Now this is how to write about cricket: From this week’s Grauniad, a quite excellent post from their Aussie Blogger:
Australia’s darkest hour shows no sign of dawn
Aaron Timms ,
Guardian Online Monday 22nd July 2013
Around 11pm, Sydney time, last Friday, a hush fell over my Facebook news feed. Throughout the first Test, just a week previously, the feed had rocked to a chorus of self-made Australian cricket opinionators, ready to make their case as to why, variously, Marais Erasmus is the most inappropriately named wise man of cricket in history, Ashton Agar could find work in menswear catalogues if his career as a spinning all-rounder falls through, and Ed Cowan should be taken out into the desert, on a Tuesday, without a compass, and told to find his way back to the Australian first XI.
But on Thursday, the second day of this, Australia’s Costa Concordia Test, things were different. There were some jabs early on as Australia mopped up the England tail, a few pokes into the figurative mid-off of fate-tempting triumphalism as Shane Watson notched the first couple of his regulation six boundaries per innings; and then silence. Wickets fell, the good ship Australia lurched skyward then jack-knifed below the surface, and the feed went dead. If last rites were being read for Australia’s hopes of regaining the Ashes, they were being read in a very, very soft voice.
Australia, as a nation, has now entered totally foreign waters: we are genuinely mediocre at Test cricket. Not embarrassingly mediocre, all things considered; just regular-mediocre, England-in-the-90s mediocre, New Zealand-mediocre. And we spectators have no idea how to take it. When you’re staring down the barrel of an Ashes whitewash and you’ve just lost six on the trot for the first time since Peter Sleep was being paid to try and figure out how his arms work, what is the correct posture for the self-pitying Australian sports fan to strike? Do you go for gallows humour? Do you switch off the TV, retreat into a dark corner with your laptop and YouTube and play The Ball of the Century, on loop, until dawn breaks? Do you get angry? Do you try to refashion yourself as a gracious, post-nationalist aesthete, complimenting the English on a fine showing and lauding the universal beauty of their game, no matter how much it goes against type and makes you feel, just for one moment, like a peripheral character in a Biggles novel written into the plot purely as a vessel for the expression of sham Empire-era principles of fair play? We don’t know how to do this.
During Australian cricket’s regal era, for spectators, there was a protocol to follow: you sat back, folded your arms, and watched the slaughter unfold with an expression of calm, unbroken smugness. Now the smugness is all on the other side. As Joe Root applied the Full Boycott in the second session of the third day, I switched over from Channel Nine to the BBC (thanks, internet), where I found Andrew Strauss and David Lloyd deep in discussion about the size of the sash windows in the fabled Long Room of the Lord’s Pavilion. When English commentators are so bored they’re allowing the telecast of an Ashes Test to devolve into an episode of Antiques Roadshow, you know there’s something profoundly wrong with Australian cricket.
True, we’ve had dark days before. The 1980s weren’t great. But at least in the 1980s we had AB, a buccaneering one-day side, control of cricket’s guiding cultural narrative, and the excuse of apartheid to fall back on for the decimation of our Test fortunes. There was hope; Australian cricket was quite discernibly on an upward trajectory, even if it had to pass through Greg Ritchie along the way. Now what do we have?
Well, we have the Argus Review, of course. But what has the Argus Review given us? Some arcane arguments over selection panel jurisprudence and the opportunity to laugh at its comically deluded performance targets (T20 world champions in 2012, No1 Test team in the world by 2015). In the meantime, we’ve seen our incumbent spinner dropped for little good reason, an olive branch extended to David Warner after he failed to punch Joe Root, and a majestically composed century from the latter just a few weeks later. Root and branch: that’s everything the Argus Review was meant to be, with none of the intended outcomes.
True, there were small shards of hope to be salvaged among the wreckage at Lord’s. As a team, Australia successfully took the 10-Test Ashes series all the way into a ninth day. That’s no small feat. Individual performances stood out, too. One Australian opener took a full toss from Graeme Swann straight to the eponymous rogers, and though he was later given out bbw (balls before wicket), incorrectly as it happens, he didn’t flinch even once. Clearly, the Argus Review’s vision of an Australian team puddling along in the lower reaches of the world rankings but manned with a roster of low-scoring veterans with testicles of steel is coming to fruition. The Baggy Green are in decline; behold the rise of the Dented Box. The Invincibles have given way to The Unwinceables.
In the second innings, we were treated, during that false twilight when Michael Clarke and Usman Khawaja threatened to carry certain fourth day defeat into certain fifth day defeat, to some pearly examples of the Khawaja pull, a shot of pleasantly meaty-armed authority in an Australian batting line-up whose strongest unifying thread is the stance of fear. Khawaja has the look about him of a Test batsman; it’s just a shame that, for now at least, he has the batting average about him of a man ready to take the step up from schoolboy to grade cricket. Time didn’t work for Nathan Lyon; let’s hope it will work for Khawaja.
It won’t, of course. Cricket Australia ceased operating as a centre for sporting excellence, possessed with the qualities of patience and consistency needed to rebuild the country’s cricket fort, years ago; today it is primarily useful as a triage centre for the management of Twitter fights. Sunday’s reaction to Steven Warner’s abusive tweet was illustrative; as Australia’s cricketing pride crumbled, the main concern from the boffins at CA seemed to be to control the fallout from David Warner’s brother tweeting about – actually, I can’t even remember what it was about, because I lost interest in the story before it had even finished happening.
It was the same with the tweet about the Steven Smith catch from CA’s own Twitter account, in which it was claimed that the third umpire’s not-out decision “sucked ass” (a rendering that says everything about the decline of Australian toughness; can you imagine a guy like Steve Waugh stooping to spell the word “arse” “ass”?). CA immediately dashed off a statement to announce an “investigation” into the “matter”, as if there weren’t countless other more obvious matters in need of investigation in Australian cricket (Matter 1: why does our batting suck?). The logic seems to be: forget working on shot selection, let’s just focus on getting the tweets right.
Cricket Australia is now less a national cricketing body than a single-client social media agency. You can already see how our preparation for the third Test will unfold, with PR hacks flapping about the back of the nets and getting wiggy at the thought of Jackson Bird choosing the wrong avatar, David Warner’s brother’s mate’s girlfriend slipping up on the spelling of a particularly precious trending hashtag, or an injudicious retweet from Ashton Agar’s mum. No Brad, don’t MT that! These aren’t the priorities of a cricketing culture with hope. They’re the idiot dance of a country without a clue.
There’s a temptation to think that this defeat, so abject and forlorn, will be remembered as one of Australian cricket’s darkest hours for years to come. But virtually every hour is a dark one in Australian cricket now; darkness holds nothing but the promise of more darkness. This was no less abject than any of the defeats in India, the embarrassments of the last Ashes series, or countless other capitulations stretching back into the mid-2000s. The devastation of Australia’s cricket team is matched only by the confusion of its supporters. Both are looking for light at the end of the tunnel. But on present form, it will be a generation before Australia even finds the tunnel.