It's Not the Convicts, Dummy


who wants what?

From Esquire, Jan 2007

So why do the Australians enjoy seeing us grovel?

In the Australian Book of Life, the British drop them in it.  One way they can climb back out again is by smashing England at cricket.  In the twentieth century this ambition was occasionally thwarted, sometimes by individual genius (Dennis Compton and Ian Botham), at others by brutal acts of pre-meditated cheating (the Bodyline series).

In the 1990’s, however, the Australians finally achieved outright dominance in the Ashes.  They then triumphed in two Rugby World Cups, consecutive Cricket World Cups, and the Davis Cup.  Lleyton Hewitt won Wimbledon, and between 1991 and 2000 Australia were world champions in 12 team and 21 individual sports, including eight-ball pool and orienteering.

So there wasn’t even the sweet and sour consolation of thinking they saved their best for England.  At the last Olympics, Australia won more medals than all but three other countries – the United States, China and Russia.  These medals were distributed across fifteen sports, a range matched only by the United States, and there were no medals for rugby league.  They’d probably also make a decent fist of Olympic Australian Rules.

Still they hadn’t finished.  In 2003 at Upton Park, the England football team were humbled 3-1 by the Socceroos.  During that match the Australians in the crowd held up a banner saying ”If we win, you suck at everything,” while chanting ‘You’ll never win the Ashes.’  I believed them. 

In the summer of 2005, as the touring Australian cricketers landed in England, I therefore went to Sydney to write a book about how Australians had become unbeatable at sport.  I would then be able to explain rationally why England would never win the Ashes ever again.  Yes, I know; and I’ve never been happier about being wrong. 

It started out predictably enough: in Sydney the winter weather made its strong and sunny case to be the source of all England’s misery.  For twelve months every year, Australians can be confident that their superb facilities will be available for outside practice from sunrise to sunset, and in such a small population, anyone who’s any good is quickly identified and soon honing their talent in a lavishly funded Academy of Sport.

I duly noted these familiar reasons for Australian sporting success, but I also wanted to find out whether Australians are more likely to win simply because they’re Australian.  A suspicion lingers that Australian and English sports-people are somehow differently equipped.  If the rivalry is gladiatorial, then it doesn’t seem as evenly-matched as the shield and short-sword against the trident and net.  The Australians have the sword and the trident, and in recent years we’ve backed off, fending and feinting, knowing the result in advance but hoping at best to make a fight of it. 

The most simple-minded explanation, always guaranteed an airing at some stage in every Ashes series, has it that Australians are difficult to beat at games because their ancestors were convicts.  A distant history of flogging and sodomy is somehow rewarded in the here and now by grace under sporting pressure. 

This theory ignores the blunt maths of immigration.  In the full period of transportation, from 1788 to 1868, about 160,000 prisoners arrived in Australia.  Roughly the same number arrived voluntarily in the early 1850’s hoping to strike gold, and among these was a Suffolk farm labourer called Charles Bradman.  He had no criminal record, yet his grandson Sir Donald Bradman was to become Australia’s alpha national hero, the patron saint of a recognisably Australian type of competitor.  Relentless and uncompromising, Bradman scored 19 centuries against England, 8 of them successive, and this in the days when sportsmen weren’t big healthy kids but lean and hungry working men. 

Bradman wasn’t re-enacting a kind of delayed revenge on behalf of his transported forefathers.  He may, however, have been enjoying a more immediate type of gratification.  A hundred runs before lunch was Bradman’s elegant version of Pom-bashing, but why did they want so much to bash us?  Quite a lot of good reasons, as it happens, usually condensed into the single accusation of ‘arrogance’.

And one consistent demonstration of English arrogance is the assumption that no genuine ill-will exists between us and our former English-speaking colonies. 

After the shambles of Gallipoli, and despite the Anzac sacrifice, the British billed the Australian government for every penny spent in Europe on Australian troops.  The economic depression of the 1930’s, which saw Australian families living on beaches in shelters made of sacks, was made worse by English banks draining the economy with demands for debt repayment (a national debt partly incurred by saving Europe from tyranny)  In World War II Roosevelt and Churchill put their heads together, discussed Australia, and decided the Japanese could do what they liked with her. 

