First I’ll begin with a confession. When I was a teenager I used to take life too seriously. And I used to get far too worked up about sport. I used to hate Shane Warne with a passion (a very unhealthy passion), and I used to fantasise about punching Matthew Hayden in the face.
For me the Ashes was a war. It was the benevolent English against the uncouth Aussie scum. I used to despise their arrogance and their ultra aggressive approach. Every time I heard an Ian Healey sledge, or saw Tubby Taylor chewing gum at slip, my blood pressure went through the roof. And then there was Big Merv. What an idiotic Neanderthal. He seemed to belong in a cave not on a cricket field.
And then, obviously, I grew up.
In time I’ve come to realise that the real plonker was me. I cringe when I think back to my experiences down under in 1998/99, when my dislike for Aussie ‘banter’ intensified. I had a complete sense of humour failure I’m afraid.
When Michael Slater was run out at Sydney, but inexplicably given not out by third umpire Simon Awful (or was it Taufel?), I could have sworn we were the victims of a conspiracy involving Slater, T’awful, then Aussie Prime Minister John Howard, and Beelzebub himself.
It was with great interest, therefore, that I read David Warner’s pre-Ashes comments the other day:
As soon as you step on that line it’s war. You try and get into a battle as quick as you can. I try and look in the opposition’s eye and try and work out ‘how can I dislike this player … you have to delve and dig deep into yourself to actually get some hatred about them … history is a big part in this and that is what carries us onto the ground.
Although David Warner isn’t exactly known for pearls of wisdom, I still found his comments disappointing. The bit that surprised me was his reference to ‘history’. What history is he actually referring to? And at what point do things like Bodyline, and Michael Clarke telling Jimmy Anderson to expect a broken arm, supersede the great history of friendship between the UK and Australia?
I don’t want to get all sentimental and cheesy here, but a couple of years ago I visited the Menin Gate at Ypres (it’s an amazing war memorial in Belgium if you haven’t been). It’s obviously a very emotional place – the names of dead soldiers adorn the entire structure – but the bit that reduced me to tears was a section to one side that commemorated fallen Anzacs.
It struck me how incredibly sad it was that Australians (and Kiwis of course) had travelled to the other side of the world, a journey that would have taken weeks or months, just to be gunned down or blown up. What a tragic waste.
At that point I realised just how much I love Australians. Our culture is similar in many ways, we have a shared history, and we also share an enduring love of cricket. What’s more, I now realise that the banter I despised as a melodramatic student was an integral part of my formative years. It taught me a lot about people, life, and belatedly myself – mostly the fact that I needed to lighten up a bit (or a lot).
I’ve also come to realise that some of my favourite people are Australians: there’s Billy Birmingham and the Twelfth man, comedians like Adam Hills and Steve Hughes, and rugby players like Chris Latham. I even prefer Neighbours to Eastenders. The latter, just like a young me, takes itself far too seriously and just depresses everyone.
And then there was the sad death of Phil Hughes, which reminded everyone that cricket is just a game. The grief at his passing was heartfelt and widespread in the UK too. I don’t want to sound like a politician (heaven forbid!) but what unites England and Australia far exceeds what divides us.
So what’s the moral of this somewhat incoherent, slightly clichéd, and rather inelegant polemic? I guess what I’m trying to say, other than the fact that David Warner is a bit of a plonker, is that I hope emotions are kept in check during the upcoming Ashes. The world has a lot of problems and antipathy between two cricket teams hardly registers on the Richter scale.
So whether you’re a ‘Prisoner of Her Majesty’ or an ‘Aussie Bastard’, try to keep the following in mind. If the cricket gets annoying, and you feel like punching an opposing player, just remember that your anger is actually bitterness. And you’re only feeling bitter because your team is probably losing and you’re not getting your own way.
In these circumstances it’s healthy to put the petulance to one side, embrace the banter, and celebrate the fact that Australians are generally good blokes. Well, most of them anyway.