Mark Steel: Through bleary eyes we see the fall of a cricketing empire

The saddest thing about England’s success is that the Australians now seem bent on making the same mistakes we made in a previous era

Wednesday 29 December 2010 01:00

It feels like we've taken part in the victory. Because it takes effort to stay up all night watching the Ashes, and those of us who took the trouble have earned this trophy. At crucial moments it's felt we should help out those who couldn't keep up, by ringing the neighbours' doorbell at 3.30am, until a bedraggled face poked out of the window saying "Oh my God, are you alright, is the street on fire?" And we could answer "No, but Hussey's out. They're 56 for 4 now. Anderson's bowling ever so well. I'll let you know when another wicket falls."

Our partners should be thanked by England as well. As I warned before the series, they get used to the punishing schedule, and to the fact that if they suggest making love they're told "That will be lovely, but can you keep the noise down otherwise I won't hear Strauss get his half-century."

Even then we all slip up, and I drifted off two nights ago, missing the whole of Ricky Ponting's angry outburst at the umpire. If the Government really cared about our national sport, those of us trying to stay up would be provided with narcotics by the local health trust to stop this sort of thing from happening.

As it is, a beautiful, shadowy, nocturnal community developed in recent weeks, similar to those in which people go into the woods in the middle of the night to bet on dog-fighting, or meet in a basement under a launderette to worship the Devil, of people ringing and texting each other to enjoy another Australian collapse, while we fight to stay awake amidst flickering Christmas tree lights, occasionally wondering why Rita out of Coronation Street is umpiring until realising you must have nodded off and had a little dream.

And the wooziness has been all the more unsettling because England have played so well and Australia, most of the time, have been hopeless. Combined with sleep deprivation, that causes you to lose all your bearings, and is the sort of test they must set to train astronauts. At times you dip your face in cold water and say to yourself, "Australia can't be seventy for six, it's a trick of the mind," the way you would if you heard your wardrobe talking.

But there's a lesson in this Ashes victorythat goes beyond cricket. Because foralmost twenty years England were dire. They lost as a matter of course, we got used to itand expected it, and that was part of the deal if you went to see them. Going to a Test match and not seeing England lose by 563 would be like going to see King Lear and no one losing their eyeballs. You'd ring Watchdog and expect an investigation.

And throughout this era there was an infuriating attitude from those in charge of the English game, that England were excellent really. So when they fell to bottom of the world rankings, the chair of the English Cricket Board said of course England weren't the worst in the world, as no one took notice of those figures. And he was right that it was only if you obsessed too much about certain statistics, such as losing 385 games in a row, that you tended to draw a negative picture.

The next consequence of this attitude was if we were losing, the other side must be cheating, by fiddling with the ball, or only bowling fast which shouldn't be allowed and, probably as a legacy of empire, it was believed that in the natural order England would always be top so it only needed a spot of fine tuning for everything to be back in its proper place.

But this wasn't just cricket's delusion, it matched the outlook of those who ran many institutions. Whenever the police were caught having framed innocent people we were told not to worry as "the British police are the best in the world". When British beef was riddled with disease the Government said "It's the safest beef in the world". If someone asked a minister why the British hadn't produced any prize-winning camels, he'd have said: "Nonsense, British camels are the strongest, healthiest, humpiest camels in the world."

So instead of asking why English cricket was in such decline, they sacked half the team after every game as if we only had to pick the right combination and the natural order would re-establish itself.

This meant that almost every cricketer was picked for England, and it seemed the rules of the national lottery would be changed so that if you got four numbers plus the bonus ball you'd be picked for the tour to Sri Lanka. It also meant that no one felt secure, and knew that if they played one poor match they'd be replaced, so the whole team was jittery and became even worse.

Eventually that system was replaced, so while all the current England batsmen have been successful in this series, they've all had a spell of poor form at some point that under the old regime would have led to them being dropped.

But the saddest part of England winning the Ashes is that the Australians have started to copy the whole cycle. Most of the blame has been heaped on the captain, Ricky Ponting, one of the best players in modern cricket, and Australia's papers all scream that he personally has brought shame and disgrace upon their nation, with articles along the lines of "Our picture shows he has a small mark by his left elbow proving he's a demon. BURN HIM! BURN THE DEMON!!!! OH WICKEDNESS IS AMONGST US, ONLY HIS BURNING FLESH CAN CLEANSE OUR SOULS AFTER WE LOST BY AN INNINGS!!!"

And instead of accepting they've gone downhill and need to slowly rebuild, they're desperately selecting anyone in the belief that there's a set of players who would win if only they could be found. They've already tried nine replacements for the irreplaceable Shane Warne, and for the next Test they'll announce "Australia's latest spin bowling hope is Mrs Alice Littlemarsh, who's been selected for the Sydney Test despite being 85 and bedridden", until she's suspended for questioning the umpire after every ball, by asking him "What did I come out here for?"

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