At 9 am on 1 June, when tickets for this summer's Ashes Test series went on sale, Cricket Australia's offices in Jolimont, near the Melbourne Cricket Ground, were deceptively quiet. It was then noticed that the website was paralysed, as if by an electric shock. Next, those who were trying to buy tickets online found themselves confounded. Finally, phones started to ring: the tsunami of demand had flattened ticket agencies in its path. By the time it receded, a few days later, the wave had taken with it virtually every ticket for all five Tests. The same number could probably have been sold again.
It was a big story for a while, although it was more an unexpectedly extreme version of an acknowledged phenomenon than something unprecedented. Great teams visit Australia full of glorious personalities to play compelling cricket, but nothing sells like a tour by our oldest opponents. The West Indies paid a famous visit in 1960-61 credited with reviving a game then at its most moribund, yet more people watched the next Test series, a dreary 1-1 draw with England.
All the same, weren't we meant to be over this, in an era when on a bad day we're the 51st state of the Union, and on a good one we're embracing our Asian future, celebrating our plural ethnicities and/or admitting our essential Aboriginality? Here we are, culture-rich, forelock-free, a mature constitutional democracy, a republic in all but name, whose previous prime minister has touched the Queen and whose present prime minister seems to hanker for more intimate relations with the American president. Yet we can't wait to play the same tea-drinking nancy boys who shot us in the Boer War for following orders, slaughtered us at Gallipoli, deserted us at Singapore and betrayed us over the Common Market ... at the game that they invented.
‘Little America' read the cover of The Monthly in March, promoting an analysis of the convergence of American and Australian foreign and economic policies. As well as perplexing devotees of Vicki Pollard and Carol Beer, the headline ‘Little Britain' would not withstand similar exposure. Australia's relations with the US are always good for a hang-wringing op-ed, especially now that the free-trade agreement has put a Starbucks or a McDonalds on every street corner, and our poor impressionable children affect American ghetto patois and watch nothing but The Simpsons. What's there to say about that cold, grim, backward country off the coast of Europe - apart from, Isn't it time we got the Union Jack off our flag? A third of our expatriate population resides in the UK and many more of our immigrants come from there than any other country, but these are statistical quirks of no inherent interest.
But, hang on. We're a sports-obsessed country, right? So why, when our vulnerable culture lies exposed to the depredations of globalisation, are we still playing the quaint, anachronistic British games, like cricket, rugby, golf, tennis, boxing and horseracing? Not just playing, but also excelling at, and being identified with them. Just as no Australian has known the fame of Sir Donald Bradman, no Australian is now more recognisable than Shane Warne.
Granted, there's Australian Rules, conceived by the convict's grandson Tom Wills - although only after he'd been educated at Rugby School in Warwickshire during its games-playing zenith, and mainly because there was no standardised football in Britain on which to base an Australian version. And what is the home-grown game's new challenge but soccer, whose A-League is booming and whose personalities were made household names by the World Cup? Indeed, we would not accept soccer until it had been purged of its reputation for ethnic antagonisms and looked more recognisably like our own version of the English Premier League. Now we seem to be part of the World Game's manifest destiny. "By it," the historian AJP Taylor famously remarked, "the mark of England may well remain in the world when the rest of her influence has vanished."
It was fashionable in the 1960s to foresee American cultural forms clear-felling everything in their path. In his memoir Follow On (1977), the venerable English pundit EW Swanton recalled the table talk of Sir Frank Packer in January 1966: "Cricket, said Sir Frank, with all the certainty of a man unaccustomed to being contradicted, was a dying game. In Australia, he added, baseball was the coming thing." They had a bet about cricket's continued vitality. Swanton won. And what Sir Frank's son conceived of a decade later was not World Series Baseball; cricket, Kerry Packer understood, was the game that mattered, and whose popularity would outlive him. These days, we're not even particularly exercised by competing with the US. Isolated peaks of interest like the Davis Cup in the '50s and the 1983 America's Cup have not an abiding rivalry made.
