Ashes Poetry - cricket

PLEASE GO TO for all content here, and Ashes Poetry 2009 in England. Ta

David Fine, Ashes poet in residence in Australia 2006-7

England vs Australia.
Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney 2006-2007

To comment and find out more, especially about npower Ashes Poetry 2009, please e-mail - G'day!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Adelaide Post Mortem

The analysis of a body in order to establish cause of death, and thereby prevent similar recurrences

“Like medieval royals with syphilis, they went suddenly mad… But the real crumbling was in the English minds.”

So wrote Greg Baum in Wednesday's Sydney Morning Herald

I took this to start my sonnet The English Disease in Requiem for Duff Batting.

Four days on from Tuesday 5th December, Adelaide is pretty well free of English smarting and Aussies smiling under the halo and yoke of victory and defeat. The world moves on. So must I.

Unlike the other entries I’ve separated the poems from the talk. The enormity of England’s self-inflicted failure means the poems speak for themselves.

This talk is about context. It’s close to three thousand words long, a detailed exposé of cause and effect that stretch far beyond the bounds of cricket. Pour yourself a long cool one if in Australia (Adelaide’s 42 degrees – about 110 in old money) or a good cuppa tea if in the ‘old country.’ (just above zero, 42 degrees old money.)

Of course it’s only a game. As I write people in Victoria are about to flee their homes in face of bush-fires. Beyond these shores the Bush/Blair Alliance is under fire for the troops under fire in Iraq. This is the breaking news, life and death stuff, and cricket is only a game.
Nonetheless it’s in our psyche. Just received a round-robin e-mail from

“If, like England's defence of The Ashes, your weekend is in danger of going up in smoke…”

The reason we invest emotionally in supporting sport is because it is the imaginary beloved. I’ve borrowed the phrase from Michael Ignatieff:-

‘Great writing is private: it issues from an intensely inner dialogue with the imaginary beloved. And the imaginary beloved is language itself. A true writer is fundamentally in love with language, ultimately for the sake of language itself.’
Michael Ignatieff London Review of Books 6 February 1997, page 14

A true sports fan is in love with sport, ultimately for the sake of sport itself, the imaginary beloved.... They may well ignore any connection to a greater world outside the game – hence the critical importance of C L R James’ Beyond The Boundary, which did the exact opposite by relating caribbean cricket to their islands and colonial past.

For true sports fans, sport is an extraordinary fantasy that is reality that is safe, so it can be overloaded with emotional investment inappropriate to ordinary life. No different to a novel or film, which helps create a fantasy from marks on the page or screen, again invoking emotions outside everyday ranges – from Lord of the Rings to Silence of The Lambs. Talking of novels, Nick Hornby captures the sporting beloved in Fever Pitch, where the hero, an Arsenal supporter and a bit of prat, (not just because he’s a Gooner) has to decide between Highbury and his girlfriend. Most sports fiends find the novel tedious, because they already know what is it to be a fan, and made countless similar decisions. Fever Pitch isn’t for them, the converted and the damned. It’s for those of us who aren’t sports nuts. We become engrossed, a novel’s primary duty; to live vicariously the life of another, even if a Gooner. To know what it is to be sports mad without being so insane.

This is why all sports fans are victims, most of all of themselves, but we’ll come to that another time.

Occasionally the imaginary beloved gets out of hand…..

Old Trafford Triptych 1st Day 2nd Test England vs Pakistan 2006


from 90 for 2 to 119 all out
is disaster or elation depending
where you’re sitting

four Pakistani lads hold the row ahead
their silver starred moon
marks hats, shirts and faces
against the rub of the green

You’re taking it well, I say
You’re playing well,
they reply

morsels of solace exchanged,
they offer fruit, cakes, pringles

We should share food, they say

i think of fatwah, al Qaeda,
Iraq, Lebanon and five hundred arrests
in Bolton after Engerland
lose on penalties in Germany

food and sorrows, i reply

Two things. England did play well. Harmison with bounce and lift was lethal.

More relevant I was able to relate the game to the wider world. I also wrote a poem about England’s World Cup this English summer…..

The Red Flag of Courage

not waving but drowning
in the sea of expectation,
countless pennants woven
from synthetic yarns of hope
bound taut by ligaments of owen
to the polar bones in rooney’s foot.

the longer the journey,
the more they fray
and flag against
Is this too much to bear for a nation
’s daily trips from here to basra
and a christmas kickabout
between trenches on the western front?

the lads did their best.

Clearly not true for England in the morning at the Adelaide Oval Tuesday 7 December, where the lads failed even to perform. Why?

Though Greg Baum’s dead-on that the real crumbling was in the English minds, as is Duncan Fletcher that the batting was the let-down, it has nothing to do with cricket.

Forget dodgy lbw decisions, queried selections, long injury list, dropped catches…England weren’t there on Tuesday.

Marv Levy, a great American Football coach, and a great American, coined the phrase ‘Where would you rather be, than right here, right now?’

