Friday, January 05, 2007

The second best thing about sport

England were pulverised on the fourth day of the Sydney Test as the Australia juggernaut swept to a 10-wicket win.

The resultant 5-0 whitewash was the first since 1920-21.

There was something obscene about the nature of this Ashes whitewash. Whitewash! Stop all the clocks, pack up the moon and dismantle the sun – the unthinkable has happened!

England have had much worse players playing much worse cricket against Australia in the last 87 years, but still have never contrived to lose 5-0. It is really very difficult to win or lose five consecutive Test matches against anybody.

So let us not dwell on England’s ‘reasons for defeat’ – the poor preparation, the injured captain etc. This was not about England, this was about Australians, and the Australian psyche.

When England won the Ashes for the first time in 16 years in the summer of 2005, we were wild with joy. This was partly because we won, and we hadn’t won for a long time. But it was also because the series was such a great sporting epic. England were the better team, but they were only just the better of two great teams. Every Test was a nail-biter. Shane Warne became almost as popular as the England players for his valiant efforts. The image of Andrew Flintoff consoling opponent Bret Lee was the symbol of the summer.

We didn’t annihilate Australia. We raced them in a marathon and after 26 miles we won it on a photo-finish. That’s what prompted the unprecedented joy, the ticker-tape parades, the MBEs.

Australians don’t see it that way. They live to win, and above all, to win over England. The Poms, the stuck-up older brothers, the stuffy parents. They lost the Ashes and even a photo-finish loss will hurt them far more than a thrashing can ever hurt us.

So they wanted to murder this team. To annihilate them, humiliate them, to mercilessly crush them, to bury them and dance on the grave: to do the unthinkable, the obscene, the pornographic horrorshow – the whitewash. And because this Australia team comprises the best set of cricket players ever, and is the most bloodthirsty team ever, they did it.

All of which brings me back to a piece written by my favourite sports writer, Simon Barnes, back in May:

SOME will tell you that sport is all about winning. Have nothing to do with such people. Winning is not the only thing in sport. There is also, for example, losing. Losing is one of the most important things in sport, and people do it all the time, and in a thousand different ways. You can lose gloriously, dramatically, heroically, unluckily, abjectly, humiliatingly, defiantly, haplessly.

You can lose by a street, by a distance, a canvas, a short head, a knockout, on points. You can be hammered, trounced, beaten out of sight. You can be edged out, beaten by the narrowest of margins. You can be beaten and hang up your boots/gloves/bat/racket; you can be beaten and take a lot of positives from this.

But it all adds up to the same common experience of sport: not winning.

Take Wimbledon. The men’s and women’s singles each begin with 128 competitors. After the first round, half of them are already losers. That’s 64 athletes wiped out at a stroke: beaten, stuffed, trounced, second-best. By the time they have played the final, the number of losers has risen to 127. How can winning possibly be the only thing when so many people in sport quite patently are not doing it? Steve Archibald famously said that team spirit is an illusion glimpsed in victory. The idea that winning is the only thing is the same kind of illusion.

But we repress the idea of losing. So much of the sporting experience is about anticipation: the sort of things we might do, when it all begins. And in anticipation, we are all champions, and the teams we follow and cheer for and cherish are always unbeatable. Until, of course, we are beaten.

Defeat is the sporting experience that dare not speak its name. Defeat is the thing that keeps us coming back: for when victory is certain, where is the joy? A mismatch brings no pleasure to the winner, and we call such victories hollow. The United States Dream Team basketball sides of the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympic Games were no fun, not even to Americans, just a tautological demonstration of American global supremacy.

Victory is not much of a dish unless it is seasoned with the possibility of defeat. And even when teams or individuals dominate for a sustained period of time, we know that defeat will get them in the end. It always does: Steve Davis, Pete Sampras, Wigan, West Indies, Liverpool, Manchester United, Australia. Defeat is thrilling, defeat is intoxicating, defeat is the most exciting thing in sport, apart, that is, from winning.

.... Last summer, England won the Ashes, and the joy of the victory sprang from almost 20 years of unbroken defeat by Australia, and intermittent defeat by practically everybody else. Without that history of defeat, victory would have been far less sweet. Defeat is a constituent part of sporting joy.

We are as hooked on defeat as we are on victory. Sport would not be sport without misery, without despair, without hopelessness. Victory is for wimps: it is in defeat that the true spirit of sport is to be found.

Welcome home, boys. Welcome home.


Anonymous said...

A perfect summary of the situation.

It was obvious from the start that Australia would only be satisfied with a total humiliation of the English team.

The English spirit is dignified in defeat and, as you illustrate, generous in victory. This maturity has yet to be acquired by our former colonies!

Brit said...

That's our story and we're sticking to it.

To be fair, we've had a lot more practice at losing than the Australians.

Peter Burnet said...

Umm, did you folks ever stop to consider that the robust and resilient response to this kind of thing might be to focus on improving your cricket rather than dwelling on the inferior manners of those that crushed you?

You sound a bit like Canadian Olympic athletes who, as we all watch the Yanks take one gold after another, go on national TV to insist that although eighth place was a bit of a disappointment, they were thrilled just to be there and have a chance to beat their "personal bests".

Anonymous said...

If you really want to tick Brit off, ask him about the British Navy needing to get some practice at being beaten by the French Navy.

Brit said...

The British Navy has traditionally been outnumbered on the seas.

It's quality that counts.

Brit said...


Strangely, we have. We're the second best Test team in the world - when only just over 10 years ago we were officially the worst. English cricket has rarely been stronger and has improved unrecognisably in every area, from the structure of the national team to the grass-roots talent-growing, compared to how it was in the 1990s, when the Aussies simply outclassed us.

The Aussies didn't outclass us this time. They just murdered us.

Brit said...

I just got this one posted on The Times Ashes blog.

Next step, Pulitzer.