But do we really enjoy a patent on sportsmanship, on the idea that playing the game matters more than whether you win or lose? The belief that the British are good losers is looking shaky. What headline writers might once have called England's Week of Shame, from Twickenham to Lillehammer to Jamaica, has been accompanied by a descant of bleating. We was robbed, by partial judges, by brutal bowlers, by broken skate blades.
But were the English (and it is they rather than the British I am dealing with) ever true sportsmen? The truth may be that we were good losers when we could afford to be, because we almost never did lose. To accept the occasional defeat gracefully was a form of patronage, a function of effortless superiority, the exception which proved the rule that we were better than others. It was as soon as that rule was no longer true that we started to bleat.
Our dominance on the sports field coincided with the last phase of our imperial greatness. An important part of the English Myth was the belief that Empire had been acquired in a fit of absence of mind. We had thus risen to greatness without losing our essential modesty or decency. Carping radicals argued that the map hadn't been painted red by wholly pacific means, that the glorious British Empire on which the sun never set was also one 'on which the blood never dries'. It was to discompose them that the Myth was necessary.
We constructed the Myth by glorifying apparent failure. We revered the memories of Wolfe and Nelson who died in battle. The most famous English battle poems (for all that they are what Orwell called good bad verse) are about defeats: 'The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna', 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'.
But the point, of course, is that these were not defeats. Wolfe and Nelson won their battles. We won the Peninsular and Crimean wars which were commemorated in the poems. Children were told tales of imperial disaster - the retreat from Kabul or Scott's return from the South Pole. And yet, however it might have been for some who fell on the north-west frontier, it was not British soldiers principally whose fate had been to do and die as the Empire's bounds were wider set and further. England was neither loser nor victim in the great game of nations.
In diplomacy and war, the English could keep up the appearance of good losers, since we went on winning our wars. This might have been true of sport as well, if we had also gone on winning at football, cricket, tennis, rugby and every other game we invented and once dominated. When we began to lose, we turned nasty.
This can be dated precisely, to 1933 and the Bodyline cricket tour. In 1930 the Australians had come to England with an unknown young batsman called Donald Bradman, who proceeded to humiliate every bowler in the land as he compiled his enormous scores. Two years later the MCC party left for Australia. In order to thwart Bradman, they took with them some very fast bowlers and a new policy, dignified with the name of 'leg theory' but more plainly described as bowling at the man rather than the wicket.
By whatever name, it was quite simply unsporting. It flagrantly contravened the spirit, and arguably the laws, of the game. It wasn't cricket. The Australians remonstrated, though rather meekly - it was the pre-Paul Keating days of the 'Aussie cringe'. In reply, the authorities at Lord's condemned the Australians for their insolence and lack of sporting spirit. As an example of imperial arrogance, not to say of blaming the victim, this took some beating. It set the tone.
We were likewise good losers to the West Indies at cricket when they did it once in 1950, but not when they began to beat us regularly. We could take it when the Hungarians beat us at football, once, but not when every other country in Europe did.
My boyhood in the 1950s heard a catalogue of complaints on the wireless and in the papers. Our boy or our boys were always losing, and there was always a reason. If it wasn't the ref it was the elements. Our boxers were forever obliged to fight at high altitudes, our footballers to play on rough pitches, in matches supervised by untrustworthy foreigners.
We had to wait until the summer before last for the apotheosis of such excuse-mongering. After a truly brilliant performance, the Pakistani fast bowlers Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were accused of cheating by the voice of the English nation, or at least the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Telegraph. The two bowlers had been treating the ball, roughening one side and loading the other with sweat, to make it swing more. A moral theologian would be needed to explain how this differed in ethical kind or even degree from what English spinners do all the time, when they rub the ball in the dirt and scrub the shine off it, or what English seamers do when they pick at the seam. But there was more to it, we learnt. Those Pakistani demon bowlers enjoyed a grossly unfair advantage through their Asiatic sweat, which seemingly has a viscous character all of its own . . .
But now all sorts of people see through us. In a television broadcast 12 years ago, for which he was much denounced by his enemies in his later time of trouble, Salman Rushdie spoke sardonically of 'the England of fair play, tolerance, decency and equality - maybe that place never existed anyway, except in fairy tales'. Still, did you see the way Walsh bowled at Malcolm? Just like them. We was robbed, wasn't we?Reuse content