Matthew Norman: The truth behind our craving for victory

The Aussies want to do to their imperial mother what Oedipus did to his genetic one
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The Independent Online

If the crook-fingered New Zealand umpire Billy Bowden is to be relied on, He certainly is. Mr Bowden, a minister's son, cites Christ as the third umpire in his life, and it's comforting to imagine Jesus sitting high above The Oval pitch reviewing close run-out decisions and deciding whether a catch carried to third slip. After all, God in all three manifestations of the Trinity is unquestionably an Englishman (why else would He have endured a perilous sea voyage to Wiltshire at a typically fraught time in Middle Eastern affairs?), and in the era of the neutral umpire we could use all the partisan help we can find.

If calling up Christ as a late addition to the England squad (a sort of Son of 12th Man) seems desperate or in dubious taste, the same might be said of appropriating "Jerusalem" as a rallying point of Jingoist passion.

The subtext of the poem has long been debated, with socialist groups and the British National Party among others claiming it as a bespoke anthem. But majority opinion holds that, far from lauding England as an earthly paradise, Blake was expressing his displeasure at the creeping ruination of the land wrought by the industrial revolution and the dark satanic mills it spawned. It's hard to imagine such devout Christians as Tony Blair, such a fervent advocate of diverting power to all his industrialist friends, offering even muted congratulations for such a stark anti-capitalist message.

This misinterpretation of a text in the cause of stirring patriotic feeling is hardly unique. You may recall Ronald Reagan borrowing "Born In The USA" for a presidential campaign, blissfully ignorant that Bruce Springsteen was singing with dripping irony of America's betrayal of Vietnam veterans. Still, this latest run out for "Jerusalem", which is dusted off and bellowed out whenever an England team excels, does illuminate the link between sport and a sense of national self-worth.

If Orwell was right about international football being war without weapons, the psychological nuances of Test match cricket seem more complex. We only play the game against former colonies, for one thing, and while we might sometimes be irritated by them, and they find us unbearably arrogant and patronising, we have no real wish to fight each other.

Mike Brearley, England's captain in what was until lately The Greatest Series Ever Played (Botham's Ashes of 1981), dons his psychiatrist's hat as well as his ex-cricketer's to analyse the current fever. "These matches would not have the same appeal were it not for the history of these (Ashes) battles over almost 130 years, with their overtones of imperialists against settlers, and the Oedipal hints of wild, unruly, banished sons banding together to kill pompous fathers."

You could put it more crudely, suggesting that what the Aussies want to do to their imperial mother is what Oedipus did to his genetic one on their honeymoon, but either way there is clearly something in this. For all the sportsmanship that has elevated this series, such intense emotion must be generated by something deeper than an interest in cricket. People who still believe that a leg bye is the last thing a gangrene victim says before the amputation can no more cope with the tension than those of us who have spent 35 years hanging on Richie Benaud's every syllable.

Almost every nationality knows itself to be defined by its sporting persona. In Bangkok, Paradorn Srichaphan is revered almost as a deity not because he was once ranked the 10th best tennis player in the world, but because he is Thailand's only globally-acknowledged sportsman. Warsaw pact countries impregnated teenage gymnasts and aborted their foetuses, to increase their elasticity, because their masters in the Kremlin understood that the Cold War was fought on the parallel bars as well as in space and nuclear silos. The US athletics authorities spent 30 years turning the blindest of eyes to positive dope tests because the sight of sprinters doing laps of honour around Olympic tracks bearing the Stars And Stripes is the most potent expression of imperial might that doesn't involve killing foreign civilians.

For us, and for the Australians, it's rather different. We used to have the largest empire in human history, which is largely why team sports were developed on public school playing fields in the first place... to teach the colonial overlords of tomorrow the precepts of discipline and command required for the profitable administration of Her Majesty's dominions across the seas. No country that loses an empire recovers from the shock within centuries, if ever, but what exquisite comfort there is in the phantom sense of reclaimed supremacy that comes from winning a World Cup.

As for the Aussies, no people on earth is half as sports-obsessive. Distended by thousands of miles from the rest of the developed world (with full apologies to Billy Bowden and his fellow Kiwis), with little history and less culture, how else are they to establish a national identity. Howard Jacobson describes their insatiable appetite for sporting success as verging on mental illness, and - albeit in what Dame Edna would call a very caring way - I have to agree. If they were ever to replicate our nonsense with "Jerusalem" by seeking a replacement anthem for "Advance Australia Fair", the referendum play-off would be between "The Winner Takes It All" and "We Are The Champions".

To be in Sydney's Olympic Park the night Kathy Freeman won her gold medal was to experience a craving so powerful as to be almost animalistic. So umbilically linked are sport and politics in the Australian soul that, within minutes of her victory, all historical problems between the Aboriginal people and the white population were declared to have been resolved. Which amused a colleague of Indian parentage when, three hours later, a cabbie reversed 100 yards up the road and apologised for not stopping sooner "'cause it's dark tonight without no moon, mate, and I thought you was an Abbo."

Winning at sport cannot heal all psychic wounds after all, it seems, but it's certainly one hell of an analgesic. Which is why I know you'll join me in offering a prayer to He whose feet may or may not have walked upon this green and pleasant land... that the only wound beyond healing at the Oval today is a broken index finger on Shane Warne's right hand.

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