D J Taylor: You only win when you're singing...

'Ring of Fire' had the desired effect. Within hours India were beaten
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Quite the most inspiring story to emerge from the aftermath of England's victory over India in the third Test at Mumbai on Wednesday - at any rate for those of who believe in the redemptive powers of Art - was Freddie Flintoff's account of what went on beforehand. "A lot of drivel gets played on the iPod we have wired up in the dressing room," the England captain informed reporters anxious to uncover the secret of his success.

To counter these malign influences, Flintoff ordered a mass rendition of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" on the grounds that "this is the one song the lads enjoy when we need a lift". Sing- song over, the team "went out after lunch with a spring in our step". Clearly this anguished slab of American country and western music had the desired effect on the communal psyche: within a few overs two Indian batsmen were back in the pavilion; and an hour later the match was emphatically won.

No doubt some enterprising record company executive will soon be including the captains of the English county cricket XIs in his summer marketing drop. At the same time, the idea that sportsmen might be encouraged to gear themselves up for combat by way of exposure to popular songs is a feature of 20th-century sporting history. In his days as a no-nonsense full-back for the England football team, the current Manchester City manager, Stuart "Psycho" Pearce, was famous for listening to Stranglers tapes on his Walkman. The impact of these pre-match decibel fests didn't escape other members of the 1990 World Cup squad: Terry Butcher, the England captain, could be heard complaining that the selections from such Celtic pop combos as U2 and Simple Minds favoured by some of his team-mates were "rebel music" and unlikely to inspire patriotic fervour.

It was Noël Coward, three- quarters of a century ago, who advised his audience never to underestimate the potency of cheap music. Historically, pop has always played a vital part in the construction of what Anthony Powell called the "personal myth", a soundtrack to the highly stylised and romanticised vision of ourselves that makes the average existence tolerable to live through.

Funeral services, for example, resound to the clamour of Frank Sinatra's "My Way", Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien". My late grandfather, one of the most reticent and expressionless men I met, used sometimes to burst into a few wistful snatches of inter-war classics such as "Isle of Capri" or "What'll I Do?", demonstrating that the old man had a romantic side after all.

Understandably, much of the inspirational impact of the popular song heads straight into the minds of aspiring popular songsters. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were apparently never the same after watching Little Richard perform. Morrissey had the same kind of epiphanic experience watching The New York Dolls warble "Jet Boy" on The Old Grey Whistle Test.

The Beatles themselves inspired countless Damascene conversions. David Crosby once confessed that, having heard "I Want To Hold Your Hand" for the first time, he dashed out into the street and swung himself horizontally around a fence pole, turned altogether delirious by the certainty that his life was about to change.

The conviction that music can make a difference or work some ineradicable change on your attitude to life, can be detected all the way up the artistic ladder. The message of George Orwell's 1984 - "If there is hope, it lies in the proles" - is symbolised in the moment when its ground-down hero, Winston Smith, stares out of the window at a working-class woman singing some maundering ditty about "It Was Only an Hopeless Fancy", a song which, biographical evidence suggests, Orwell himself may have heard sung in unison by the BBC cleaning ladies as he wandered through the corporation's corridors to his war-time post as a talks producer.

Hardly anyone, it turns out, is immune to the "Johnny Cash effect". A visitor hanging around the front quad of St John's College, Oxford, early on June mornings in the summer of 1982 might have wondered at the calamitous row rising from the corner room. It was yours truly, readying himself for Finals with an earful or two of the album October by U2.

Happily, all this has implications beyond nervous interna- tional cricketers, or the Oxford Modern History school. Professor John Carey recently produced a polemic entitled What Good Are The Arts?, in which he affects to demonstrate that the value of most artistic endeavour is precisely nothing. Well, as the 212-run victory at Mumbai proves beyond doubt, Professor Carey was wrong about that, wasn't he?