It’s a state of affairs you would scarcely have imagined a generation or two ago. England’s rugby team are in disgrace. England’s football team are in the doldrums. But England’s cricketers – flawless and heroic – are world champions.
If you grew up, like I did, in the 1980s, you naturally assumed that our cricket side would forever be little more than a joke. The England XI were a byword for incompetence and under-achievement – a metaphor for national decline and decay.
Meanwhile, the footballers seared themselves into the national consciousness with epic semi-final near-misses in 1990 and 1996. And the rugby players – defeating Australia, of all nations, in the final – lifted the world cup.
Now the wheel has turned. Fabio Capello’s team were humiliated in South Africa and are now stuttering their way, limply, through the Euro qualifiers. Martin Johnson’s egg-chasers had a nightmare in the world cup – useless on the pitch, and embarrassing off it. But Andy Flower’s boys aren’t merely on a superb and sustained winning streak – they’re ultra-professional, immaculately behaved, and peerless role models.
But before we get too self-satisfied and smug, as cricket followers, it’s worth remembering how fickle both the press and public can be. You’re only ever as good as your last result.
England’s cricketers have done so ridiculously well over the last two years that, inevitably, a reverse or disappointment will soon occur. That’s the nature of sport. And sooner or later, someone will get into a pedalo, drunk, and make a fool of themselves. When this happens, the headline writers will forget about all the success, and talk instead about arrogance and complacency.
In the 1990s – perhaps the darkest decade in recent memory – our cricket team were never quite as bad as people made out. We beat South Africa, drew twice with a strong West Indies, and reached a world cup final.
In the same way, the rugby side didn’t really play quite as dreadfully in New Zealand as the pundits say. The off-pitch misadventures – talking to a girl in a nightclub, jumping off a ferry – would have been entirely overlooked had the results been better.
In football, although England could only struggle to a draw with Montenegro, they’ve still qualified for Euro 2012. Assuming they get through the group stage, they’d only need to win three matches to actually win the entire tournament – and if they did, I doubt you’d see anything about cricket in the papers for months.
For now, let’s enjoy our cricketers’ spell in the limelight, as indisputably England’s finest national sports side. But I think we’d all prefer it not to last too long. Cricket people – especially in England – feel uncomfortable about acclaim and status. It doesn’t seem quite right. We’d much rather be in the slipstream, plodding along, and leaving the hyperbole and hysteria to the kind of sports who wear it much more naturally.