Sport: A bitter pill the English refuse to swallow

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The Independent Online
FROM TIME to time, and this seems to be as good a time as any, I dwell on difficulties arising from the arrogant presumption that England should be second to none in sporting stature.

A Celt has to tread carefully here, but nothing appears to die harder among English people, and some in my trade especially, than the notion that failures in sport are proof of faltering character rather than the inevitable outcome of global improvement.

Nobody with half an eye on present standings in cricket would have been tempted to risk some of the mortgage money on England's chances of regaining the Ashes. Saved by the weather in Brisbane, outplayed in Perth where they went down by seven wickets, England are running true to form.

Why then were the travelling supporters interviewed on television the other night so indignant? Not unnaturally, they give weight to to a residual sense of superiority that goes back to when England, or should I say the United Kingdom, was giving most games to the world and making mincemeat out of the opposition. This is not entirely the fault of an older generation.

In debate at Exeter University just about a year ago, I put forward confidently the motion that we - the Celtic nations came into this - have become a second class sporting nation. Mainly on historical grounds it was heavily defeated.

"When you think of all the great British figures in the annals of sport there is no reason why we should think ourselves inferior," one of the students said.

If, admittedly, a powerful argument - not so much what a nation achieves but what it brings to the sporting fabric - it did not account for exaggerated responses to success and failure.

Anybody who follows sport in newspapers and across the airwaves will be aware of how quick some critics are to advance the view that defeats insult England's sporting heritage. They do no such thing. The truth, and a hard truth it is for many to swallow, is that for such a small and fragmented nation Britain does remarkably well on the playing fields.

A friend who writes about track and field warns of the backlash British athletics will suffer from a comparative downturn in next year's World Championships. "You don't have to know much about the sport to realise that we won't win as many gold medals as we did in this year's European Championships but that won't be taken into account," he said. "It will be back, unfairly, to the old question: what's wrong with British athletics?"

Like most other critics and onlookers, I have not myself questioned hundreds of witnesses or studied the accounts of casual bettors but it is probably safe to assume that a great deal of money was put down on England before they set out on last summer's World Cup adventure.

The impression that has since grown up, amplified this week by an ITV documentary about the match against Argentina - watched by a record 27m viewers - is that England would probably have won the World Cup but for the dismissal of David Beckham and other imagined refereeing errors.

Nothing is held out here against anyone who believes this but it does not accommodate the facts of England's overall record in World Cup competition. There has been just one victory, in 1966, when England had the advantage of playing all their matches at Wembley. And there has only been one other appearance (1990) in the semi-finals.

When England defeated Australia in a Test match at Edgbaston two summers ago, it was stated by Lord MacLaurin that they had no need to fear anyone. England lost the series. A more circumspect view was taken generally when England overcame South Africa last summer but it did not prevent the misplaced optimism that accompanied England to Australia.

While professing no great expertise, my view of England's performances so far in Australia is that their opponents are simply better at batting, bowling and catching.

If this suggests a lot of room for improvement and justifies a shake- up in the administration and structure of English cricket there is no shame in it.

It will surely be a great day if you ask an Englishman what the word sport brings to mind, and he replies: "Plays hell with reality."