Why does this pass so little remarked? For even when we consider Anglo-Australian relations, sport is somehow left out of account. David Malouf's erudite Quarterly Essay of 2005, ‘Made in England', for instance, devotes to sport just two sketchy paragraphs. Yet sport is, in some respects, the most dynamic, demotic and enduring dimension of Australia's relations with the country that gave it birth: there may still be vestiges of a cultural cringe, but the sporting cringe is long gone, and has even replaced by a bit of a strut and a sneer.
Oscar Wilde called England and America nations divided by a common language. Today, 145 years since our first meetings on the field of play, England and Australia remain nations divided by a common game.
So, 70 years ago, began a long open letter in Melbourne's Sun News-Pictorial. Its author, William Pollock of London's Daily Express, had come for the cricket, but he had been asked by the Melbourne tabloid to review antipodean habits and customs generally - and he did so with a disarmingly free hand. Australians? So hospitable: "You make me a little ashamed of England." So agreeable: "I have not had a rough or harsh word with anyone except a quarrelsome fellow Englishmen." So drunk: "You don't drink; you gulp with both eyes on the clock." So politically verbose: "I am sure it would be far more popular if your public houses kept open later and your public speakers shut up earlier. Dear Australia, why are you so strait-laced? Why do you allow yourselves to be bossed about by cranks?"
Pollock was anxious not to trespass too much on Australian good nature: "I don't want to be deported ... I like you, Australia. I am glad I came and have begun to know you. I shall be saying ‘Good-O', ‘Too right' and ‘Whack-O' with you soon." Yet, still, there were things he wondered at: "Why are your film theatres shut up on Sundays and why mustn't you smoke in them? Why do you have trams when motor buses are infinitely preferable in every way?" Above all: "And, last but not least, why don't you, as a whole and on the whole, like Englishmen?"
You might think the letter contained its own answer, by being so typically full of hearty English condescension. It's an old story. A hundred years before William Pollock, it was Charles Darwin leaving Australia "without sorrow or regret", dismissing us as "too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect". Those who stayed came over like Henry Kingsley's Sam Buckley: "What honours, what society, has this little colony to give, compared to those open to a fourth-rate gentleman in England? I want to be a real Englishman, not half a one. I want to throw in my lot heart and hand with the greatest nation in the world."
Why exactly the relationship's tensions should have concentrated on sport owes something to events in England during the first few generations of Australian colonisation, when organised games were embraced by an increasingly industrialised and urbanised population. An Australia settled 50 years earlier or later would have looked considerably, perhaps unrecognisably, different. As it was, Australia's maturation coincides with the diffusion of the creed that Disraeli called "muscular Christianity", identified chiefly with Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School, and two idolatrous former students and proselytes: Arthur Stanley, author of the approved Life of Arnold (1844), and Thomas Hughes, who novelised his experiences in Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857). They bear witness to the interpenetration of sport and education, with the faith that games are socially efficacious, developing a sense of fair play and a respect for rules, umpires, opponents and the spirit of the contest.
Perhaps the most illuminating impressions of sport and the culture of "muscular Christianity" were garnered by the French sociologist Hippolyte Taine on two visits to England, in 1858 and 1871, and poured into his Notes on England (1872). Taine was fascinated by the English public schools he visited, which included Eton and Harrow as well as Arnold's Rugby, and was persuaded that they provided a training for the running of the country, each being "a sort of small, distinct state with its own chiefs and own laws" and "the perfect apprenticeship in both obedience and command, since every cricket team accepts a discipline and appoints a leader":
An adolescent needs physical exercise. It is against nature to force him to be all brain, a sedentary bookworm. Here, athletic games, fives, football, running, rowing and above all cricket take up part of every day...While I was there, 11 of the biggest and most skilful boys had to maintain the honour of the school against 11 boys who had come from London ... The business was taken seriously: the adversaries belonged to the famous "cricketers' club": their strength, coolness and address were admirable. Certainly the boys have a perfect right to become passionately interested in the game which they see grown men making the main object of their lives. I have been told of a team of 11 cricketers who actually went to play in Australia, as formerly athletes went from Punt and Marseilles to Olympia.
