July 2005



By Malcolm Knox

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

On May 11, 1989, the worst team to leave Australia was playing the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord’s. One of the worst team’s worst bowlers, Mervyn Hughes, was fielding a few steps from where I sat on the boundary. England welcomed Hughes, an antipodean caricature well known for his handlebar moustache and risible Big Bad Wolf impersonations of a fast bowler.

Between overs, Hughes signalled to the dressing room with two fingers raised. A wag in the crowd (English crowds are well-supplied with wags) provided a loud caption in an Aussie accent: “Two Foster’s, please!” The crowd laughed as Hughes turned to eye them off. He raised a flat surrendering palm; the moustache appeared to smile. But I was sitting close to Hughes, and the eyes were saying something different. Tempered by public humiliation, freeze-dried by failure, Hughes’s eyes told England that they mightn’t find him so amusing when he tore them limb from limb.

Over the following three months, the worst team ever to leave Australia became one of the best teams ever to leave England. Allan Border’s squad thrashed their hosts, regaining the Ashes on English soil for the first time since 1934. For Australians it was a precious moment, and it delivered a turnaround that has lasted 16 years, or three cricketing generations. Merv Hughes begat Shane Warne, another stereotype embraced by the English as he rifled their pockets.

Even as we beat the English, however, we still served their purposes. Their solace was, and is, that defeat in sport only confirms their broader human superiority. By confining themselves to playing games for fun, rather than for life and death, the English were allowing us to have our jollies. Being such gracious losers liberated them to admire the touring monkeys, and indeed to fall in love with Warne, for he is everything an Englishman thinks an Aussie should be – their master at the game and their inferior in everything else in life.

In 2005 Australia’s cricketing superiority, and England’s mediocrity, appear to be institutional truths. But those of us who remember before 1989 do not trust it, and never will. We may grow bored with beating Pakistan, we may cheer for India or West Indies, we may hope, as good sports, that South Africa give us a fight. We may even barrack for the opponent and turn our withering eye on Australian boorishness. But when it comes to England, we rally. I find that I can only admire Shane Warne wholly – for his character as well as his skill – and hope unreservedly for the best when he is bowling at England.

Back in 1989 I was another Australian type: the backpacker toiling in a West End hotel. I arrived there with only one contact, a friend called Dominic, who had stayed with me and others in Australia during the previous year. Dominic was a chartered surveyor. His father, Antony, was Margaret Thatcher’s Englishman: a Notting Hill property developer, a divorced dasher, a personal friend of novelist Jeffrey Archer. And when I arrived without a place to stay, my former house guest Dominic did a very English thing. He wished me well. It was only after a series of calamitous stays in hostels and a punitive live-in working experience in a hotel that Dominic relented, allowing me to stay a few nights “while you find somewhere else”. Antony was away and I slept in his room. Dominic said “don’t mind the whips and spurs”, which were collected in polished holsters and laid out on the dressing table. Worse than a bondage slave, Antony was a horseman, a nouveau hunting man, a subscriber to Horse & Hound and Country Life, truly one of Maggie’s new men.

It’s silly to apply the pathetic fallacy to a cricket team but it does seem, looking back, that the wilting England XI (or XXIX, if you count the total number of players drafted in during that series) was the flower of the Thatcher era. Graham Gooch, David Gower and Ian Botham had played for England before the Tories won government, but the rest were of Thatcher’s time. As a team, they were not a team at all. The most clueless spectator could tell every man was in it for himself. Botham, blond and mulleted, slogged and trundled as if he had a herbal hangover. Gower seemed to be eyeing a lucrative retirement. A faction of other players were covertly signing contracts to betray England and to break world sanctions by going on a rebel tour of South Africa. Mrs Thatcher wouldn’t have been pleased. (Or maybe she would.) England lost.

Dominic and Antony, more like brothers than son and father, continued to win. Both enjoyed outrageous success with women and money. After one of my
romantic non sequiturs Antony clapped a hand on my shoulder and said: “Don’t worry, they’re like buses, another one’s always around the corner.” He didn’t mean it as consolation. He meant it as a lesson, a tip. Commercial property boomed; Jeffrey was on the up and up. Dominic took me sailing and punting. That is, he took me to watch him sail and to self-efface while he punted with his pals up the Cam. I remember the way he introduced me around: “Ah, this is my ‘Australian friend’.” I can still see the inverted commas. It was a laugh to have an “Australian friend” to show around. Every Englishman should have one.

Antony and Dominic adopted the ways of the aristocracy, but of course they weren’t posh themselves. Posh people, as opposed to posh style, were distinctly uncool. I was at a party among the chartered surveyors and merchant bankers when an “aristo” turned up and was mocked worse than an Australian. The point of the rising Thatcher class was not equality but superiority. The long celebration wasn’t about opportunity for all and smashing class barriers; it was about appropriating the aristos’ superiority. Money made you better than the upper class, better than the lower class. And even if you were struggling, you were always better than Australians. Or “Australians”.

My consolation came not from Antony’s advice or the entree Dominic afforded me into dreamy afternoons of punting, sailing and softball games in Kensington Gardens, but from the Australian cricket team. Since 1977 northern Ashes tours had been nightmarish: back home in Australia, you went to bed with a bad feeling and woke to have it confirmed on the radio. Geoff Boycott and internal dissent did us in ’77; Botham and Brearley in ’81; and in 1985 the whole lot of them piled in. It was routine for Australian touring teams to be called the worst ever. After another West Indian drubbing at home, the 1989 Ashes tour promised more of the same.

But Steve Waugh batted through June. Mark Taylor enjoyed the best year of his life. Terry Alderman kept making a fool of Gooch, and Geoff Lawson produced the biggest off-cutter I’ve seen to bowl Robin Smith. Hughes, the clown, took wickets and even scored runs. Hardened sufferers like Border, David Boon and Geoff Marsh kept their feet on the English throat. Sixteen years on, beating England matters no less. In recent Ashes series I have been disgusted by their timidity and offended by their lack of fight, but I have never pitied them or wanted them to do well in any way. A perfect Ashes series is Australia 5-0, every game won inside three days. I don’t want to see a contest. I want to see Warne bowling six Gatting balls an over and Tooheys-two-stepping on their graves.

This runs contrary to my generally non-parochial grain. As a cricket spectator it is only against England that I feel I have a country. To be Australian, to come from Scottish forebears, is for me to be anti-English. (I exempt English literature, English friends, English law. I try to ignore the several English branches of my family tree, lest I forget Culloden.) To be Australian, moreover, is to embrace the underdog even when we have long ceased being underdogs ourselves. The one time I feel kinship with Rupert Murdoch is when I remember his hatred of the Pom establishment.

We need England because we need someone who will, genetically, look down on us. The Ashes matter because England is the only cricketing nation that can stir up our old colonial inferiority complex – that is, their presence re-asserts our identity. The underdog is a good part of ourselves to revisit from time to time.

This winter, however, it will be tested. Just as 1989 was the apotheosis of the Thatcher team, 2005 is England’s first fully Blair-era team. They’re not Gentlemen, they’re not yob yuppies, they’re not one of the divided rainbow teams of the 1990s. In Michael Vaughan, Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Marcus Trescothick this England team has a stock of likeable professionals from the provinces. They’re the image of Tony Blair. They seem strangely classless. There’s something almost Australian about them.

But not quite.

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and has won three Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life, and his new novel, Bluebird, will be published in September 2020.

Cover: July 2005
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