Mark Steel: Bush and English cricket have a lot in common

The US President's plan can only come from someone who runs an empire
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Was George Bush in charge of England's Ashes team? Because the battle for the Ashes and for Iraq have been fought along similar lines.

First came the optimism, and a dramatically anticipated opening. I saw the opening night of the Ashes series in an all-night sports bar, with hundreds of cricket fans intensely living each ball. Even in the toilet, which I went into resigned to missing around three minutes play, a row of screens was placed at head height so you could carry on watching mid-slash. At one point a rare decent English ball went past an Australian bat, causing a line of blokes to lean back in formation and go: "Oooo". On the odd occasion England took a wicket, I should think it took a cleaner five minutes to clear up the mess with a mop.

But any rational mind could see beforehand that the series was likely to go painfully wrong. And, within a couple of weeks came England's spectacular defeat in Adelaide, which I listened to throughout, as if keeping vigil by a dying relative; the outcome was inevitable but to leave would be disrespectful.

Yet, not long ago, these players had ridden round Trafalgar Square in triumph before adoring crowds. I can't remember for certain but I think there was a huge banner overhead saying "Mission Accomplished" and a speech from Freddie Flintoff that went: "We have prevailed."

England had played brilliantly, but they'd only just won, at home. Even so, they were declared world champions, awarded honours, and you expected the Queen to go to each player in turn, pronouncing: "You shall have the pick of any maiden in my kingdom and rule one 11th of my land, which from this day will be known as Harmison Shire."

But English cricket was only just emerging from an image of being a stuffy genteel pastime ruled by Tory idiots, and this wasn't overturned in one series. So now, following the disappointment of the recent Ashes series, there's to be an investigation into the débâcle. And the favourite to lead it is John Major, the Tory idiot's Tory idiot, whose government was the débâcle's débâcle.

That's how to reconnect a game with the country's youth - put John "Lily Allen" Major in charge. They might as well say: "It is essential that we widen the appeal of the sport to encourage a new generation of cricketers, which is why we have appointed as the next head of the English Cricket Board Field Marshal Haig, whose experience as commander in the First World War renders him the ideal candidate, especially as he has continued to take a keen interest in all aspects of cricket since his death 70 years ago."

The problem is that we retain some of the mentality of empire. We think we are naturally superior and, as long as we tinker with the personnel, the natural order will be restored.

And as America's empire gets older, they're adopting a similar mentality. So a Republican congressman supported Bush's proposal to sort out Iraq by sending 20,000 more troops by saying: "There isn't a single capital city that can't be controlled by the world's greatest army."

A logical mind might wonder how this will work, given that 80 per cent of people in Baghdad support attacks on occupying troops. Maybe Bush is being honest when he says he supports the democratic will of the Iraqi people, in which case when the new troops arrive they'll join in with the 80 per cent and start firing on the old ones already there.

It's a novel thought process that assumes: "I know what will stop us being hated - doing even more of the thing they hate." It would be like if Jonathan King decided to win over the public by announcing he was planning to seduce another 20,000 teenage boys.

Bush's plan can only come from the mind of someone who runs an empire. If his country isn't winning, he only has to send more troops or pick a different captain, or something. Which is exactly what happened in Vietnam. The generals kept insisting they would win with just a few more troops until they incinerated three countries, and still lost. And on the embassy roof in Saigon there was probably still an American general saying to the Viet Cong: "Alright then - best of three."

Eventually, I suppose, every empire comes to terms with the fact it has no divine right to rule. Otherwise, at every meeting of the Rome Borough Council, someone would shout: "Never mind the new one-way system around the Trevi fountain, let's invade France. I mean come on - we didn't wipe out Carthage by hesitating - let's go."

The delusions of those who run English cricket spoil the game for the whole country, just as the delusions of those who run America spoil America. The difference is that, if the English had been able to send another 20,000 to bat against Australia, we'd have stood an even chance.