To Australia? Fancy that! Nonetheless, Taine gave only two cheers. The English, he felt, were breeding a race of Spartans. Sport certainly "hardens the body and tempers the character", but "as far as I can make out, it often produces (merely) sportsmen and louts", and the dark side of self-government was a "primitive society in which force reigns almost unchecked". Cricket, meanwhile, instilled a certain masochism - le vice Anglais, of course:
At cricket, a big, heavy ball is flung with such force that the clumsy player who gets in its way will be knocked down by it. Almost all games usually entail some cuts and bruises; the boys glory in not feeling them and, as a natural result are no more reluctant to inflict than to suffer them.
Nor was Taine the only dissenter; there were even conscientious objectors, like FW Farrar, headmaster of Marlborough:
Seeing that these young people are ready to sacrifice everything for cricket, seeing that they devote to it a number of hours and an enthusiasm out of all proportion to what they devote to their work; seeing that they talk, think and dream of nothing but cricket, it is not surprising that they should find many people attributing the wretched intellectual results we obtain to this mania for muscularity.
Yet just as Tom Brown's exploits excited schoolboys, so Notes on England thrilled adults. Its most famous - and selective - reader was the young Pierre Frédy, baron de Coubertin, who was inspired to make his own pilgrimage: "Alone in the great gothic chapel of Rugby, my eyes fixed on the funeral slab on which, without epitaph, the great name of Thomas Arnold was inscribed, I dreamed I saw before me the cornerstone of the British empire." The epiphany revealed to de Coubertin his mission: to "re-bronze" French manhood, etiolated in the namby-pamby lycée and bruised in the Franco-Prussian War, by redesigning French schools along the lines of Rugby, Harrow and Eton.
It didn't take on: although he attracted disciples, including the headmaster of Ecole Monge, who foisted on students a regime of cricket and cold showers, de Coubertin had to rest content with moving on to found the modern Olympic movement. The line of descent that the modern Olympics claims from ancient Greece, then, is largely bogus. In the words of Lincoln Allison, editor of The Global Politics of Sport (2005):
De Coubertin was not a Hellenist, either by background or enthusiasm. Given his real enthusiasms - his commitment to physical education, to the revival of France and to learning the lessons of English success - it might have been more logical to found the Arnoldian games.
De Coubertin wasn't the only one reading English culture selectively. Plenty of Englishmen were doing the same. "Englishmen are not superior to Frenchmen or Germans in brains or industry, or the science or apparatus of war," said Harrow headmaster JEC Welldon modestly. "In the history of the British Empire, it is written that England has owed her sovereignty to her sports." What kept adolescent boys amused might also do the trick in adolescent countries. Thus the immortal musings of CLR James on his education at Queen's College in Port-of-Spain:
We were a motley crew ... Yet we rapidly learned to obey the umpire's decision without question, however irrational it was. We learned to play with the team, which meant subordinating your personal inclinations, and even interests, to the good of the whole. We kept a stiff upper lip, in that we did not complain about ill-fortune. We did not denounce failures, but "well tried" and "hard luck" came easily to our lips. We were generous to opponents and congratulated them on victories, even when we knew they did not deserve it. We lived in two worlds. Inside the classrooms the heterogenous jumble of Trinidad was battered and jostled and shaken down into some sort of order. On the playing field we did what ought to be done. Every individual did not observe every rule. But the majority of boys did. The best and most-respected boys were precisely the ones who had always kept them ... Eton and Harrow had nothing on us.
