The public relations man for Cricket Australia was despondent. Not only had his team taken the most severe beating since 1966 in an Ashes Test match played on home ground, the TV ratings were plunging, endangering the economic viability of the sport. Australians are no different from the English in their distaste for defeat by the Old Enemy. The difference is that the English are accustomed to it. For granted for a generation, Australians have taken the superiority of their cricket team. True, they lost to England in a monumental series in 2005, but they could explain that away. England had been lucky. Now they are learning to live with defeat, and the surprise is that they are less concerned by it than you would expect. Commerce and corruption have already taken a toll.
The sports page of the Adelaide Advertiser on the fifth and last day of the second Test — the first in Brisbane was drawn — showed a picture of a beastly black cloud over the cricket ground. Mike Hussey, the best Australian batsman of the series so far, spelled out the message: heavy rain was the only factor that could save Australia. There was indeed a violent downpour that day, but it started two hours after England had won by an innings and 71 runs. However, the very idea that Australia’s cricketers should be saved from humiliation by the weather was too much for a Barrie Redmond, who wrote to the editor of the Advertiser: “Shame on those in any form of media who say they are looking for divine intervention to prevent the English side from winning…It is yet another example of many Australians’ unsportsmanlike attitude and behaviour these days.” The sub-text is that Australia’s cricketers are not liked by many Australians because they have cared too much about winning at all costs. This comes as a surprise, even to a hardened visitor.
Many times in the past 100 years, brilliant cricketers have been treated as icons of Australian identity. Only five years ago, their cricket team was built around four of the finest cricketers ever to have played the game. The baggy green caps they wore were symbols of a profound tradition. To add a further layer of meaning, Steve Waugh, Australia’s captain, organised a detour to Gallipoli, where so many Australian and New Zealand soldiers died in 1915, on his team’s journey to play in England a decade ago. Cricket and national pride were shown to be indistinguishable.
Not any more. One commentator in the Advertiser said that the team that lost in Adelaide was not the worst in history — “but close”. References to smirking Poms were not unfriendly (after all, they had plenty to smirk about). There were three more Tests to be played after Adelaide but Australian commentators, like the TV audience, had decided, rightly or wrongly, that the jig was up. Besides, they have other things on their minds. The wealth of their mountains of iron ore and seams of coal, allied to China’s insatiable demand for them, has transformed Australia into a prosperous society. Consumerism is the new variety of national identity. There are other ways of keeping the score — the interest rate on mortgages and house prices being the favourites. Australia’s cricketers are symptoms of the change, and, perhaps, the victims of it.
A number of the most accomplished players of the recent past — Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer — now appear in the media, as commentators (and, in Warne’s case, also for his many alleged extramarital dalliances, most recently with the actress Liz Hurley). They are familiar enough with their successors to moderate their criticism. Ricky Ponting, the present captain and a fine batsman, was their captain in the good days, and when opponents appeared to be getting on top, Ponting would throw the ball to Warne or Glenn McGrath, a consummate pace bowler, assuming that they would be capable of solving his problem. Ponting is a great cricketer in his own right, but he cannot disguise the glaring truth that his team is going to pieces. As he admitted in Adelaide, they were “out-batted, out-bowled and out-fielded”. Losing captains use up their resources very quickly. Ponting is evidently a very tired man, and yet there is no obvious successor. His deputy Michael Clarke is the epitome of the cricketer as celebrity rather than team player. (He once had a fight in the dressing room with Simon Katich, a confirmed traditionalist.) It is time for panic stations.
The endless supply of ambitious, well-coached, ruthless young players is drying up. Coaches from an earlier generation bemoan the tendency of adolescents to spend too much time playing computer games. Consequently, their bodies cannot cope with a rigorous coaching regime. They get stress fractures and do not train on. The fastest bowler in the nation, Shaun Tait, commits himself only to one-day cricket. He and others who do play five-day Tests, are in thrall to the sporting melodrama and the rich pickings in the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 tournament.
Indeed, Australian cricket is aping the Indian example by marketing the game fiercely to engage a vast TV audience. This has been successful in India, so far, but maximising income in the short term does not generate long-term stability. And it exhausts the means of production — the cricketers themselves. Another phenomenon of cricket in the subcontinent further alienates spectators in Australia. They believe Pakistani cricket is bent, and see little point in watching it.
The emphasis on money has an unintended consequence. One of the most attractive qualities of Australian men was mateship — the idea that loyalty was a social good, and tight unity lent strength to groups like sports teams. But standards are changing utterly. Loyalty is to the family not the team, and when money and celebrity become the arbiters of a sportsman’s ability, the centre fails to hold. Things fall apart. But the Aussies already know that.