Tuesday 28 December 2010

Were you still up for Mike Hussey, Lord Tebbit?

So England must return once more to the MCG to polish off Australia like a plate of Christmas leftovers, to take the final three wickets they need to retain the Ashes in Australia for the first time in a generation.

I found a pretty good strategy for watching this overnight holiday Test staying with my wife`s family out here in deepest Essex. Try to stay up until lunchtime in Australia at 1.30am - which means Test Match Special on the radio, the Guardian's brilliant online over-by-over riffs on the contest and tweeting can all be deployed as tactics to help ward off sleep. And then to rendevous with my father-in-law sometime before 7am to catch up with the trigger finger on the magic digibox, as long as all radio and internet communications could be suspended until close of play in mid-mornimg. The middle order came under pressure as our 18 month old opted to start the daytime session not long after 5am on the first two days but we held on for a famous victory.

So it was that, in an idle moment just before dawn, I wondered how well Norman Tebbit was passing the cricket test he once famously, or infamously, set.

Were you still up for Mike Hussey, Lord Tebbit?

Old Norman has now - at the Telegraph - established himself as among the sparkiest and most engaging new voices of the (otherwise slightly flagging) Tory blogosphere. He has written engagingly on why he was once a Europhile before recanting, and rarely misses a chance to take on environmentalists, pro-Europeans, Labourites and Coalitionists of either a LibDem or Tory Lite tendency. He is a little coy as to why he fell out with that great cricket fan John Major.

Yet puzzlingly for a man who did even more than Geoffrey Howe to put cricket into the political lexicon, as far as I could spot anyway, Lord Tebbit does not seem to have yet blogged a paragraph on probably the greatest Ashes series for a generation, down under at least (and, arguably, equal first with 2005 overall).

Now this blogger owes rather a lot to Norman Tebbit, and indeed to Luton Town`s Tory MP and plastic pitch philistine David Evans for politicising the things my teenage self cared about in a way which proved usefully clarifying. But it would be nice to think we might be able to put political differences asiide to be able to discuss the wonders of Swann`s reverse swing and what on earth England do with the unusual dilemma of such rich form from too many top-notch English bowlers. Would Tebbit also move Ian Bell up to five and give the Irishman Eoin Morgan some Test experience in Sydney? At the risk of reopening a political question, does the old Chingford battler think we can now put to rest the question of whether Trott and Pietersen can be successfully integrated into an English Test side - or does the heart beat a little slower when a double century was made in South Africa?

In truth, it never made any sense for a Tory Unionist to propose sporting allegiance as the sine qua non of citizenship - an argument for the break-up of Britain. I never heard Tebbit advocate the abolition of the five nations rugby when he was in power, but the logic of his argument implies either the end of Welsh and Scottish national teams, or the dissolution of the Union. Fortunately, our entire British and national sporting histories show that there is no need to force such a choice, as this blog has examined before, looking at the strange case of England as a 90 minute nation as the football World Cup began.

So we British have long proved particularly able to cope with a plurality of sporting identities. It is the England and Wales Cricket Board, after all. So I imagine Norman Tebbit was just as thrilled as I was at Monty Panesar's last stand in the Cardiff Ashes Test in 2009. Somebody should remind the Welsh Football Association - which is threatening to ban the brilliant Gareth Bale, who simply wants to be considered both Welsh and British, as he undoubtedly is, and so eligible for the London Olympics, rather as the great JPR Williams could play for Wales and the British Lions.

And I hope Lord Tebbit doesn't cheer for the Americans in the Ryder Cup, against our boys, just because they are flying a European flag.

Tebbit's test can make no sense of cricketing history either. Why was India granted Test status while part of the Empire? Tebbit can surely not think that the King of England, claiming allegiance as Emperor of India too, was conceding the case for Indian independence by attending India's first official Test match at Lord's in 1932, doubtless anticipating that his English and Indian subjects would now cheer their rival teams.

The question of whether India's national status would bolster the Empire or boost the independence movement was contested - with rival hopes and fears on both sides. But the meanings we choose to find in sports have often eluded the desires of political propagandists of all types. Whatever difference it made, cricket wasn't decisive.

The central premise of Tebbit's cricket test - that fervent support for Indian, Scottish or Welsh sporting teams determines political outcomes and allegiances - is self-evidently false.

Still, there are many more ways one might pass the real cricket test.

Like hoping England would not win the Perth Test for a 2-0 lead, so the Ashes as well as the series were still on the line for the Boxing Day Test. (Be careful what you wish for: a draw would have done).

I certainly don`t want England to 'win' the Ashes by drawing the series 2-2 but I hope Australia put up a good fight in Sydney`s final Test. We can expect to hear more calls to sack Ricky Ponting tomorrow. I would love to see one of the modern greats bounce back with a valedictory Test century in a valiant narrow defeat.

But the irate under pressure Ponting was far from the only Australian to fail the cricket test in Melbourne. What about all of those fans who swarmed to the exits on the opening day as their team struggled, instead of saluting the better side on the day. Such blind patriotism just isn`t cricket, is it Norman? (And how those fairweather fans at the beach would have regretted the bittersweet victory had the Sporting Gods taken their revenge with an Aussie double hat-trick or some other astonishing comeback in the style of Botham at Headingley `81).

The Melbourne crowd might better have emulated their embrace of the West Indies team in 1961, about which Mike Selvey wrote this week, or indeed how the Lord's crowd passed the real cricket test too when India shook England to 19 for 3 in their very first Test, as The Cricketer's contemporary account captures:

Glorious weather - a crowd of some 25,000, and a fast pitch, greeted the Indians in their first Test match, an event, we believe, of more than mere cricketing importance. The most famous ground in the world, enriched as it is by long years of high tradition, was looking its best with its own particular atmosphere when the Indians having lost the toss went out to field. And what a series of shocks they gave us Sutcliffe, Holmes, and Woolley out for 19 runs in 20 minutes! The crowd were staggered, though they did not fail to applaud vociferously the men who had so quickly forced England to play with her back to the wall.

With only an hour or so left for England to wrap up the fourth Ashes Test, some of us with a cricket-shaped hole in tomorrow morning might turn our attention to the amazing topsy-turvy events in the Durban Test, which will last a little longer into a 4th day at least.

South Africa and India may be the best two Test sides in the world right now (but we`ll see about THAT when India tour England next summer) though it naturally lacks the existential intensity of the Ashes. But its very nicely scheduled for breakfast in England.

This time I can join my Dad and - I would guess - most England fans in cheering for India to level the series.

So Norman, if you find yourself missing the cricket, consider yourself invited too.


j said...

Swann doesn't bowl reverse swing (he's an off spinner so has an arm ball as a main variation). Perhaps this casts doubt on your citizenship Sunder!

Sunder Katwala said...

yes, that was a silly thing to say about a spinner. thanks.