Cricket had some unlikely adherents. Theodore Herzl was a believer, imagining the game as a pillar of Zionism in The Jewish State (1896), fantasising of an Israel in which every boy was brought up on bat and ball. But few countries were quite so adolescent as Australia: how better to keep it amused than by a jolly game of cricket? Like de Coubertin, Australians ignored the admonitions of Taine that sport would bringing philistinism and force in its train. We appropriated everything. The strength. The passion. The heavy ball. The cuts and bruises. Even the expressions. In the mid-1870s, the English naturalist Henry Nottidge Moseley, an old Harrovian, was searching for platypus near Coranderrk, in Victoria. He could not get a single "incorrigibly lazy" Aborigine to help him ... but they took him to a bush cricket match:
We found the cricket party in high spirits, shouting with laughter, rows of spectators being seated on logs and chaffing the players with old English sallies: "Well hit!" "Run it out!" "Butter fingers!" ... The men were all dressed as Europeans; they knew all about Mr WG Grace and the All-England XI.
The rise of Australian cricket, of course, wasn't simply imitation. It was homage and rivalry, fealty and independence, adoption and adaptation. Gradually, too, Australians learned that the English sometimes talked a better game than they played. Indeed, when de Coubertin brought the Olympics to London in 1908, the result was a fiasco, with the arbitrary decision-making of hometown officials alienating athletes from the US, Sweden, Finland and France. "The Games have dealt a final blow to England's reputation for sportsmanship," wrote the French journalist F Frank-Puaux. "The English have clearly shown, now that they are faced with serious rivals from other countries, that they no longer possess the same broad-mindedness, impartiality and independence that they had persuaded the world was their prerogative." Less starry-eyed Australians reading this might not have found the Bodyline series, a quarter of a century later, so startling.
The tenets of le regime Arnoldian, nonetheless, have found fertile soil in Australia. Australian Rules' Brownlow Medal is still settled on the "best and fairest". Australian basketballers present a "Fair Play Award". Hockey has just introduced its "Play the Whistle" program, and water polo its "Disrespect Rule". Golf's new "First Tee" scheme promotes the game not merely as a recreation but as an induction in life - or maybe the Peace Corps - identifying its core values as honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, respect, perseverance, courtesy and judgement. Not to be outdone, Cricket Australia has not only bound Test cricketers to observe a "spirit of cricket", but also published in its new playing policy and guidelines book, ‘Well Played', a code of behaviour composed of no fewer than 53 bullet points.
You can now even genuflect before Sportsmanship itself - thanks to the Victorian government and that noted apostle of fair play, Rupert Murdoch. When sculptor Mitch Mitchell was commissioned to adorn the arena forecourt for the Commonwealth Games, the moment he chose to immortalise was not a famous victory or a crowning glory, but rather John Landy stooping to help the prone Ron Clarke in the 1956 Australian Mile Championship. At the sculpture's unveiling in June 2002, Premier Bracks said it would "serve as a constant reminder ... that the greatest honour is in the way we play the game, not whether we win or lose." Spoken like a true Arnoldian.
The most visible artefact of the games cult is perhaps still more obvious and pervasive. In Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School (1981), Tony Mangan observes:
In educational matters few things demonstrate the wealth or the interests of the nineteenth-century upper classes as well as expenditure lavished on the games field of the public schools; dingy classrooms contrasted strongly with superbly kept cricket squares and spacious football acres - symbols of the dominant values and the wealth of Victorian society.
Have you visited an elite private school in Australia lately? Strolling their verdant grounds, and visiting their opulent gymnasia and swimming centres at the service of this obese generation, Dr Arnold would feel very much at home.
Surely, though, we're different in lots of ways? Look at our reputation for playing sport to the edge of the rules, for pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, for petulance, for sledging, for ruthlessness in general. Not very English, eh? But the very act of pushing a boundary or challenging an edge contains an acknowledgement of the existence of limit. Ruthlessness is not an absolute; it involves a comparison with a known standard, and that standard in Australia is still an Anglo one. And while our sport has been less inhibited, more cut-throat, we tend to bend rules rather than break them. Maradona's "Hand of God" goal in the 1986 World Cup, an instance of admitted cheating justified by national pride, would not have made him a hero in this country.
