fury of total incompetence, all spread out over long decades, are the investment we make for the payout we hope will come just once in our lives.

Earlier this season, with the press box full, I had to sit in the away end at Huish Park, among the Manchester United fans who didn’t stop cheering for a second as their millionaire superstars cruised past Yeovil Town. What must it be like, I wondered then and still wonder now, what must it actually be like, to support a team that actually wins trophies, with regularity? I’m not sure I could cope with it.

A very good friend of mine, who happens to be from a famous sporting family, one that has captained England and won the Rugby World Cup, admits he has almost stopped supporting Manchester City in recent years, a club he no longer recognises as the one he fell in love with. In his formative years, glory meant Second Division play-off victory against Gillingham. He also admits his club’s sudden mutation has made him realise he had spent several decades far more concerned with his overwhelming hatred of United, than his love of City. He lives three stops from Wembley and on FA Cup final day 2013 was at home having a dinner party with the TV switched off. It was only the misery that felt real.

By way of contrast, a couple of weeks ago I happened to meet a man in his early thirties, who grew up in Surrey, went to boarding school and has absolutely no connection to the north of England, but as a Home Counties, glory-hunting 10-year-old boy made a fundamental miscalculation and declared himself a Blackburn Rovers fan. The two full decades of torment he has endured, all entirely self-inflicted, scarcely bear thinking about. But there will surely come a sunny afternoon some day, just one, when it will all be repaid. There has to.

Such is the pact the loser makes, and it certainly isn’t signed behind the sofa. So come on Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Novak Djokovic and the rest. Bring it on. You’ve beaten us before and you’ll do it again. Bring on the shame. We are ready for it. Why else would we be here?