To understand what I feel about Australia finally losing the Ashes, which the Poms have never let them have anyway, you have to know that, like Shane Warne, I grew up playing cricket on the beach at Black Rock. For a time my dad managed the St Kilda first XI, Warney's home team. Although my father followed any and every sport, his dearest love was cricket. Cricket wasn't one of the sports played at my girls' schools, but I usually managed to get enough players together for a game of sorts. At home we played French cricket in the back garden, using a small tree for a wicket. Whenever my off-break googly snuck past the batsman and bumped the tree, a fat grapefruit thudded to the ground.
When Australia was playing in England, Daddy would retire to bed with his transistor turned up loud, intending to listen until stumps were drawn. Invariably he drifted off to sleep, while the drone of the commentary filled the house. If I crept in to turn the radio off, so the rest of us could get some sleep, the sudden silence would wake him and he would turn it on again.
The morality we learned from our father was the ethos of cricket as it was in the old days, before sledging began, before one-day cricket was invented. The important thing wasn't whether you won or lost, but how you played the game. You didn't argue the toss. If you felt a nick and someone caught it, you owned up without whinging or pouting. You applauded your opponents' winning shots as well as your own. Daddy liked the upper-class pretensions of the game, because they fitted in with his own, which were entirely unfounded. The poor man had neither education nor breeding, but his expertise in cricket allowed him to make like he had both. I think I played cricket as a way of ingratiating myself with him. If I did, it didn't work. He never took me with him to the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) though he always had an unused ladies' ticket. He took my sister once. She thought it was boring.
Two years ago Cricket Australia got the players it had under contract to draft a statement of intent that would signify their allegiance to the "spirit of cricket", to serve as a guide to the shared standards of behaviour that they should expect of themselves. All the Australia players have signed up to this rather wordy and undeniably pious document, giving their word that they will never question an umpire's decision, or engage in any conduct that constitutes personal abuse. They reserve the right to "positive play, pressure, body language and banter". They also "encourage the display of passion and emotion" as a sign of their enjoyment and pride in the game, as a celebration of their achievements and as a sign of respect for their opponents. My father would never have countenanced "passion and emotion" expressed in lavish hugging and kissing between men. He would have found the touchy-feeliness of 21st-century cricket more than a bit off-colour. Cricket's stiff-upper-lipness was something he valued, a distinguishing mark of the officer class.
Cricket Australia has taken on board an obligation to make cricket popular, which my father's contemporaries in the sport would not have done. By losing the Ashes, the Australians may have done as much for English cricket. If they have, something is going to have to be done about the paucity of playing space. I have seen children whacking balls made of wadded newspaper through the lines of washing on rooftops in Delhi and Mumbai. I have seen a dozen matches being played on a maidan in Calcutta that had not space enough for one. If English kids get as fired up about cricket as Indian kids they might not be much better off.
Daddy would have hated most things about the "bogan of Black Rock", his dyed hair, his jewellery, his peculations, his peccadilloes and his pills, but he would have recognised his sportsmanship.
As I watched the second England innings at the Oval, I prayed for Warney to find some magic in the flabby wicket, only to see the lazy grin wiped off his face as a great game fizzled into anti-climax. It hurt, but not much.
When the Australians congratulated the English (and Welsh and South African) players with warm handshakes and generous words, I was prouder of them in defeat than I would have been in victory. Australia's cricketers can win a game any time; it's much harder, and more important, to lose well.Reuse content