Madness of underdogs and Englishmen in favour

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The Independent Online
NOTHING, IN my mind anyway, hinders the cause of sport in this country more than the sort of reaction there has been in some quarters this week to a remarkable effort by England's cricketers.

If unquestionably a boost to national morale, it hardly justified the souvenir section put out by one popular print or suggestions that English cricket is in a much healthier state than the first three Tests had led us to imagine. The sobering facts are that England's success did not come until after Australia retained the Ashes and, but for the storm that broke over Brisbane last month, they would have been three down in the series.

It may be that the impetus of Melbourne will be maintained in Sydney, but yet again the weight of unreasonable expectation bears down on promise. The year we are about to leave behind us provided glaring examples of this largely British phenomenon.

Going back a little further, to the summer of 1997, a great deal of fuss was made about England's success in the Tournoi de France, a competition taken rather more lightly by Brazil, France and Italy.

From what I saw on television, neither Italy nor France looked fully geared up against England and it did not seem that Brazil were bearing right down on the throttle.

However, the impression conveyed by reports in newspapers and across the airwaves, abetted by Glenn Hoddle's imprudent estimate, was that England would be a major threat in the 1998 World Cup finals. A personal point of view was that England were not good enough to progress beyond the quarter-finals, but this was contrary to national expectations.

The feeling grew up, and it still thrives in many minds, including Hoddle's, that England were on their way to winning the World Cup until the loss of David Beckham against Argentina caused a rearguard action and the agony of defeat in a penalty shoot-out.

Through the refraction of time, England's performance in France is made to look better than it was. Two victories; two defeats. Romania proved too cunning, Tunisia were not up to much and Colombia played without real purpose.

It is not the intention to denigrate England's efforts, merely to put things into perspective, which is not, unfortunately, a widespread habit. At this time of the year there is a tendency, natural I suppose, to take encouragement from the effect recent events may have on the future.

On television the other night a sports commentator advanced the view that England's success in Melbourne augured well for next summer's cricket World Cup. With the rugby World Cup in mind, he drew similar encouragement from England's defeat of South Africa and how close Wales came to beating them.

This is all very well and good but one thing does not necessarily lead to another or provide absolute proof of improvement.

For example, claims put forward for the Premiership, particularly by its main sponsors, Sky Television, have not been borne out by efforts in the European competitions. Manchester United are still there but Arsenal, if admittedly weakened by injuries and suspensions, were soon out of it. The Premier League is exciting but the heroes are invariably found out when tested against the more measured tempo favoured by foreign opposition.

You can go on and on like this, and a long journey it becomes, but the general response to England's victory is encouragingly one of pleasure rather than bluster. That of a nation at last coming to terms with the loss of historical sporting supremacy.

Good things can come from acquiring a proper sense of reality, from understanding that we have no divine right to succeed at games our ancestors invented.

England's victory in Melbourne put a smile on plenty of faces, not least because it was unexpected. From being a team that had failed to bat with much efficiency, bowl with any sustained penetration and hold comparatively simple catches, England had overcome the acknowledged leaders of world cricket.

Among life's little dilemmas is the problem of the dedicated underdog who finds himself in danger of becoming an upperdog. It can be a very unsettling thing. Ask any Englishman.

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