What about class distinction? We're more egalitarian than those toffee-nosed Poms, aren't we? Hey, we watched the TV series Bodyline: we know that English cricket is run by men who look like Snidely Whiplash and say "old chap" and "you Orstralians" a lot. There is a kernel of truth here. The key difference between English and Australian cricket for almost the first century of competition was the former's distinction between amateurs (gentlemen) and professionals (players), who not only travelled and lodged separately but also emerged from different dressing rooms. This was a phenomenon at which antipodeans looked askance, including the Australian captain of a century ago, Joe Darling:
In my time when playing against All-England at Lord's, it was a very common thing for an amateur and a professional to open the innings. The professional had to be waiting at his gate, but dare not go onto the playing ground before the supposed "amateur" came out of the members' pavilion and entered the playing ground first. The amateur and professional then walked to the wickets from different gates about fifty yards apart and did not actually meet until they got near the wickets. Australia has never made any difference between the amateur and the professional, and that is one of the main reasons why Australian teams pull so well together whilst playing the game ...
We never did that, did we? We were always gritty, no-nonsense, down-to-earth professionals, weren't we? Well, no. When Australian cricketers toured England before the Great War, they demanded the status of amateurs, entitling them in scorecards to the courtesy titles of "Mr" or "Esq." and lending them social cachet, even as they made fortunes from ventures that were essentially financial speculations. "The cricketers meet all the best people of England and are received and entertained by the highest in the land, from royalty downwards," stated player-manager Frank Laver. "And to move in such society costs a lot of money." Not surprisingly, the English were as baffled by our mores as we were by theirs. As the World lamented: "The Australians make their own terms, insist on them, not always very gracefully, and play too obviously for the money's sake. They arrogate to themselves the rank of gentlemen." So, yes: there was a big difference. They were snobs. We were hypocrites.
Donald Bradman, too, insisted on being referred to as an amateur: "We were all amateurs. That is, the Australians were all amateurs. We didn't earn our living playing cricket. We played cricket because we love it, for the fun of the game." The words are carefully chosen for, if Bradman did not "earn a living" from cricket, cricket enabled him to "earn a living" by profiting commercially on his fame. Eric Liddell he wasn't.
As a contribution to our sporting make-up, however, amateurism deserves a solid second look. Sports historians have tended to dismiss it as an ideology of exclusion: redundant, repugnant and replete with -ists, being classist, racist, imperialist, sexist, and probably ageist and speciesist, too. Amateurism has come to be defined by its fanatics and demagogues - oddly, more often American than English, such as the influential Harper's sports columnist Caspar Whitney, who called professional sportsmen "vermin", and International Olympic Committee grandee Avery Brundage, who dismissed them as "performing monkeys".
Yet a century or so ago, even Sherlock Holmes thought amateur sport "the best and soundest thing in the country". And the argument is increasingly being made that amateurism was integral to Englishness, an objection to a world of commerce and reason, a shelter from the market and state, a buffer against revolution and repression - civil society being undergirded by unpaid labour that served vital functions, like maintaining law and order (justices of the peace), ensuring public safety (the St John Ambulance), spreading the gospel (the Bible Society) and playing tambourines (the Salvation Army). "English society was a creation of amateur initiatives," argues the philosopher Roger Scruton in England: An Elegy (2000). "Its most valuable institutions were the result either of private patronage ... or of people making common cause and clubbing together." Professionalism, adds the literary critic DJ Taylor in his new book On the Corinthian Spirit, has become a means of mass compulsion. He quotes the porn star Randy Spears, who explained that he was able to work up some lust for about 30% of women he had sex with; with the other 70%, he was "just being a professional".
