The caravan tour of the England-Australia Ashes series, spanning two hemispheres and ten Tests in the space of six months, now rolls on to Manchester’s Old Trafford ground.
The current series has so far been marked by Australian despondency over their early failures, English triumphalism, and an obsessive focus on the capability of technology to reveal what really happened accompanied by rancorous debate about player conduct. A royal baby may have appeared between Test matches to lighten the mood, but now it’s back to the serious business of sporting attrition.
The Ashes might display quaint touches of their Victorian-era origins, but sepia tones and quirky traditions cannot disguise the ruthlessness of the pursuit of victory. It may be a faux-naive question, but why should it matter so much to so many when sport - at least in its own cherished mythology - was devised first as careless pleasure and then as moral training for participants and spectators alike?
The mystery deepens when observing the apparent absurdity of sporting contests which, when reduced to their bare bones, are rather eccentric technical exercises in rule-bound physical play. As the fixation on regulating movement – in cricket achieving the status of “law” – intensifies, massive attention is focused on whether a small part of a ball or person was over a line, or whether contact between bodies was admirable play or a heinous offence. Technologies such as super slow motion cameras, Hawk-Eye, Hot Spot and Snickometer now take the finest distinctions of sporting space and time to their most excruciating limits.
The answers paradoxically lie in recognising that irrespective of the microscopic focus of coaches, conditioners, players and fans on the action, sport is plainly always about much more than the physical contest itself. Victory and loss compulsively extend beyond the field and the stadium. At stake for those who care - and even for those who are only half-watching - are communal prestige and bragging rights across suburbs, cities, regions and, especially, among nations.
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. It is not just that a country’s sporting representatives on this or previous occasions are better than another’s as measured by the scoreboard. Winning at sport can be made to symbolise a superior way of life or even imply, for the racially inclined who prefer to ignore the global circulation of sporting labour, higher-order national genetic stock. The reverse is the case for the vanquished.
Sport stubbornly stands in for something else that is bigger and more resonant than the fleeting contest. When modernity produced bounded nation states and internationalism tried to regulate cross-border military combat, sport offered the ideal fantasy war game. When large public and private media organisations developed with the explicit remit of narrating the nation - and a professional sport media industry emerged to provide them with boundless purple prose - the recipe for shadow warfare was complete.
Sportsmen, in particular, were transformed in media-speak into “warriors” and “heroes”, selflessly putting their “lives on the line” and “going into battle” on behalf of a grateful citizenry. The hyperbole that habitually attends sporting contests inflates in tandem with the expansion of the print, broadcast, online and social media complex designed to provoke and maintain interest in the often-arcane action performed by a few for the many. The exploits of those whom the sport-phobic mock as “muddied oafs” and “flannelled fools” acquire epic qualities, embodying the nation and attaching their hyper-specialised fortunes to the common weal.
This popular emotional dynamic explains why, in the long-running tragicomic series of England-Australia sporting encounters, each party strives for rhetorical advantage. For decades Australia seemed to have the edge, operating with deceptively effortless efficiency a production line of sports champions out of its abundant space, sunshine and veneer of New World classless freedom. Many English sport fans, having artfully refined the gallows humour generated by perennial failure against the “Aussies”, bought the line that the loss of Empire was the historically inevitable precursor of loss of sporting self-respect.
But now the wheel has turned. England – or more accurately Great Britain, when sporting fortunes suit – is winning the cricket and has the Wimbledon men’s tennis champion (Scot Andy Murray) and back-to-back Tour de France victors (Bradley Wiggins and Nairobi-born Chris Froome). The British and Irish Lions rugby union team, a sporting marriage of convenience involving three devolved countries, another nation state, and a post-imperial power, has recently succeeded on Australia’s home turf.
Not only did Team GB, albeit with its over-representation of successful Scots acting as mobile pro-independence models, win more medals than Australia at the London 2012 Olympic Games, but the host city trumpeted that it had eclipsed Sydney 2000 as the “best Games ever”.
Australian sport journalists and fans now feel trepidation at having to face English counterparts still flushed with unaccustomed success. The British press and the Barmy Army are exacting revenge for the lost decades of loss. There is little prospect of escape from victory or defeat, and few on either side will question how willow and cork ever became weapons of a phoney war.