Aussie angst: inside the Ashes

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Bullish, brash, with a never-say-die attitude. Arrogance and ruthlessness in equal measure. Australians love their sports. Whilst the English value ‘pluck’ the Aussies prefer ‘guts’. Every England fan lives in fear of any contest with an Australian sports outfit, and not without reason. The Australians killed English cricket, cremated the body and took the ashes back to Australia. Australia broke English hearts at Twickenham in the 1991 Rugby World Cup Final.

The last time the England football team played the ‘Socceroos’, they lost 3-1. Not to mention of course, another sad byproduct of Australian culture – the proliferation of the truly shocking chain of Walkabout pubs which have sprung up across the cities of this green and pleasant land. Were Neighbours, Home and Away and the quite bad Crockodile Dundee films not enough for you people? Anyway, enough of my strident views on Aussie attempts to frustrate such a proud Englishman as myself; I’m actually quite fond of Skippy the Kangaroo myself.

There is surely no country more sports-mad than the Aussies and no country, bar possibly Wales come the 6 Nations, more intent on beating the English at anything from tennis to tiddlywinks. Australian sporting teams come across as a meaner, leaner, more competitive cousin of their English equivalents.

In recent years, however, England have returned fire: beating the Aussies in Sydney’s Rugby World Cup final in 2003 and winning the last three Ashes series. And yet Australia’s sporting attitude is vindicated time and time again. After the first day’s play, the England camp was buoyant, Broad having taken five wickets and Australia apparently floundering on 273-8. At close of play on day two, Australia had torn through an England batting line-up featuring world-class, in-form batsmen, all-out for a pathetic 136.

Despite losing the previous Ashes series convincingly to an England team that didn’t really fire on all cylinders, the scary fact is that the Aussies don’t expect to lose this time around. The Australian press is still baying for the redemption for the pantheon of cricketing idols Warne, Ponting, McGrath, Lee and co. from 2005. They want to see Pietersen, Anderson, Cook and Swann brought crashing down to Earth in similar spectacular fashion.

All this despite the team being in relative disarray: they had to sack their coach Mickey Arthur just two weeks before the start of the Ashes series this summer and David Warner sensationally punched England opener Joe Root in a nightclub. Were the English team in such a position there would be talk of a ‘rebuilding period’ which would excuse a loss if the performance only showed some future promise.

Test match cricket is one of the greatest tests of mental strength in the world of sport. The British sporting mentality seems intent on professionalism, improvement and spirit. When it comes to grit, determination and a win-at-all-costs mentality, the British falter.

In Stuart Broad, England have a player who bucks this trend, yet we’re not sure whether he oversteps the mark: should he have walked at Trent Bridge when given not out? It was, surely, “just not cricket” to remain at the crease. Compare the case with that of ex-Australian wicket-keeper Gilchrist, who felt animosity from his own Australian team mates for walking when given not-out against Sri Lanka in 2003. I suspect Broad would have been patted on the back for good sportsmanship by the British had he walked.

Broad’s mentality paid dividends on day one: in the face of ridiculous media attention (he was dubbed ‘Stuart Fraud’ by the Brisbane Courier Mail, who are also refusing to publish his name) he took six wickets and second- top-scored with 32 runs. Despite attracting fierce opposition from the Aussie fans and players alike, in Stuart Broad Australians see themselves reflected and are proud that his fighting spirit, cocky verve and ‘sledging’ were learnt as an 18 yearold at Hoppers Crossing Cricket Club in Victoria, Australia.

England will need to find some impetus, some desire to feed upon if they are to win in Australia: ability and pedigree can only get you so far in cricket. Unfortunately for the English, Australia don’t even seem to need any other incentive than the prize of winning and the bitter disappointment of losing.

On a slightly different note, there is a sporting trend in Australia that is somewhat worrying. The Australian rugby team is seemingly in bedlam: six players were banned and nine more issued warnings for excessive drinking earlier this week. This comes with star player James O’Connor exiled with ‘the Exiles’ themselves, London Irish; first-choice fullback Kurtley Beale having gone through rehab for alcoholism earlier this year; and Sparky wing Digby Ioane was charged with assault last year. See also the aforementioned case of cricketer David Warner.

Every single one of the above issues involved alcohol. The cheery, cheeky image of laid-back Fosterstoting antipodeans has a darker side which might just be the reason that England could win the Ashes with mediocre cricket, or why the current Wallaby rugby team can’t get close to New Zealand, despite a world-class team-sheet.

While the first test hasn’t exactly gone spiffingly well for England, I hope and pray that the inner demons in Australian cricket can play a decisive role in making sure the Ashes are carried home on the sweetest of chariots.

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