The Greasy Pole

So this is what it's like to be English

The Australian cricket team’s painful declension from the Invincibles to the Washington Generals has paused, thanks to Ashton Agar’s defiance. He might spark a comeback of fortunes, but for now Australian fans are still tasting something unfamiliar: a unique mix of dread, confusion, exasperation and trench humour, the pain of hoping on behalf of no-hopers. It’s the kind of emotional hazing that turned the Barmy Army barmy. We are finding out what it used to be like to be a fan of the English cricket team.

In a way we already knew: we spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s as de facto barrackers for the arch-nemesis when it wasn’t so arch, willing them on to some kind of contest. There was a protocol. Mike Atherton or Nasser Hussain would arrive and talk up the team’s chances in a piping public schoolboy tone that was never quite right ­– like the batting, it was either always too emphatic, or not emphatic enough. That ersatz hope would then evaporate in one hour of early afternoon: the captain gone cheaply, then Butcher out fending, then an anonymous club pro with an average poking into the thirties, and there at three-for-eleven you’d know it was the series gone, and that everyone apart from Darren Gough would spend the rest of summer turtling in a posture of pre-emptive regret.

This was a period when the England side seemed less like a cricket team and more like a moonlighting group therapy session. Marcus Trescothick’s international career was ended by depression, but he was one of the few players of his generation who managed to wrestle something lasting away from his demons. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first give a dazzling school career and early, easy county centuries.

Something about putting on an England shirt seemed to physically shrivel someone like Mark Ramprakash, turning him tentative and inert, even lost. Graeme Hick took the cruellest trajectory, his mountain of first class runs eroding to an international molehill. At test level his contest became one not between batsman and bowler, but between Graeme Hick and Graeme Hick, in which there could be only one loser. As with Australia now, there was an impossible expectation an individual could singlehandedly redeem the team’s mediocrity; instead they would succumb to it. 

We weren’t just watching a series of sporting crises, but a national identity crisis. In 1988 England fielded four different captains in five tests: one, Chris Cowdrey, was so unlikely that a groundsman treated him as an imposter, refusing him entry to the ground on match day. No one would accuse Mike Atherton of being an imposter; he was the consummate captain for his time, an avatar of the vagaries of the John Major era and the twilight of uncool Britannia. He was interviewed alongside Glenn McGrath recently, reminiscing uncomfortably about he had lost his wicket to the bowler a record 19 times. When the camera switched to the inside of the commentary box, Atherton was shown recoiling away from a sanguine McGrath as far as his chair would let him. All these years later, he was still afraid of him.

Now it’s our turn to experience sporting and societal unease at the same time, with Mickey Arthur ousted in the same week as Julia Gillard, both from teams that had lost their way. There’s a hope of redemption from unlikely sources, but the likelihood is forbearance, slowly turning into masochism. In cricket as in life, there will always be an England, even if it is, for a time, Australia.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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