By the time you read this, the final test match between England and Australia, and therefore the fate of the Ashes, will be two-fifths decided. Of course, the way it's been going, a game all but won on Saturday can be lost decisively on Sunday morning. There's been the thrill of it. Not that I'm watching or listening. I'm somewhere else. Behind the sofa. Up a tree. In another country. It doesn't matter where. Just in some other place.
Like most people, I failed to get through that final day of the Trent Bridge Test when we needed so few runs to win my mother could have scored them without even putting on a helmet. To call it tension belies the seriousness of what was at stake. Tension implies that a result is in doubt. As indeed it was; but no less in doubt was the resolution, not only of the English team, not even of the nation, but of masculinity itself.
A fatality hung over that day. Not a man who didn't know himself to be in crisis. Why that didn't apply to the Australian team, who played like tigers, is a question that gets to the heart of the matter. For some reason buried deep in our national psyche, we have appointed the Australian cricketer as our nemesis, the yardstick against which we measure our manliness and are found for ever wanting. That the Ashes have a representational value beyond the bail which was burnt when we first lost to Australia at the Oval 123 years ago is a point that needs no labouring. That charred little elemental bail, the tiny urn into which we consigned its remains - don't tell me it wasn't our virility that had gone up in smoke.
How much more cricket is than a game most women of my acquaintance have trouble comprehending. My wife chose that last day at Trent Bridge as the moment she would interest herself in the sport. She had heard on the radio that we were a mere swipe or two away from victory; she saw that my colour was preternaturally high, so why didn't we settle ourselves in front of the television, watch the coup de grâce, and in between overs I could explain to her the finer points. The trouble is that for me, when we are playing Australia at least, there are no finer points. We grind the bastards' faces into the dirt or we don't. So the moment our first wicket fell I turned the telly off. "That's that," I said.
She wondered if we'd won. "No," I said, "they have." "Then why," she asked a half hour later, "have you turned the television back on?" "Because," I said, as another wicket fell, "I am a masochist."
It is out of the same masochism that I have watched England lose to Australia for the past half-century. Historians of the game will tell me that we haven't always capitulated to Australia in that time. They will remind me of England under Brearley's intellectual captaincy, Gatting's troglodytic exploits, and Botham who for one mad glorious summer squeezed the Aussies until they wept like Sheilas. Drops in the ocean, all of them.
The essential contest, which we never win, has been between two entirely different breeds of men: the gormless rural bumpkin no matter that some have a degree from Cambridge (us), and the laconic, jeering colonial (them), hardened by sun and with an axe to grind. It matters to them to beat us in a way that it will never matter to us to beat them. They have a point to prove. See what you threw away? See what you considered to be the lowest of the low? Now try to lay a bat on this!
But if the derision with which they greet our failure is hard to take, how much more difficult for us is their derision when it is they who fail. They smiled throughout that last hour at Trent Bridge. They lost - what did they have to smile about? Yet smile they did - no, more than smile, they actually laughed at us, and that can only be because they understand they never truly lose to England even when the scoreboard says they have.
We are for ever, for Australians, effete and frightened; the inbred masters who shipped away whoever stole a loaf of bread or dared to raise a challenge to authority, rulers only by virtue of a police force and an army, but single man to single man, out there in the jungle where the only police force is a square leg umpire, no match for them.
Like good sex, good cricket is one part action, three parts talk. Call it sport if you like, but in reality it's discourse. Which is why, in its purest form, it lasts five days and is better to listen to than to watch.
Australians are great discoursers. They don't write as well as we do - nobody writes as well as we do - but they spin a better yarn. In a country where there is little to do but sit around and talk, the arts of laconic conversation ripen slowly. There is no hurry for the story to end. Everyone will still be there tomorrow. And because nothing of political or commercial consequence hangs on what they say, they never have to say what they actually mean. Hence Australian irony: drier than chardonnay, slower than a drunk koala, but at the last deadlier than a redback spider.
And hence the irony of their cricket - McGrath just as sardonic on the balcony as with the ball; Brett Lee, regardless of whether he takes a wicket, flashing his white teeth like a cheetah with a sense of the ridiculous; and Ponting, contemptuous as an Irish radical, even though Australia has dropped another catch. No worries. They know the outcome of the longer tale.
Which is why I'm not watching. Because whoever wins, we don't.Reuse content