This is generally taken to refer to fans, to come to the shrine of their imaginary beloved. It applies equally to players. You have to be there, want to be there in order to be focused, never mind in the zone. Last Tuesday England weren’t.

They had assumed the draw. They were already on their way to West Australia. It isn’t all over until the fat lady sings, but psychologically they had packed their bags, upped sticks and left even before she gargled ahead of breakfast. All their bodies had to do was turn up and bat a bit. Go through the motions. Even the Barmy Army didn’t show before lunch. Why?

You must remember that England hadn’t just batted well in the first innings. They had continued the form shown in the second innings at Brisbane. The answer isn’t because we aren’t any good, nor we don’t mind losing, even against Australians. It goes deeper.

Francis Wheen in The Adelaide Review 25 November suggests we’re "more accustomed to honorable failure, and last year’s Ashes win was a shock to the English psyche" – and to the Australians’. Francis is half-right. It goes way deeper.

We Brits prefer anticipated outcomes. We don’t complain to the source of the complaint, because ‘it won’t do any good’ or as my mother-in-law says ‘it’ll get us into trouble.’ Instead we moan about poor railways, restaurants, service, weather and anything else substandard amongst ourselves rather than go back to the cause. The epithet whinging poms becomes deserved.

Likewise success. Every four years we anticipate winning the World Cup. This summer England was awash with the flags of Saint George. 10,000,000 were bought in June to stick on cars. One for every fifth person or about two per car. In June we holidayed on the French/Italian riviera. Saw no flags and just one shirt – Italia 90 on an old tractor driver in the hills probably unaware of what he was wearing. France and Italy played out the World Cup Final

The weight of anticipation helps lead to failure. Which means of course you don’t lose when you do. ‘I knew we weren’t going to make it.’ More generally it leads to inherent conservatism, because if the anticipated outcome is potential change, no one’s too worried if it doesn’t happen. It isn’t just complacency, which is laziness with an extra syllable. Complacency is a symptom of this curious Anglo-Saxon amalgam of arrogance, apathy, obedience and unquestioning same-old, same-old. It drives me, or anyone interested in radical achievement, nuts.

When we do win, when something changes, the anticipated outcome switch means that we assume we always will win what we’ve just won. The World Cup, the Rugby World Cup, the Ashes…..the Olympic Games….

Here are some examples of anticipated successes turned failures –

• British Expeditionary Force in France 1940 – thought they’d wipe the floor with the Wermacht, with or without the French. Failed, but interestingly Dunkirk became an excuse to label the worst-ever British Army campaign in Europe as a noble triumph against the odds.

Tory party election loss in 1945. Churchill thought it was in the bag.

British Motor Industry collapse from 1960s. Anticipated orders would remain the same whatever product quality compared to competitors.

• 1990s home ownership boom-crash. Anticipated investment returns led to unsustainable property price rises – Proudan said ‘Property is theft.’ Mortagees robbed themselves blind.

Examples of less anticipated successes not capitalised upon are harder to find. Within sporting fields

• The Olympic hockey team Gold Seoul 1988

• Redgrave et al’s rowing triumphs has led to few new clubs or widening of rowing as a sport

• relative decline of elite athletic performance from 1980-1992 despite, or maybe because of lottery funding (“I’m a lottery-funded elite athlete, therefore I’m special, therefore I can win, therefore I’ve won.”) After winning gold in Athens after a USA fumble the men’s relay team’s subsequent ability to drop it may well be because they’ve already made the change and won the race in their heads before it finishes in fact.

As a counter example ('counter' in both senses of the word) the Campaign For Real Ale in Britain is a capital unanticipated success Australia would do well to emulate given the quality of what they call beer.

Outside the sports and drinks arena, the most damning example is the stalled White Hot Technological Revolution, part of Harold Wilson’s 1964 Labour Party manifesto.

At the time Britain led the world in computing and information technology. The new administration was prepared to invest heavily to capitalise on this. Tony Benn was the Minister responsible. His diaries of the time are illuminating. Calls in the Permanent Secretary to make it crystal clear his first priority is to take the Queen’s head from the postage stamps. The diary entry ends something like ‘At first they failed to understand, but I’ve no doubt they appreciate I mean business.’ Reading between the lines you can hear the Sir Humphrey ‘Yes, Minister’ chuckles behind the other side of the door.

Don’t get me wrong, I like and admire Tony Benn. My sort of political stance; clear and cogent analyst and speaker, but don’t ever ask him to get anything done. He couldn’t even manage a press-up in a multigym. An intellectual, in other words.

Have you spotted both Benn and the Permanent Secretary playing the Anticipated Outcomes game? Benn anticipates beheading the Queen from the stamps, the Permanent Secretary counter-anticipates its retention. Neither of them tackle the quintessential matter at hand, the white-hot technological revolution, because that too is an anticipated outcome, dealt with in less than a paragraph beforehand, and then failure comes as something of a surprise that, because nothing has been done, not even removing the Queen’s head from the stamps, the funding disappears. Had Tony Benn knew which digit to pull out, the UK would still be a global force in computing. I roundly curse his ineptitude every time Microdross programming gets in my hair.

