Class divide defines this Ashes battle

‘Dougie’s Chewin’ Gum While Brearley Sucks his Plums.’

This playfully crass bit of wordplay was scrawled on a bed sheet and held aloft at one of the first international cricket matches I attended in the late 70’s.

Us versus them.

Redcoats versus convicts.

Ever thus.

Back in 1990, off the back of a couple of spring net sessions, I sauntered into the fourths at Allan Border’s alma mater, Sydney’s Mosman Cricket Club, as something of a prospect. My private school batting feats had been relatively productive at a college best known for wholesale sporting hopelessness. Fortuitous timing and a driven coach saw us assemble a decent side for once. We did pretty well. I graduated with three years’ worth of colours stamped to the pocket of a blue and gold blazer thinking I could play.

Wrong.

I opened the batting against Sutherland in my fourth grade debut. A firm straight drive off a full loosener from a sinewy, leather-skinned quick a good 15 years my senior saw me away. It bobbled across a sun-baked outfield for a sweetly struck four.

How easy was this?

Not very, I learned.

Every ball thereafter was in the bowler’s half.

I quickly became – repeatedly – a ‘snob c*nt’ (Mosman exists in a well-to-do patch of the harbour city), my mother was a whore with whom every member of the opposition’s bowling attack had taken a freebie, and my reddish hair was apparently proof of a genetic mutation that would more likely than not see me locked away for an anger-induced sex crime.

Horrid, tasteless, cruel, insane stuff.  It was constant.

On 14, after nudging a handful of ones and twos and wearing a few in the midriff in between, I skied a half-hearted pull shot to mid on and trudged off to overt commentary about my absent courage and unwillingness to fight.

The Sydney Grade cricket competition remains a fierce cauldron. Week after week, boys filter in and confront men unwilling to make way. Bullies dish out hard lessons in the manner of their father’s fathers. Young resolve is either cracked or reinforced by memories of bruised ribs and stinging barbs all playing out on some hell forsaken backblock of a ground in a suburb that only just snuck in on the last few maps of the street directory.

For a young private schooler it was a harsh introduction, one that despite the best part of a decade of grade cricket thereafter never had me feeling entirely comfortable. One that never really saw me belong.

Few private school kids thrived in that environment then. Nor do they now.

Exceptions exist, of course. Most are fleeting. Matthew Nicholson went to Knox Grammar. Brad Hodge is out of St Bede’s in Melbourne. Cranbrookian Ed Cowan tries. St Ignatian Jackson Bird may make a go of it. Of the current eleven, debutant George Bailey’s folks shucked out fees for Launceston Church Grammar and Ipswich Grammarian Shane Watson may one day look like something other than a visitor from another planet. But the exception is far from the rule both now and historically. Elite cricket in Australia is almost exclusively populated by the ruthless will of suburban worker progeny and farming sons desperately playing themselves to a better place.

The fascinating flipside, at least as far as this Summer is concerned, is the particularly toff-heavy English side the Australians confront.

Their softly spoken, impeccably neat and delightfully vowelled skipper, Alistair Cook, started his scholarly life as a chorister at St Pauls’ Cathedral School, and his prowess with clarinet – not a Gray Nicholls – saw him board at Bedford for a bit before his batting shone. Young talent Joe Root won a cricketing scholarship to Worksop College while Graeme Swann was finishing up at Sponne. Stuart Broad, meanwhile, did hard time at Oakham. Matt Prior slummed it at Brighton College while Ian Bell toughed it out at Princethorpe. The imported Kevin Pietersen spent his formative years at the mightily twee Maritzburg College in his native South Africa. Fellow import Jonathan Trott has a degree from Stellenbosch University.

Not so for our ragtag tribe. Far from.

A picture emerges.

In the wake of a brutal victory by Australia over England in the First Test, a class chasm is amplified, particularly given the spiteful and wholly personal manner in which Australia went about its business.

Enough, evidently, had become enough.

In hindsight it was naïve and arrogant for anyone to imply Australia’s first innings 290-odd was a pittance.

Runs on the board go pretty well with a head full of pent up steam.

Catching men behind square on the leg side. Throat ball after throat ball. Unbridled aggression. For once in its meek recent test history, Australia went pack-hunting. And relentlessly. Trott was moving sideways. Bell and Prior were vague and non-committal. The stoic new lad, Carberry, was worked over then worked out. Pietersen’s impatience saw him fall to thoughtlessness. Cook lost his nerve and nibbled. 135 all out.

Importantly, the Australians learned the lessons instilled by their stuttering first dig. They were stout and patient when they needed to be and nimble against the short stuff. The runs came in time.

In contrast, the English, learned nothing at second bite. Cook aside, England batted – most unusually, it must be said – without any real hope or plan. Tellingly, when Stuart Broad tickled a Johnson steepler to Haddin in the long shadows of the game’s last evening, he didn’t bother to rehearse his evasive skills after his wicket had fallen. Instead he rehearsed the exact same shot that saw him dismissed.

As victory neared, excitement boiled over. Feisty English swingman Jimmy Anderson weighed in. Clarke wagged a finger. Johnson fumed. Watson, Siddle and Bailey played along. This Australian side have been fruitlessly close a lot lately. The moment got the better of them. Even though two of the major participants, Bailey and Anderson, appeared to laugh it all off, people bemoaned a lack of sportsmanship. One wonders why. It’s said Anderson threatened to snot George Bailey. Clarke’s retort, however crude, simply emphasised the obvious: that Johnson was bowling bloody fast in fading light, James, and there might be more important things on which he might consider concentrating – that is less on Bailey’s jaw and more on the ball. Still, in the wake  retaliatory bile spewed in from the Old Dart on social media. Convicts this. Convicts that. Bad losers. Bad winners. Etcetera. 