Worse was to come. Between 1952 and 1963 the British government carried out A-bomb tests in central Australia.  These explosions contaminated ‘extensive areas’ of the outback, and mean that Australia remains, with Japan, one of only two industrialised countries to have had nuclear bombs dropped on it by a foreign power.  Just in case Australians hadn’t got the message, the 1971 UK Immigration Act ended their special status privilege of ‘free and full right of entry’ into Britain.  The European Common Market then decimated the Australian butter and fruit trades.

Against this background, sporting victories could seem immensely important, an indirect yet aggressive resistance to such casually supercilious treatment.  It wasn’t a convict heritage that made the sporting rivalry matter to Australians, but repeated, up-to-the-minute abuses. 

For a long time we dismissed this edge as evidence that Australians cared too much about winning, a sporting asset but a human frailty.  They’re obsessed, unhinged.  This national psychological disorder, brilliantly embodied by the humourless Chappell brothers or the snarling Glenn McGrath, allows England to lose and yet still feel superior. 

Ingenious as this consolation is, it has its limits, as I discovered in the Sydney suburb of Manly – namely that it isn’t true.  The Australians are no more obsessed by sport and winning than we are, a fact that can be established by spending time in Australia going to readings, galleries, and concerts.  Failing that, respected doctors of sport have collated reliable data from around the world on sports participation, attendance and television coverage.  The statistics show that Australia is as sports-minded and sports-active, but no more so, than several other countries.  These include the United States, Brazil and, inevitably, Britain. 

We care just as much.  No surprise then that between 2003 and 2005, London was brought to a standstill three times in honour of sporting heroes.  You can wait decades for an open-top bus, and then three come along at once.  Two of these celebrations, in rugby and cricket, were for victories over Australia.

But were Australians that bothered?  In a ranking of Australian sports by participation, none of the top five – golf, basketball, Australian rules, netball, soccer – are in sports with a strong traditional rivalry with England.  While rightly treasuring 130 years of shared sporting adventure, we’ve been slow to appreciate that these days we’re playing against a country with 120 ethnic groups, 90 languages, and 60 religions.  This means there’s the distinct possibility that Ashes rivalry has become more important to us than it is to them. 

These social changes provide a more convincing explanation than the glib idea that Australians are simply bored of beating England at cricket.  They’re not bored of winning in any other arena, and elite athletes at the Olympics prove this as conclusively as the community sporties I set out to beat at their own games in Manly.

I now appreciate that Australians are good at sport because down to the lowest level points mean prizes, often money, the Australians competitive because this is the way their sport is organised and organised this way because they’re competitive.  Along the way I also discovered the contribution made by the terms and conditions of licensed premises, the absence of class inhibitions and Puritan guilt, and the privileged status of clubs as surrogate families in an immigrant society.  Local councils support facilities that make it easy to walk round the corner and have a go, and fellow Australians who’ve achieved the dream live next door, or in the same street.  Not least, Australians are continuously inspired by any of the forty-one international sporting events saved by law for free-to-air television. 

These include the Ashes, in 2005 broadcast live both on satellite and by the terrestrial channel SBS.  When the cricket’s not on, this is an ethnic channel (the Special Broadcasting Service) that offers morning news in Hungarian, Maltese, Polish and Ukrainian – without subtitles. It is the ‘voice and vision of multicultural Australia’, and cricket from England is one proud element of that contemporary reality.  One among many. 

For a full roll-call, read the name-badges of the youngsters at work in Australia’s cities.  At the end of the day when the badges come off and everyone gets changed for some kind of fun in the guaranteed sunshine, there’s little to be gained by guessing where anyone’s from.  They’re Australians, at the beginning of Australia, and everything that came before is the first page of the prologue, if that.  Britain can be sure of a place in the Acknowledgements.

Australia is vigorously living a future divorced from the British past, each day more historically distant than the last.  Once, sporting victories over England could help unify the nation, but these days the Olympics and FIFA World Cups are better candidates for the same job, sports in which Australia measures itself against a wider world.  The traditional rivalry with England was largely irrelevant when earlier this year, in front of a global TV audience, the Socceroos in green and gold ran out for their first World Cup Finals match in 30 years.  They were up against Asian neighbour and economic competitor Japan, making our wistful historical rivalries seem quaint, and somehow doomed.

At least we can only hope the Australians might think so.  It would give us a much better chance of winning.