Anticipated Outcomes is a cornerstone of the USA and UK special relationship. Technological and industrial mighty US of A believe they can do anything anywhere. An anticipated outcome UK are happy to follow and bide by as all roads lead to Beruit if not Damascus.

What’s this to do with cricket and the Ashes? England’s win last year was a shock to the Aussies too. It hurt, it bloody hurt. You saw that in Brisbane, where Ponting went out of his way to try and not just beat but annihilate England, (a plan that could’ve gone wrong big time had it rained and/or Flintoff, Collingwood and Pietersen not played strokes beneath their quality.)

The Aussies don’t do anticipated outcomes. If they anticipate anything it is the here and now. In sport that’s always where they want to be, right here, right now.

Instead of anticipated outcomes they realise desires – like Camra with a good pint.

In terms of Adelaide, they didn’t just anticipate a draw, they wanted to win. Two quick wickets and their desire was realisable. Realising desires vs. anticipated outcomes? No contest.

Realising desires has driven the Green Baggies since at least 1987. Alan Border hated losing the Ashes. When he became captain his desire to regain and never lose them again has been passed down the line though Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. In all their winning series, they realised their desires, the isolated occasional test win by England at a series end more a post-coital aberative smoke.

The clash of anticipated outcomes against realising desires usually has one winner, hence Australia’s domination of the Ashes since 1930. Bodyline relied on anticipated outcomes. England anticipated Bradman making a shedload of runs, and figured on stopping him. No Englishman considered playing the realising desires hand of ‘We’ll still beat them however many runs Bradman makes.’ It’s interesting that aside from skill and desire, Bradman listed five qualities for sporting achievement – dignity, integrity, courage, determination and modesty. In their first innings at Adelaide England displayed all these, in their second, Collingwood apart, none. They didn’t need to because, that’s right, they’d anticipated their outcome of a draw.

Okay, you’re saying, how come England are defending the Ashes?

Their success last year relies on a supermarket chief.

At the end of the last century in the face of being whipped by everyone apart from Bangladesh, only because they hadn’t started playing test cricket, Lord MacLaurin as the ECB chair initiated the MacLaurin Plan. It took forever to get it past the counties, who were still entrenched in the land of anticipated outcomes, but its vision of the best team in the world by the end of this decade, together with the structures to continue this dominance was a realistic desire, just as taking Tesco from a contender to the supermarket dominator trousering every third high street pound was achievable. Unlike Tony Benn, MacLaurin is a doer. At grass roots upwards cricket in England is more wholesome and healthy than any produce you buy in Tescos.

Things fell apart through winning the Ashes last summer. ‘We’ve beaten the Australians, they're the best, we’re the best, and wins evermore are just another anticipated outcome.’

Series lost and drawn against Pakistan and Sri Lanka which should have been won demonstrate otherwise. That was just the loosening the wheels. They came off major-league last Tuesday in Adelaide. Had Australia retained the Ashes last year, losing how England did four days ago does become inconceivable.

Can I rest the difference between Australia and England attitudes on a few false strokes on the cricket field? And do I need to explain those strokes by pointing to the differences between national attitudes?

I’d be the first to admit there is more to the cricket story. Too many and not enough games; too much exposure and too much protection to and from the media; the lure of money rather than just success – which brings money in its wake - dominating the ECB directives ….. These will have to wait for another day.

However, ask yourself has what I’ve said here explain the otherwise inexplicable collapse of England last Tuesday?

I rest my case in the eyes of Australians. When we lost at Brisbane, I received a phone message from an Aussie which went “I shan’t pretend to commiserate; we like to beat the shit out of you bastards.” Desires realised, message received, normal service resumed.

After Adelaide it was different. Forget the Ponting-Warne induced media hype of this being this team’s greatest ever victory. That’s just to keep the poms down. Great victories are when both sides strive to their best in the heart of the contest. England defeated themselves. Capitulated. Since Tuesday the eyes of Australians have carried this strange look, a tinge sheepish, a scintilla of a thinnest edge from embarrassment….

A Sense of Guilt At Winning All Too Easily

In the unwritten book of how to play sports the Australian way,
realising desires purely through ineptitude of others isn’t quite fair.
They like a fight, have a go, give it a burl, work for their victory,
especially against the old colonial masters of understatement,
sang-froid, playing straight and back down the line.

When dear old England implodes like a pack of cards
without being touched, the Aussies aren’t sure what to do
‘We didn’t beat you fair and square, because you did that for us.
That must hurt, more than us rubbing it in, because it’ll keep hurting
for a long long time. We almost feel sorry for you bastards.’

How does the body of England revive itself for Perth? Come back from the dead?

Whoever’s picked need to be different players. They need to believe they have already lost the Ashes, and the only way to win them back is find the desire to thrash the heart out of the Australians. Technically demanding but impossible without that desire.

Realise desires. Far more potent than anything else Australian?