In their heart – my view – the English don’t really like Australians a whole heap. We are begrudgingly tolerated in between sporting contests. Otherwise we are vulgar and boorish, callous and primitive. Mostly, though, we are lesser. Considerably so. These are stereotypes that stick. Some are right. Most are wrong.

Conversely, Australians don’t really dislike anyone much. If anything we are too eager to please. But we do despise snobbery. Stare down your nose at us long enough and we seethe. So too affording the goose less than the gander.

Therein a few carryovers from the last Ashes series. For all the inflammatory talk of Broad’s non-walk, it was his additional and deliberate time wasting and his team’s habit of rotating substitute players on and off again that ruffled Australian feathers most. There’s fair enough, and then there’s barely fair. These frustrations accumulate. Equally aggravating was England’s predilection for tailoring low, slow turners. Spin had brought us hopelessly undone in India, and without pace, and with Swann lobbing them in dusty footmarks,  patience was required. Young batsmen lack the nerve for it. A trap was predetermined for our impetuous newbies. For a nation whose cricket grounds have by and large maintained their distinctive personalities, this was a slight. It was taking the piss. And these memories are fresh.

Motivating irritants occur off-field too. For years now the Australians have endured the taunts of English in the outer. Unsurprisingly, these taunts grew in volume as England’s dominance became a habit. But the goodwill afforded the interminable Barmy Army has to a large extent dissolved. These days it resembles a money-spinning franchise more interested in offering free mercy to early-bird bookers, its modus operandi lost in a fog of excessively swilled over-priced beer and bellicose, spiteful sloganeering founded in a base-level social superiority. But what once was inspired is tired. What once was admired, even envied, is lost. The Army is a fat, loud, opinionated uncle who didn’t bother bringing a gift to Christmas lunch and ate all the ham while he was there.

Everything has an end date. We did. The departures of Hayden, Langer, Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hussey, and latterly, Ponting, have ensured it.

Perhaps England’s turn comes now? Have we seen it’s first steps backwards?

Have they had their fill? Do they still care enough? How will they respond?

Being hunted can’t be pleasant. And these convict types are so unpredictably unruly. Fetch the tea-lady, will you. We’re out of cream.

This summer will be ruthless. Tempers will flare. They already have. It’s one thing for our skipper to threaten a broken arm – if Johnson keeps this up, we may well see one. And whilst Warner’s public assertions as to Trott’s ‘weakness’ under fire were incredibly ugly, they were also true in a sense. Trott lost his way. With hindsight, we now know why. Slapping the establishment out of a self-satisfied slumber with ‘as it is’ honesty is often the Australian way. It’s one thing for Alistair Cook and Andy Flower to denounce a lack of respect for a besieged fellow professional – an admirable thing, particularly in the unfortunate circumstances – but against a background of their own kind openly pushing the boundaries of cricketing unsociability, well, the message seems a little wet. One has had one’s own way for a time, but one can’t have one’s own way forever. Reality bites, perhaps.

Australia’s batting remains more than a concern, but our tail is made of strong stuff and our better-than-good bowling has now added violence to its CV. England is carrying a keeper/batsman, has problems at three, an out of sorts offie and issues with its third seamer. England also hasn’t scored over 375 against us in its last six tests. Still, it retains Cook, Pietersen, Bell, Broad and Anderson, matchwinners all.

The gap is closing between two combative teams. But now what’s left of it now reeks not so much of a talent void but one defined by a class partition. Is the desire to maintain a stranglehold on the upper social rungs greater than the desire to raze such distinctions?

We shall see soon enough.

Riches versus ragtag.

Sun versus drizzle.

Mahogany versus jarrah.

It’s the kind of narrative Australians embrace when it comes to their cricket, one that is natural. One that has been lacking. It will make for a compelling few months.

Win or lose from here, the home side has waved a stern finger in the face of it’s oldest foe. They shall chew their gum unapologetically. And they might even force-feed ‘em a few plums while they do.

All for the tourists to ponder as they work towards a wholly unappealing tour game in the red dust of Alice Springs later this week.

Thirty five degrees there at the moment. Not quite midday.

[NOTE: the bulk of this piece was written before news of Jonathan Trott’s unexpected departure from the tour. Naturally, cricket lovers everywhere wish Trott well, myself included. He has been a wonderful servant of English cricket, a fabulously resolute presence, and I hope he continues on. As a professional sportsman his basic urge must have been to stick around, ‘stiff upper lip’ it, to hang tough. To his eternal credit he was smarter and braver than that and he sought help when it was needed. Good luck to him.]

About mattwebberwrites

I write about sport and other things. I'm a dad and a husband. I regularly do the broadcast thing on 91.7 ABC Gold Coast. I like weird guitars and wacky fuzz pedals. My tweet to follower ratio is poor, but improving. The St Kilda Football Club is my seductress. She kills me daily. Surfing helps.
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4 Responses to Class divide defines this Ashes battle

  1. Peter Dunn says:

    you da man MV – nice wrap

  2. chrisps says:

    Vivid, compelling – best read of the Ashes series. Hope you’ll be blogging regularly as the series unwinds.

    It might be worth noting that the English (if I can speak for the nation’s cricket followers) haven’t felt dominant in Ashes contests in the last 8 years, just relieved to be winning and thrusting to the back of their minds the inevitable Aussie comeback. Those 16 years did a lot of damage to our confidence.

  3. I only just noticed your comment. Thank you so much for the kind words and for taking the time to read. Matt

  4. Pingback: A select XI: cricket blog posts of 2013 | Declaration Game cricket blog

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