Terence Blacker: Strewth! It's great not to be whingeing for once

There is something particularly pleasurable about seeing Australia stuffed at sports
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The Independent Online

Sport, we know, brings out the worst in people. Its rare moments of courage, character and, sometimes, even generosity are noticeable mainly because they take place against a backdrop of jealousy, spite, "gamesmanship" (or cheating, as it is known in the real world), bias, triumphalism and gloom, particularly among those whose role is spectatorial.

Sport, we know, brings out the worst in people. Its rare moments of courage, character and, sometimes, even generosity are noticeable mainly because they take place against a backdrop of jealousy, spite, "gamesmanship" (or cheating, as it is known in the real world), bias, triumphalism and gloom, particularly among those whose role is spectatorial.

Making allowances for all that, my reaction following a recent sporting event is the cause of a niggling sense of embarrassment. It was late on Saturday night and, closing down the computer, I happened to catch news on my internet server of what had happened at a one-day cricket match between Australia and Bangladesh. I am not normally a cricket fan but I ran to the bedroom where the woman who shares my life, who happens to be Australian, was in bed and drifting off to sleep.

I awoke her and demanded that she ask me who won in the match between the world's number one team and Bangladesh. It was the little Bangladeshis! They gave the world's number one team a five-wicket thumping! What did she think of that, eh? She turned over and went back to sleep. The next day, when her father rang from Australia for a chat, I pretended I had not seen the papers and asked if he happened to know the result of the big game. It was all truly pathetic.

Let us admit that there is something peculiarly pleasurable about seeing Australians getting stuffed in sports at which they excel (that is, virtually all sports except darts and soccer). Thrashing the Germans at football has its attractions, as has edging out the American sprint relay team to win an Olympic gold - both seem like a reversal of the natural order - but nothing quite compares to the satisfaction of seeing those proud, tanned faces turn sullen at the prospect of defeat.

The sort of things that have already befallen the Australians during this tour normally happen to our teams. Their kit was stolen. One of their players rolled up at his hotel at 6.30am on the morning of a match, smelling of booze. When, later that morning, the team's spokesman tried to explain the partygoer's non-appearance on the team-list, he first went for that old friend, a "niggle", then opted for "flu" before confessing the truth.

On the pitch, one defeat has followed another. Putting on a brave face after the hammering by Bangladesh, Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, told the press that the result was "reasonably worrying" but that "the writing is on the wall for us to really lift things up", a line which might have been lifted from The Collected Soundbites of Graham Taylor. This is a new side to Australian sport, full of blunder and woe, and it may take some time to get used to.

It is a small comfort that, in the weird psycho-pathology of the Anglo-Australian relationship, each side is as insecure and competitive as the other. Beyond our very reasonable sporting inferiority complex, lie some lazy assumptions. The British ambivalence towards Australians extends from the way we like to think that they look (bronzed, healthy, amiably vacant) to their attitude towards the world (sunny, positive, verging on the simple-minded) and their way of life (a leisurely amble from tennis court to barbie).

These distortions and clichés fail to conceal a simple, unavoidable fact. We are jealous of the Australians - their sun and surf, their optimism, their apparent ease with the world.

Fortunately, many Australians are every bit as pathetic and blinkered as we are. They look to what is described, often without irony, as the "mother country" and discern an irritating richness of history and culture. They worry, and with some justification, that the world is overlooking them - how many Australian stories not involving sharks eating swimmers have you read in the British press, even at election time? By contrast, the Bloody Poms are never far from the messy centre of international affairs and cultural debate.

Australians, while often rude about Britain, are still absurdly hung up on its royal family, on its ideas about class, law and order, winning. In newspaper articles about the British, a rather odd tone of voice, caught between fascination and resentment, jealousy and longing, is often evident.

Stories about British life in the Australian press tend to dwell on topics which are seen to be negative, notably immigration and urban unrest.

The unseemly joy of Britons on the rare occasion of a sporting victory over Australia is as nothing compared to their chippiness and defensiveness when their dominance is threatened. The inventors of the phrase "whingeing poms" are no slouches when it comes to the pre-emptive excuse.

We are perhaps seeing, in each other, our own flip side, a discomfiting and slightly distorting mirror of what we might have been had our ancestors taken the other fork in the road. It is that which gives events like the Ashes series their edge and psychological spin.

The writing is indeed on the wall, as Ricky Ponting has said, and it is up to them to really lift things up. Any pom who underestimates how important it is for Australian national pride that their boys come to the mother country and give its cricketers a thorough and comprehensive larruping may be about to receive a nasty shock.

terblacker@aol.com

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