Howard Jacobson: We may have won the Ashes, but we've managed to lose an old enemy

Ricky Ponting’s puckish Irish banter is the last cry of anti-colonial grievance
Click to follow
The Independent Online

So we've won the Ashes. Hurrah! I'll try that again. Hip, hip ... You see the problem. How to hold on to the elation. Why doesn't it feel good to say we've won the Ashes? Let me correct that. It feels good – it does, it feels very good – but why doesn't it feel better? Why doesn't it feel good to the degree that it would have felt bad had we lost the Ashes?

I accept that it's in the nature of all sport – I'm speaking from the spectator's perspective now – that the joy of victory is short-lived. You whoop it up at the time, when the winning runs are scored or when the goal goes in, but in the morning you discover that existence has no more savour than it ever had. It's still raining, there are still bills to pay, the person who wasn't talking to you yesterday isn't talking to you today. Life is altered not one jot by the victory on which you pinned so many hopes. All you can say is that waking to a win is marginally better than waking to a defeat.

But over and above the universality of anti-climax this Ashes victory has lacked zest. Our hearts aren't in it. There are various mundane reasons for this. We won the Ashes four years ago so we've become blasé. We won the Ashes four years ago and then got trounced in Australia, so we are not going to tempt fate this time. We won the Ashes four years ago and made an absurd spectacle of ourselves, awarding knighthoods all round and embarking on an orgy of alcohol-fuelled self-congratulation from which many players have still not recovered, so we won't be doing that again.

Besides which, our sense of achievement is tempered by our knowing this wasn't one of the great Australian teams. It didn't even sound like one of the great Australian teams. A disinterested observer, listening to the commentary – Strauss bowled Hauritz caught Hilfenhaus off a deflection from Katich – might have been forgiven thinking Austria was playing Slovenia.

Don't get me wrong. We are nothing if not internationalist in this column. Australia is a wonderfully cosmopolitan country and it's only right that their team should reflect this, just as it's only right that the good players in the English team should all be South Africans, but the poetry is wrong. In the great Ashes encounters of the past, Australians had names that reflected the steely, nuggety style of their playing. Waugh, Warne, Lindwall, Slater, Healey, Grimmett. You could no more get past an Australian batsman, or pick his flipper, than you could make his name mellifluous.

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! That cry used to chill the blood. It conjured up short rugged men in baggy green caps who felt no pain. In the final test of this series, Ricky Ponting – the last Australian cricketer to sound like an Australian cricketer – brought back memories of the old indomitable Aussie when he was fielding at silly mid-off and copped one in the kisser. (I'm trying to sound Australian myself.) Did he wince? Did he complain? No, he spat out a couple of teeth – what are a couple of teeth to an Aussie? – and resumed his position. But by then the game was up.

I should be relishing this Ashes win. Beating Australia is important to me. This is paradoxical, for I love the country. I drink Australian wine and dream Australian dreams. The moment the sun comes out in London I smell my first visit to Australia a half a lifetime ago – the bush, the barbecues, the eucalyptus, the wrist-scalding Four-and Twenty pies you eat at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Reader, I weep recalling a Chiko roll. And yet it matters to me inordinately that England, not Australia, wins the Ashes.

Why? I can only think it is because Australia presents a face in its cricket that it shows nowhere else. If I hate them when it comes to cricket, it is because when it comes to cricket they hate me. Sporting rivalry is one thing, but this rivalry has been fuelled by an old resentment: they don't forgive us for dumping them there 200 years ago, while we, for our part, turn soft and shifty in their presence. We cower. We waste time. When a ball knocks out our front teeth we run whingeing to the dentist. The corollary to this myth of English faintheartedness is the little Aussie battler – rugged and remorseless. This answers more to a rural than an urban Australian fact. In the country they are still likely to rip a visiting Pom apart with their bare hands. (I'd say bare teeth, but they have no teeth left.) Whereas the urban Australian is today a man of refined culture who speaks many languages and prepares his own Thai food.

When I first went to Australia I encountered many Australians of this latter sort, but they were all still subject to an atavistic, sentimental hankering to bash a Pom. I say sentimental, because the minute you stood up to them they'd get you pissed and tell you that they loved you. I won't pretend I didn't enjoy this. Having a bunch of Australians roughing you up, calling you a bastard and crying into your neck can be strangely affecting. This, more or less, was the tenor of relations between Australian and English men until very recently. And every cricket ground where the two confronted one another was the crucible in which this strange, abrasive affection was tested.

What's changing is that Australians no longer answer to their own parody of themselves. They are no longer pisspot colonials, marooned in melancholy at the furthest edge of the universe, showing their contempt for our pampered sophistication by bowling bouncers at our heads. Free of their old culture-cringe self-consciousness, they are now ethnically and intellectually diverse, citizens of their own country with nothing left to prove – so many Hilfenhauses and Hauritzes.

Which means they are not the old enemy they were. Ponting's puckish Irish banter is the last cry of anti-colonial grievance. When he goes – and this is why even we English want him to stay – it goes. I take the fact that I could not bear to watch the final day at the Oval as proof that it was about more than sport. The result mattered too much for sport alone to explain it. But it still hasn't mattered to the degree it once did. Sad, but we must face it – the Aussies and the Poms are on the brink of liking one another.