The Ashes: a five-act Australian tragedy

With fate, a tragic hero and a Hussey, the 2009 Ashes series played out like a classical tragedy — for the Aussies.

David Bowden

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It could be classed as a back-handed compliment when one sports team’s narrow victory over another provokes a meltdown in the losing side. Yet that is the significant fallout from England’s victory over Australia in the Ashes on Sunday.

When England won in 2005 it provoked much over-the-top celebrating – MBEs, bus-rides, urinating in the prime minister’s garden – but at least it represented a hard-fought, often thrilling win over one of the greatest cricketing sides of all time. The Australians response was typical: they gritted their teeth, quietly congratulated their old enemy, and then, a year later, thrashed them 5-0 in the return series.

This time, with the Australian media baying for blood after England’s victory, things are different. One leading psychologist went so far as to speculate whether his countrymen needed therapy to deal with their grief (1). Shane Warne put it more prosaically: ‘It hurts a bloody lot losing the Ashes.’ (2)

Last time England won the Ashes, they were the coming force in Test cricket, building on the back of a series of victories. This time they’ve emerged from poor form, organisational chaos and injury blighting their only two world-class players (Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff). Moreover, they had one of the weakest middle orders of any top cricketing side in the world. Australian players topped the averages for bowling and batting, and twice completely dominated their opponents, and still managed to come out losers. How English.

Cricket is an absolutely baffling sport to non-fans, often involving five days of standing around not doing very much, breaking for lunch, tea and drizzle, before frequently ending in a draw. It possesses an unpleasant historical legacy, too, tied as it is to the British Empire, with all the colonial racism, class prejudice and national chauvinism that implies.

Yet Test cricket remains a fascinating sport. For all its fustiness, its overweening sense of tradition, it is worth remembering that it is in fact football fans who are still a little chippy about having to be managed by a Swede and then an Italian, and the Italian is currently refusing to pick a Spanish goalkeeper on the grounds that he’s not English enough (3). Meanwhile, England’s captain, star batsman, wicketkeeper and Ashes-winning centurion are all South African, while two of their key coaches are former Zimbabwean and Pakistani internationals.

Furthermore, while all the best sports contain elements of high drama, few take it so literally as cricket. Action unfurls over five acts, divided into scenes (or sessions). It obeys Aristotle’s unities of action and place and (in the English Renaissance tradition) time. Moreover, with its apparent aimlessness interspersed with split-second judgements governed by the apparently natural laws of fate – the bounce of a ball off a crack in the pitch, for example – and incomprehensibly technical rules dictated by unknowable and capricious gods (umpires), it seems to mirror life like no other sport. You can lose a game (as England did in the Fourth Test) in the first session of the first day, but you still have to keep on going until the bastards grind you down.

Little wonder it inspires writers of the calibre of CLR James, LP Hartley, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. Football may be a better sport with a global appeal, but its chief contribution to world literature has been Nick Hornby.

Every tragedy involves change to the existing order. By losing that one game – in a series where they produced the most potent batsmen and lethal bowlers – Australia managed to go from the top-ranked side in the world to the fourth-ranked. Our tragic hero here is Aussie captain Ricky Ponting. He started the series as the highest-scoring Australian batsman of all time and equal to legendary Steve Waugh as their most successful captain. He ends it as the first Aussie skipper in 119 years to lose back-to-back away series in the Ashes and, having very nearly lost his teeth, when he took a ball to the chops, he now faces calls for his head.

Fittingly, the key moment of the match was Ponting’s run-out in the second innings. Despite having been set the task of scoring the highest ever winning total in Test match cricket history on a difficult pitch, the partnership between Ponting and Mike Hussey (there’s always one of those in a tragedy) – with their most in-form batsman, Michael Clarke, still to come – dared to make the impossible possible. Andrew Strauss’ claim that Australia had lost the aura they had in the days of Warne, McGrath and the Waughs may have been true – but on Sunday afternoon, Ponting still had that aura (4).

And then, in a split second, everything changed. Flintoff, the retiring hero, who had otherwise failed to shine after being plagued by the injuries that were cutting his career short and leaving his potential unfulfilled, produced one sublime bit of skill to run him out an inch short of his ground. A few balls later, Clarke – a thorn in England’s side all series – was run-out in near-slapstick circumstances, and from then on it was a formality. From the sublime to the ridiculous – and, in sport, the bathetic quickly leads to the pathetic.

As if to emphasise the theatre of it all, England’s man-of-the-match was not the creaking Flintoff but the young, blond Stuart Broad – the previously ineffectual heir apparent, in the shadow of his Ashes-winning father, who finally rose to claim the mantle in a devastating spell of bowling in the first innings – where, yes, he took Ponting’s wicket. If you’re looking for hamartia, the fatal decision not to pick a specialist spinner on a spinning wicket was their final undoing. They may never see the like of Warne again.

Ponting – often criticised for his abrasive quality on the pitch (5) – took it all with a quiet dignity. Through his swollen and stitched-up lips, and in front of a crowd ecstatic in face of an unlikely victory, he gave a frank account of Australia’s shortcomings. He refused to blame the pitch, the dodgy umpiring or individual players. Instead he focused on returning next time round. It couldn’t hurt more than it does, he said, but the only way to get over losing is to come back again and win.

It takes a true winner, a hero almost, to be that frank about your shortcomings in defeat. He might have added the lines from another first class cricketer of days gone by: Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Beckett is the only Nobel Prize winner to have appeared in cricket’s bible, Wisden. Had he been Australian he might have added a final instruction: Then win.

Hopefully, this time round, England can build on their success and create a team that can retain the Ashes down under. But for all the canonisation of England’s lionhearts, I’d have Ponting as captain any day.

David Bowden is a writer based in London and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

Read on: spiked-issue: Sport

(1) After such a bitter Ashes defeat, it’s time to call in the shrinks, Herald Sun (Australia), 25 August 2009

(2) Shane Warne calls for right answers after Ashes defeat, Herald Sun (Australia), 26 August 2009

(3) Capello: Almunia is Spanish,, 11 August 2009

(4) Aussies have lost aura – Strauss, BBC Sport 29 July 2009

(5) Ricky Ponting condemned by own actions, The Times (London), 20 July 2009

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