For numberless thousands, too, a sporting body has been their chief experience of the quotidian reality of democracy. The Melbourne Cricket Club is our oldest continuous private institution. A striking feature of our parliaments a century ago is their cricket connections. Edmund Barton, George Reid, Joseph Carruthers, Charles Kingston, Sir George Turner, Sir Malcolm McEachern, Alexander Peacock, William Irvine, Thomas Bent: all were, or had been, honorary senior office-holders at cricket clubs. No wonder Alfred Deakin, in lamenting the factionalised nature of federal politics in February 1904, had recourse to a cricket metaphor: "What a game of cricket you would have if there were three elevens sometimes playing on one side, sometimes on the other, and sometimes for itself." (And no wonder, when Deakin attended the Colonial Conference three years later, that his British counterpart seemed a little lacklustre. Henry Campbell-Bannerman might have borne the name of Test cricket's maiden centurion, but there comparison ended. "I am an immense believer in bed, in constantly keeping horizontal," he advised. "The heart and everything else goes slower, and the whole system is refreshed.")
The end of sport's amateur hegemony is usually dated as the abolition of the maximum wage by England's Football Association in 1961; the designation "amateur" was abolished by big cricket in 1962 and big tennis in 1967. But sport retains many of the attitudes of amateurism, especially those related to moral conduct, and would dispense with them at its peril. As Lincoln Allison asks in Amateurism in Sport (2001): "What would be the meaning and purpose of sport without amateur ideals?" The answer is, not much: as merely a spectacle, an entertainment or a business transaction, sport would be empty, nugatory and commercially worthless. In any case, reports of amateurism's demise are exaggerated. What proportion of sporting participants are paid for what they do? Probably closer to 0.1% than 1%. Yet the latest statistical data found that almost a third of Australians had participated in a sport organised by a club, association or other organisation in the past year. We're a nation of amateurs, a bastion of dabblers and duffers. Our English forefathers would be proud of us.
Even if Australians have not taken in great numbers to American sports, there's no ignoring that our sport is in some measures being Americanised, whether it be through the Phineas Barnumism of marketing and promotion or the Procrustean bed of statistics and analysis. Then, of course, there's that win-at-all-costs attitude which we're apt to deplore, whether in Anthony Mundine, who nominates as his inspiration Muhammad Ali, or Lleyton Hewitt, with his leaves taken from John McEnroe's manual of on-court etiquette. After all, it was a baseball coach, Leo Durocher of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who 60 years ago distilled American sporting philosophy: "Nice guys finish last."
Sure enough. Mind you, a baseball coach, Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees, also recommended that "you should always go to other people's funerals; otherwise, they won't come to yours." And we wanted to win long before any American reviewed the alternatives. When the first English cricketers visited in 1861-62, it was chiefly as a rod of correction; Melbourne Punch hoped that "our Victorians, vanquished, may acquire / A knowledge which may lead them onto fame". When the fourth team visited, 15 years later, the rod was wielded on English backs, providing empirical verification for Marcus Clarke in The Future Australian Race (1877): "Read the accounts of the boat races, the cricket matches, and say if our youth is not manly."
Thus, Geoffrey Blainey proposed in his Boyer Lectures, This Land is All Horizons (2004), the original primacy of sport in Australia, a culture always tending to over-privilege its areas of excellence: "If Australians had proved feeble at sports they would not have hailed sporting victories as nationally significant." The abiding sense that there was little else, moreover, sank Australians into deep brooding on defeat, and occasioned uncommon relish at emphatic victory. After the Great War, the quest for mere equality in cricket gave way to a conviction of abiding superiority. Watching Warwick Armstrong's multi-talented team rout England in 1921, the dramatist Louis Esson wrote to the critic Vance Palmer that cricketers were representatives of Australia superior to its artists and politicians put together:
They are not pleasant players. A good English journalist described them as "hard-bitten", "grim" and "pitiless". We shouldn't be a soft, mushy, maudlin race. In politics we're a shingle short, a nation of grinning village idiots. The cricketers fill me with great enthusiasm. They can lose, for there is luck in cricket, but they'll never crack up like the English.
