English cricketers of the 1990s were like tribesmen on the fringes of the Roman empire—languishing in the shadow of a great power, nursing a complex. The Romans were tougher, the Romans were meaner, the Romans were more united, the Romans were more vengeful. Even looking at your own reflection in a muddy pond, you saw a non-Roman.
The empire that ruled cricket then was Australia. Vanquished enemies roamed the world, forlornly explaining that the task of fighting them was essentially impossible. Might work in the minor leagues, young lad, but play like that against Australia and you'll be fed to the lions. Pick him to play against Australia? You must be joking. They'll be licking their lips and lighting the barbie.
Myth and reality became so entangled that it was hard to know what really made the Australians so good. As English cricket tried to make sense of eight consecutive Ashes defeats (from 1989 to 2002-03), the explanations became increasingly exotic. It was the structure of state cricket; it was the weather; or was it just their stubble? The idea that Australian cricket had some intrinsic cultural toughness was a truism of the era.
Explaining the supposed softness of the English became a parlour game. Pretty much anything that existed within English cricket, at some point or other, was used to explain England's lack of success in the Ashes. If only England teams would copy Australia by sledging/singing together/being better mates/backing themselves/fronting up/digging in/never saying die... An English cricketer in the 1990s only had to brush his teeth to be told that they didn't do it like that in Australia.
So I was nervous, writing in these pages four years ago, when I speculated that the age of flinty Australian dominance was coming to an end: "[Its cricket] structures are in decline and Aussie culture is changing. Twentieth-century Australia harboured a long grudge: that it wasn't taken seriously enough...Sport was a way of balancing the ledger. That grudge has now been fully and properly settled, both on the field and beyond. Sydney is a capital of laid-back cool, and Australia is one of the most envied countries in the world."
Since then, the Australians have lost three consecutive Ashes series, which hasn't happened since the Kerry Packer era. Their decline bears out the theory put forward by Niall Ferguson in his sparkling essay "Complexity and Collapse": "Empires are complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organised, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid." In other words, they can collapse with spectacular speed.
But the decline has not been straightforward. The Australian team that toured England this summer may have lost 3-0, but they won the respect and even affection of many England fans. It was Australia who produced the moment of the summer, when the teenage debutant Ashton Agar (pictured) made a joyous 98, the highest score by a No.11 in Test history. The way he batted was both classical and carefree. Deprived by a great catch of the most remarkable debut century ever, Agar simply smiled, broadly and handsomely. Afterwards he said he had tried to copy the way his younger brothers played in the garden.
That innocent grace set the tone. All summer, Australia had the air of plucky adventurers. Even the final act, on a damp autumnal London day, was turned into a thrilling finale by the audacious captaincy of Michael Clarke. "We have a duty", Clarke said at the close, "to entertain."
Fortune, unfortunately, hadn't favoured the bold. When Australia were on top, rain intervened; when things were tight, England prevailed. They settled into the role of ruthless pragmatists, groomed by their management to win at all costs on pitches that were suspiciously dry. England looked wedded to game plans, and resorted to a go-slow whenever defeat loomed. They have a fine record of dispatching lesser teams (plus one big scalp, India away). But other, less tangible forms of victory are more elusive than ever.
Now the teams meet again in Australia to complete the first ever back-to-back Ashes series. That 3-0 score is not reflected in the mood of the two camps as they re-engage. England seem oddly grumpy, moaning about a lack of praise and affection from the media and the fans. They have eight senior players—Cook, Trott, Anderson, Swann, Prior, Pietersen, Broad, and the one who really made the difference in this series, Bell— and yet, taken as a whole, they are inexplicably angsty.
Australia, in contrast, are sprightly. Chris Rogers has emerged overnight as a steely veteran; Steve Smith has added gravitas to his obvious talent; the fast-bowling stocks, always strong, have been boosted by the return to form of the mercurial Mitchell Johnson. During the one-day series, he bowled fast, straight and with confidence. He looked less like the man who had been mocked as the embodiment of Australia's inconsistency and more like the one who engineered their last Test victory over England.
England and Australia keep swapping personalities. A decade ago, Australian cricket was relentless, brutally effective, universally admired but rarely loved. Today's Australians are unreliable and vulnerable to sudden implosion, but also charming. I suppose it's only natural: the Romans have turned into Italians.
The Ashes resumes in Brisbane, November 21st