Last weekend saw the conclusion of the first episode of the greatest sporting rivalry in the world. This description of Australia versus England at Test cricket is no idle boast – it’s objectively measurable. It’s the longest-running continuous international contest in any sport. This current series is the 69th time that the two countries have competed for the Ashes, the counter-intuitively modest trophy awarded to the winners, since 1882.
The history of the Ashes is rich and complex, a saga-in-progress that could fill books, and indeed has. More than any other sport, cricket – by which one naturally means proper cricket, ie five-day Test cricket, as opposed to the fatuously abridged one-day form or the banal barbarism of T20 – is about more than what occurs on the field. Cricket is, among many other things, a constantly evolving contemplation of morality – not for nothing is the phrase “it’s not cricket” instantly understood in the cricket-playing world as descriptive of cynical chicanery.
Substantially for this reason, cricket has been arguably the most important vehicle of discourse between my home country of Australia and its former colonial overlord as the relationship between the two has shifted, and – one hopes – matured. The first Australian ever to become globally famous was a cricketer, and Sir Donald Bradman became globally famous largely by tormenting English bowlers of the 1930s and 1940s (to this day, the postal address of Australia’s state broadcaster, the ABC, is post office box 9994, in honour of the Don’s peerless batting average). It is plausible that the so-called Bodyline series of 1932-33, during which England attempted to restrain Bradman with dangerous head-high bowling, became as important to Australia’s fledgling national identity as federation, or Gallipoli. At the time, it was no small change for Australia’s cricket board to send cricket’s blazered panjandrums at the Marylebone Cricket Club a telegram that contained the U word: “unsportsmanlike.”
Australian and English players and fans have called each other many worse things since. But however loath either side might be to admit it, while the relationship may be rancorous on the park, it is exceptionally friendly off it, and the Ashes is part of the reason. Australia and the UK have grown apart in many respects – and will do so further when Australia inevitably sloughs off the monarchy the countries share. But as long as we keep playing cricket, we’ll stay in touch, learn from each other, recall what we have in common. Ten summers ago, Australia and England played the greatest Ashes series of all, an absorbing victory by England. At one key moment, at the end of the second Test, a rearguard batting performance by Australia faltered just short of a heroic comeback from a hopeless position. The first thought of England’s talismanic all-rounder, Andrew Flintoff, in an overwhelming moment of triumph and relief, was for his distraught opponent, Australia’s Brett Lee. The picture of Flintoff’s concerned, consoling handshake should be in every classroom in both countries.
It’s obviously not possible for every country to instantly contrive a 133-year-old sporting tradition with an ally or neighbour. But these things have to start somewhere and there is no better non-lethal means for a nation to advertise its virtues, or contemplate its vices.
Andrew Mueller is Monocle’s contributing editor.