When the Australian and English prime ministers first conferred by telephone, on 30 April 1930, what did they discuss? According to the West Australian's report of the exchange between Irish Catholic James Scullin and Scot Ramsay MacDonald, "Every word was heard clearly and the conversation passed lightly from such weighty matters as naval disarmament to the chances in Test cricket." With Bradman in the Australian team, which of them do you think brought the subject up?
In appeasing the itch for accomplishment, what else has cricket wrought? In his Quadrant essay ‘Cricket versus Republicanism', 30 years ago, the philosopher David Stove advanced a famous argument about Australia's abiding edge: "The margin of superiority is slight, but it is consistent, and therefore calls for explanation ... My own belief is that it is due to a difference in attitude towards the opponent: that whereas the Australians hate the Poms, the Poms only despise the Australians." Stove's language was obtrusively florid, for he otherwise lovingly located cricket in a continuum of cultural inheritances:
It passes my understanding how anyone with even a grain of sense can feel pleasure at the prospect of a republican Australia: an Australia, that is to say, even more "base, common and popular" than it is now. Anyway, I am myself for the British connection. In my World XI, Britons - Shakespeare, Purcell, Newton, Hume and Darwin - would be the first five picked. Either to the British exclusively, or to them more than to any other nation, the world owes, and Australia especially owes, whatever it has of scientific knowledge, sober philosophy, stable government without oppression - and cricket.
The English, eh? So cunning! Australian victory both expressed and assuaged aggressive nationalism, both indulged and contained our resentments. It's arguable that Ashes cricket has been to our culture as the Statute of Westminster 1931, which allowed our self-government within the Commonwealth, has been to our governance. (It's arguable, too, that the relations don't stop at analogy: it was the same act that, by thwarting the cause of Western Australia's secession after the referendum of April 1933, secured for Australian Test teams to come the services of Graham McKenzie, Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Justin Langer.) Stove's bald and provocative title captures something patriots might prefer not to think about. It is hardly impossible that we could by now have had both cricket and republicanism; we will, surely, eventually do so. But has succeeding in one made us crave the other less?
There have been scores of histories of Australian cricket; there has never been a cricket history of Australia. We show remarkably little interest in what might be inferred from our attachment to the most fully national game, even though it's 30 years since the historian Bill Mandle observed in Going it Alone (1977), "Other sports have from time to time given insight into nationalist attitudes ... but none so consistently or in so precise a fashion as cricket ... A history of Anglo-Australian relations that neglected cricket would lack substance." Perhaps that is an outcome of cricket's cultural pervasiveness; yet, in an era when Australia's prime minister is also its number-one cricket tragic and chief historical commissar, we might learn a valuable thing or two.
A hundred years ago, correspondence broke out in the letters pages of the Argus on that old chestnut of whether Australia was becoming too American - that is, too slick, too materialistic, too easily amused by trifles. The climactic letter, from an Australian in Chicago, seemed to settle the matter. We would never be American for as long as we had cricket:
The game which does so much to bind the English and Australian peoples together is a subject of irreverent merriment among Americans, while the two games that arouse their frantic enthusiasm, baseball and their peculiar brand of football, leave Australians cold. Even if other things were equal, that difference of taste would turn the scale of Australian affinities in favour of England.
A crude and superficial test, certainly. But it remains true that Australia's common cultural coin with England, not least in sport, provides an instructive comparison with our newer, noisier, more aggressive and more superficial relations with the US. We noisily resent the Poms, yet relish our companionable rivalry with them; we seem obediently to assimilate American influences, yet, according to the Lowy Institute's recent survey, 69% of us think that we pay the US too much attention and 79% believe that the US has over-reached its world role. "When we look at the British," David Malouf remarks, "we see both what we were to begin with and what we have turned out not to be." What do Australians see when we look at Americans? What we might become, but would prefer not to?
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription