There are moments in life when agony and ecstasy follow in such quick succession that they merge into a single bittersweet memory. For me, one such occurred 10 years ago, in the late summer of 2001. I was at Lord's cricket ground watching the final day of the Second Test match between England and Australia, when I suddenly realised that the silver-haired Aussie sitting next to me was Alan Davidson. Alan Davidson! For those of you not of the cricketing faith, I should explain that four decades earlier he had been the most lethal swing bowler of the era and a fielder of such prehensile predatoriness that he was known to one and all as "The Claw".
So for me, one of those cricket tragics who derives indescribable satisfaction from poring over the scorecards of great matches of the distant past, it was ecstasy to be able to engage him in conversation. The agony followed immediately upon my asking the now venerable Davidson what he thought of the Test series we were watching. "I just wish your lot would give our fellas a proper match," he replied. This was not said with any air of smugness. The old warrior was genuinely upset that the English – against whom he had fought for so many years – were not able to push his own side hard enough to make victory seem special.
I felt abject humiliation, as if I were somehow personally connected with the failure of the England cricket team to rise to the occasion – and not just on that day (the match was wrapped up by lunch, to Davidson's thinly disguised disdain). My second thought was that if ever our national side did reach the heights that were then occupied by the all-conquering Aussies, I would feel nothing but joy as we ground every international opposition into the dust. The bigger the victories, I thought, the bigger the buzz I would get.
How little I understood the true nature of sport. Over the past few weeks, as the England cricket team pulverised the Indian side – which came here as the officially designated top Test team – the thrill I imagined I would feel has diminished with each successively crushing victory. Of course, I was delighted that England were winning, and playing brilliantly; but, like Alan Davidson 10 years ago, my patriotic pride in national success was sharply tempered by the feeling that it had become almost too one-sided.
What makes sport most gripping to the partisan spectator is not just the prospect of winning, but the sense that loss is an ever-present possibility: thus the most joyous of all experiences to the fan is the snatching of an improbable victory from the near-certainty of defeat. That is why Ian Botham remains England's most mythologised cricketer: in 1981, by sheer force of will and personality (or so it seemed), he seized two Test matches in which the Australians had seemed to have victory in the bag and brought about the unlikeliest of successful counter-attacks. Just how unlikely was manifested by the fact that Rodney Marsh, the Australian wicketkeeper, had at one point during the first of those memorable matches found a bookmaker to give him odds of 500-1 against an England win.
By contrast, England's annihilating victory against the Aussies last winter, even thought it was in their own back yard, will not live in memories to anything like the same extent. It was all too obvious that, wonderfully as our men played, the opposition were badly-captained, ill-prepared, and out-of-sorts. Gratifying as it was to humiliate the once-impregnable Australians in front of their own almost grotesquely partisan supporters, it was hard not to feel, as Alan Davidson expressed it with the boot on the other foot 10 years ago, that we were being denied the ferociously competitive contest we wanted.
How much more so has that been the case over the past month or so, as the Indian Test side has above all betrayed its own billions of fanatical followers, by turning up largely unfit and then displaying tactical incompetence on the field of play. To read the many hundreds of comments by readers on the Times of India website is to realise that their pain at such abject defeat at the hands of their erstwhile colonial masters is by an order of magnitude greater than any suffering England supporters would have felt if the balance of power were reversed. Effigies of the Indian team's selectors will soon be burning on the streets of Mumbai and Kolkata, if they are not already.
That's enough schadenfreude, however (delicious as it is); to beat even an under-motivated Indian side with a 4-0 whitewash – and thus replace them as the highest-ranked side in the world – is an astonishing accomplishment by captain Andrew Strauss and his men: Ladbrokes had given odds of 33-1 against such an eventuality before the series started, and that had not seemed especially generous. At a time of diminishing national optimism, and above all in the month that the streets of our biggest cities have been disgraced and disfigured by arson and looting, such an assertion of sporting supremacy, however transient in its invigorating effect, acts as a tonic.
That politicians are keenly aware of the feel-good potential of national sporting endeavour was vividly demonstrated by David Cameron's inviting himself into the England cricket team's dressing room over the weekend, ostensibly to toast their success in private. Objectively a victory for England – in any sport – does not in itself affect the economic terms of trade: the national debt is not diminished by a pound, thereby. Yet Karl Marx identified religion as the way in which the oppressed gained solace in the grimmest of economic circumstances; in the England of the 21st century, sport is now the opium of the masses, raising their spirits above mundane everyday concerns.
Unfortunately the sport in question is almost invariably professional football, which in its players' conduct on the field and its administrators off it is hardly an example for any young person to emulate. If the effect of the England cricket team's comprehensive victory over the most admired of all adversaries is to persuade even a tiny proportion of our youth to switch their obsession away from football, then some social good will have resulted.
On the other hand, it would mean that there will be more tragic types for whom yellowing cricket score cards evoke more passion than any novel, more reverence than any holy text.