James Lawton: To a man who lost like a champion...
It's hard to imagine a better test for England now than Down Under against Australia
Tuesday 25 August 2009
Look, mate, I know this will probably carry about as much consolation as a warm beer beside a malodorous billabong but I just wanted to say thank you.
Thank you for reminding us that there is a way of losing that can pinpoint the glory of sport just as acutely as winning.
Thank you for not muddying any of the clear blue water that is supposed to separate winners and losers. Thank you for putting up with some pretty rank bad manners at times this summer and taking everything that came your way, some of the good and all of the bad, with the unbroken gaze of a born competitor.
One way and another you took a hell of a pounding at The Oval, losing the toss for a fourth time in five on what you would describe as a distinctly ordinary strip, copping a Stuart Broad, such a pain in the rear-end at Headingley, who suddenly looked as though he had stepped out of the clouds of Greek mythology, having the ball driven into your face from extremely short distance, and then losing your wicket to a flaming arrow of a throw from Andrew Flintoff, of all local heroes, just when you looked perfectly set for your 39th Test century and, who knew, possibly the authorship of the greatest victory in the history of the old game.
All in all it was guaranteed to take the spring out of the stride of a baby kanger but if you weren't happy, indeed if you were as disgruntled as you ever were in your turbulent youth, your behaviour was – as it has been throughout a most difficult summer – absolutely impeccable.
Apparently there are rumblings Down Under about your continued captaincy, a conclusion that you are not exactly in the all-conquering tradition of Allan Border and Steve Waugh and that losing the Ashes for a second time on English soil is surely terminal carelessness.
Personally, it is hard to see any value in your possible demise. You are still demonstrably one of the great batsmen and it is hard to imagine anyone better equipped to repeat your feat of 2006-07, when you could have only gained greater revenge for the loss in 2005 by having the heads of Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen placed on spikes and displayed on the heights of Sydney Bridge.
Your demeanour at the outset of that triumph was something to behold, even for someone who had seen the resolve of such warriors as Roberto Duran and Eddy Merckx before going about their work. They called Merckx "The Cannibal" and Duran was said to have hands of stone. Well, neither of them showed before battle a more icy determination than you did when you declared the ambition of regaining the Ashes before that first Test in Brisbane in which England were not so much beaten as engulfed.
You said that you knew most of your job was accomplished on the homeward flight when you looked into the eyes of your beaten players and knew quite what a reservoir of incentive lay at your disposal.
Nothing that happened in the following weeks did anything to touch the sense that you were as committed as any sportsman had ever been at the outset of a new challenge.
If the new England of Andrew Strauss are to define themselves, and consolidate the progress of this last summer, it is hard to imagine a better test than against Australia Down Under in perhaps your final statement as a cricketer.
These views on your status, and continued meaning, in the game are doubtless not shared by the buffoons who booed you at Edgbaston in the third Test this summer but there was agreeable confirmation of the respect in which you are held by the average thinking English fan at The Oval.
There in the Sunday gloaming you once again managed to bury your angst and say, quite precisely, the right thing. Sure, the pitch was poor but you didn't offer it as an excuse for a defeat that will be deemed as calamity back home and you could hardly have been quicker to pay tribute to the brilliant restoration of a broken team performed by your counterpart Strauss.
Recently it was said by someone purporting to be a sports writer that you were as boring as an ancient packet of Quavers, which are understood to be cheese-flavoured crisps. Well, there was nothing cheesy about the century you knocked in the first Test, one which would have been the foundation for a possibly series-shaping victory if one of you bowlers had managed, over 11 overs, to break the last-wicket stand of James Anderson and Monty Panesar. Nor was there a shade of excess in your reaction to the clumsy time-wasting of England at the end of that drama.
Again at Lord's, a series of appalling umpiring decisions which were such a hindrance to your chances of saving a match seized by the brilliant batting of Strauss did not provoke even a hint of the whingeing that could easily have brought a malignant edge to the ensuing action.
I'm not saying you are the Angel Gabriel without the wings. More erudite judges than me do believe your status as the best Aussie batsman since the days of the Don is not matched by a natural flair for captaincy and those who say that you will not be in charge of another Ashes re-match may well be right.
However, the judgement here is that it would be a grievous loss both to the Australian cause and a wider sense of renewed battle waged at the highest possible level.
Certainly it was hard to imagine a more belligerent enemy of England's hopes on Sunday afternoon when, even with a mountain of runs still to be produced, you began to wield your bat at times as though it was a cudgel. At Headingley, when a big advantage needed to be enforced, you batted with the same ferocious intensity you displayed when a game had to be won against the most oppressive odds.
Flintoff's throw put an end to that and if you were aware of the savage irony, if you were conscious that a hero who had apparently run his course had damaged you, irreparably, with the last of his means, the look on your face reflected the feelings of so many in the old ground. An element of what might have been another superb twist of a compelling contest had been expunged.
Certainly there is nothing to say that can take away the sting of defeat felt by the great competitors. The greatest of them can merely remember the old Kipling line about the twin impostors, and be no more diminished by defeat than glorified by victory.
The most important point you have made this summer is the need to keep hold of your emotions and maintain a sound head while all the time fighting with every legitimate device at your disposal.
A lesser man might have bridled under the weight of evidence that the fates had taken one look in his direction and decided to leave town. All that could go wrong, mostly did, not least that after a summer of worry about the frailty of English batting the home selectors finally made an inspired choice in the pugnacious and accomplished Jonathan Trott.
You might have sneered that in the loss of Pietersen England had no choice but to turn to South Africa once again. Instead of which you took your licks and acknowledged that the best team, the one that ultimately had seized its chances most surely, deserved to come home as undisputed winners.
No big deal, some austere judges of human behaviour might say, but then what do they know of how painful it is to have a rage for redemption stifled not just in one flashpoint of a sporting drama but a whole summer of ebbing belief in your best plans and your highest hopes?
There is not much else to say really beyond the hope that the last lines of your epitaph as the captain of the nation for whom you have performed such prodigious deeds are not dominated by the word defeat.
There are many degrees of such misadventure and the one you have experienced will surely be judged kindly by those who understand how fine the margins can be. You lost, sure, but who could say you didn't show us all how to do it?
Yours in sport,
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