On the eve of greatness, a memento mori for English cricket

by Dan Hodges

A few years ago, Kevin Pietersen nearly killed me. It wasn’t personal. I was looking for my sandwich; he was looking to hook Brett Lee into row 20 of the Peter May stand at the Oval. I didn’t find my sandwich, but he found the stand.

Two seats to the right, and I would have been a tragic footnote to England’s historic 2005 Ashes triumph. I sometimes wonder if there would have been a moment’s silence for me in Trafalgar Square; a poignant pause before Vic Flowers led Andrew Flintoff in a drunken rendition of Jerusalem. Knowing Vic and Freddie, probably not.

Tonight, England’s cricketers take to the field for the most important cricket match since that fateful, near fatal, day. “What madness is this”, goes the cry. “The cricketing Rubicon was successfully forded a week ago, in Melbourne. We saw the cheers, the tears, the cream of English youth dancing the sprinkler in front of delirious men dressed as Arthurian knights and Camilla Parker-Bowles”.

Wrong. The Ashes have not been won. Merely retained.

Like the Holy Grail, they are a concept, more than they are a reality. Yes, there is a tiny, rather insignificant-looking urn currently residing in a perspex case in St. John’s Wood. But it never leaves, whatever the result of the series. Officially, because it’s too fragile to travel. Unofficially, because the performances of the England team in the decades preceding 2005 were so woeful that there was a genuine fear that if the Ashes left our shores they would never be seen again. And England without the Ashes would be unconscionable; like England without the crown jewels, the Hay Wain or Bruce Forsyth.

So by convention the Ashes will remain with us, both physically and conceptually. As the team that “held” the trophy upon arrival in Australia, England could relinquish them only by losing the series. At Melbourne, that danger passed.

But convention cannot bestow greatness. True greatness can only be seized, or constructed or crafted. And it is true greatness that now beckons Andrew Strauss and his men.

Her fickle finger has enticed before. In 2005. England’s Ashes heroes were set to conquer the world. Instead they urinated in Tony Blair’s flower bed, got crushed in Pakistan and humiliated in Australia. She flirted again after a second Ashes victory at the Oval last year. And gain, England responded by scraping a draw in South Africa, allowed the world’s lowest ranked test team, Bangladesh, to score over 600 hundred runs in two innings at Lords, and lost a test to a Pakistan side that was bowling to order for the bookies.

Now she is once more fluttering her eyelashes and flashing that seductive smile. Are the likes of Ian Bell, Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan man enough to cope? Or are they destined to leave Sydney with painful memories and broken hearts?

England’s captain, Andrew Strauss, has been trying to keep an appropriate sense of perspective. Others less so. “We just had to do the sprinkler”, Graeme Swann told the Sun. “The whole squad joined in and so did the thousands of fans in the stands. Even Monty Panesar was having a go! We hope we have sprinkled a little bit of happiness into cricket fans’ lives”.

If complacency is the arch enemy of success, then the seeds of future destruction are already being sown. After a hard test victory, it’s legitimate for the players to celebrate in that time honoured fashion of impersonating a garden watering device. But the pundits and professional analysts are already laying foundations of sand.

“England haven’t allowed Australia to play”, said former England captain Michael Vaughan. Really. Here’s the Guardian summing up day three of the first test, “In Brisbane the tourists have been constantly hounded by a driven, wounded Australia side”. Or the Times headline after the final day of the third test in Perth: “Crushed and craven, England are dismantled at pace”.

England’s immortality has been identifiable only through hindsight. The reality is that they won two tests well, lost a third badly, and were outplayed for the balance of a fourth. That is some achievement. But it does not represent greatness.

At the heart of the coverage of England’s Ashes triumph lays a glaring paradox. The Australians are bums. The English gods. That the gods have yet to beat the bums  and secure what anyone else in the sporting world would recognise as a victory, is apparently immaterial.

In fact, some of those bums have played like gentleman. Australia have boasted the series’ best batsman, in Michael Hussey. Coming into the first test with his career on the line, the Australian number 5 stood alone on the burning deck, almost single handedly dragging his team to a position where they could yet escape with honours even.

It was an Australian too, the mocked and maligned Mitchell Johnson, who produced  the series’ most hostile and explosive spell of bowling, swinging the ball with such venom on the second day of the third test that England’s batsman could literally not believe the evidence of their eyes.

Of all the players who joined battle, Australia have also fielded the toughest. When wicket keeper Brad Haddin was struck full on the chest by one of the final deliveries at Melbourne, he refused to betray even a flicker of discomfort, even though the match and the Ashes were beyond him.

England’s success has not been plucked from a silver platter by heroes or supermen or “greats”. It has been hard earned, by a well-drilled, unified team of committed professionals. Arguably, neither  Andrew Strauss, Graeme Swann, Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen nor Matt Prior has played to his full potential. But through collective determination and skill they have prevailed. So far.

As the hoopla threatens to morph into hubris, though, that unity is threatened. The endorsements, the sponsorships, the photo shoots. We have been here before. In 2005 they helped create the cliques, divisions and rivalries that ended in the implosion of the 2006 Ashes campaign.

England coach, Andrew Flower, should consider employing a Roman slave as twelfth man – there’s bound to one within the ranks of the Barmy Army – to whisper “Respice post te, hominem te memento” as each batsman walks to the crease. His team must approach greatness respectfully. One step at a time.

First win in Sydney. Then beat the best team in the world, India, when they arrive in England this summer. Then set their sights on the ultimate achievement, a first test series victory on Indian soil since 1985.

It is important. It matters. Cricket is not just an English game. Is it not even the English game. To much of the world, cricket is England.

Once we governed half the globe. Now we can’t even elect a proper administration to govern ourselves. The economy is in meltdown. Our institutions are under assault. Even royalty cannot traverse our capital’s streets unmolested.

Andrew. Kevin. Graeme. Give us this. Smash one final cover drive. Seize that final catch. Rip the final, series-defining, leg break.

Above all, don’t just bring back the urn. Bring us back our greatness.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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2 Responses to “On the eve of greatness, a memento mori for English cricket”

  1. Chris says:


    Is this a clever metaphor about Labour and how Ed should build an election winning team in a considered and careful way. That he shouldn’t get distracted by opinion polls and sledging from the opposition or internal critics?

    Or is it just about cricket?

  2. Dan Hodges says:


    To be honest it’s just about cricket, but…


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