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The Ashes: Australian masculinity reborn amid English tumult

Australia’s cricketing mojo has returned in this Ashes series. While effective, their methods have not always been pretty. AAP/Dave Hunt

After losing three Ashes series on the bounce and following much soul-searching about the decline of its national sporting prowess, Australia is giving England a pounding in the cricket. For many, all is right again with the world.

Recently, I sat at Melbourne Airport as Australia’s resurgent fast bowler Mitchell Johnson – the butt of some cruel humour by visiting Barmy Army fans during his erratic, neurotic last home series - terrorised the English batsmen. Many people were watching the cricket on screen, with one fellow traveller loudly proclaiming:

There is no greater pleasure than sticking it to the Poms in the cricket!

There were several murmurs of approval.

Such visceral responses to sporting contests with the former Mother Country are still common, despite Australia coming of age many decades ago.

In the dark days of the last Ashes series in England earlier this year, I wrote in The Conversation about despondent Australians and the triumphalist English, and noted then how:

Claiming as one’s own the best individuals and teams as measured by frequently narrow, even fluky victories in sport events enables ready extrapolation to other, more elusive achievements and characteristics.

The tables have indeed turned since. That series, ultimately won 3-0 by England, was misleading in its conclusiveness, caught up as it was in consecutive Australian failures against India and England, and so lending itself easily to a narrative of miserable failure.

As is often the case, the rub of the green – including the turn of the coin toss and the ill-timed opening of the skies – was against the losing team.

But the simple suggestion that a predictable reversal of fortune has occurred for two competitively close teams is too dull and lacking in drama for any media-dependent sport. Hence the search for the deeper explanation and meaning behind Australia’s Ashes renaissance.

The dominant thesis is that the Australian team has reverted to “blokey” type in aggressively inducing the mental disintegration of its opponents. An early sign of this explanation was to be found in the lampooning of England’s detailed, esoteric dietary demands.

Expecting breakfasts of “probiotic yogurt with separate bowl of fresh berries and agave nectar or honey” and lunches of “mung bean curry with spinach” was interpreted not as a sign of meticulous English planning, but as the imperious expectations of prima donna Pommy toffs.

Here the rhetorical space was opened for the return of old-style Australian cricket masculinity as represented by its no-airs-and-graces coach Darren “Boof” Lehmann and embodied in the saturnine Mitchell Johnson, who seems to be channelling his champion predecessor Dennis Lillee with his intimidatory bowling and extravagant moustache.

This overt aggression – lost for a time under the previous technocratic, high-performance management regime of player rotation and self-reflective player homework – had returned in all its animalistic hirsuteness. It found expression not just in Johnson’s bouncers and death stares and in the clubbed sixes of David Warner, but in the vigorous sledging for which Australia had been previously renowned.

Mustachioed Mitchell Johnson has returned to form, channeling 1970s Australian cricket hero Dennis Lillee. AAP/Dave Hunt

When captain Michael Clarke, who has been treated with deep suspicion by the guardians of old-style Australian maleness, was caught by an errantly live Channel Nine microphone swearing and physically threatening by proxy the voluble England fast bowler Jimmy Anderson, it became clear that the re-instatement of the argy bargy was coming from the top.

The departure from the tour on account of a long-term stress-related illness by Jonathan Trott was not officially a direct result of the sledging on the pitch and at a Warner media conference, but there were some who sotto voce described it as tactical vindication.

There has also been much praise of the metaphorical – and perhaps even physical – “return of the biff” in the tabloids, TV sport commentary and social media.

But the reinstatement of the take-no-prisoners hairiness of Australia’s male cricketers was seen by some as resonating well beyond the enclosed green swards of the nation’s cricket grounds. For example, conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen hailed the return of “good old-fashioned sledging” that is “celebrated as part of the culture” and a “throwback to the good old days” before widespread infection with the “PC [political correctness] virus”.

Albrechtsen presents cricket as a “bastion of effrontery where cheeky banter has not yet been banished as bullying”. But what is happening on the pitch is clearly rather more than a witty exchange of bon mots. It is perhaps, as European sociologists Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning have proposed, a case of increasingly “civilised” societies outsourcing violence in socially approved form to the sporting field.

If these very specific arrangements of the professional cricket match were extended across the nation, the kind of Australia that it represents – macho, malicious and merciless – would soon lose its shine for most of its people.

Australia’s cricketing mojo has returned. For now. Its methods have not been pretty, but they have been pretty effective in this Ashes series, assisted by a disoriented far-from-home opponent. The wheel will turn again in time, and with it the distribution of hubris and ignominy.

All that, though, is for another day, and those Australians who care can bask temporarily in their cricket team’s reflected glory. But if the nation is looking in its imaginary mirror for a sign of its most desirable image of the future, it will not find it in the scowling furry visage of a reborn 1970s cricket masculine archetype.

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