[The essay below was written for an anthology on Australian cricket published in Australia in 2011, but I withdrew it on account of differences with the editor over his editing of it.]
Growing up in Southern Rhodesia, as it then was, I early developed a double relationship to Australia as a cricketing nation. For me the country bore two emotional signs rather than one. Rhodesia was part of South Africa for purposes of international cricket, and so South Africa had my primary allegiance. In the era of Jackie McGlew, Roy McLean and (above all) Hugh Tayfield, it was the Springboks I wanted to see victorious. At the time I first became interested in the game - 1954 or 1955 as near as I can pin it down - South Africa had not long ago returned from a triumphant series in Australia under the leadership of Jack Cheetham, and the book in which that triumph was recounted by him (Caught by the Springboks) was like the foundational myth of my cricket consciousness: a tale of great deeds that had put my team on the cricketing map. The series, in fact, was drawn, South Africa levelling it at 2-2 in the fifth and final Test at Melbourne; but so unfancied had they been at the start of the tour that even a drawn series was considered a triumph.
This was against an Australian side that included Neil Harvey - who made four centuries, including one double hundred, and averaged 92.66 for the series - Miller and Lindwall, Arthur Morris and the young Richie Benaud. The result secured by the Springboks was not to be sneezed at, therefore, and like all such successes, particularly in the eyes of boyhood, it contained its heroic elements. McLean saying to his captain as he went out to bat in the final innings at Melbourne, with 104 runs still needed, 'Don't worry Pop, I'll get them for you' - this was part of that founding myth by which my initial loyalties were shaped. Australia were opponents, and powerful opponents. Merely to draw a series with them was a major achievement.
The next contest between the two countries would only reinforce this sense of keen opposition. In the southern summer of 1957-8, South Africa faced Ian Craig's Australians and were soundly beaten by them. But that is to characterize it too clinically. In terms of its impact on me at the time, the blow was a hefty one. I was at the Wanderers in Johannesburg for the whole of the fourth Test of that series, a game in which Benaud scored an exact 100 and took nine wickets. I remember well how his innings ended. No sooner had he got to his century than he let rip, as if wanting to hit the ball right out of the ground. But he only succeeded in hitting it straight up in the air. At the time I thought no cricket ball could ever have been struck as high, and it seemed a long time coming back down. Russell Endean, one of the most reliable of catchers, caught it. Anyway, this was just one year after I'd watched the Springboks beat Peter May's team in the corresponding Test of the 1956-7 series between South Africa and England. On that earlier occasion I had had my first taste of cricketing elation, especially since the victory was clinched by my boyhood hero 'Toey' Tayfield taking nine for 113 in England's second innings. Dozing in the back of the car on the drive back from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, I experienced that warm, happy glow each time I awoke, when a feeling of something really good having happened creeps back to the front of one's mind. And now, only 12 months later, Australia went to lunch on the last day of the fourth Test, with South Africa's second innings just completed and the scores level, needing the undemanding total of one run in order to win both the game and the series. Crushed. And by (in my perception) a hard bunch - men who wouldn't give you a bloody thing you hadn't forced out of them. Just as my witnessing the wonderful victory against May's side the year before had been a first for me, so South Africa's humbling a year later was my introduction to the unanswerable taste of defeat.
And yet, and yet. Even in this simple matter and for a youngster of fourteen, the world is a more complicated place than can be accommodated by any single-value schema. For reasons that must remain obscure at a distance of more than 50 years, seeing Australia as tough and unyielding opponents went together for me with supporting them passionately when the Ashes were at stake. Why? I can't say for sure that I know. How, after all, are these things determined? In my own case, induction into the world of cricket and cricketing allegiance wasn't guided by anyone else, any mentor with preferences of his own to impart. I became interested in the game, began to follow it and to read about it; and somehow I found myself supporting Australia against the Poms. I think it may have been because, like us, Aussies were 'colonials' and this was an issue of elementary solidarity against the Mother Country. To risk an analogy from a different sphere, my dual (or combined) stance in the matter was like wanting to win against political opponents at home, while being at one with them in any fight against anti-democratic forces ranged against the democracy which you and these same domestic opponents share. For me England in this story, I'm sorry to say, constituted an anti-democratic force; they were the bad guys. At the time in question, they prevailed by and large against both South Africa and Australia (a point to which I shall soon return). South Africa might scrap with Australia, no quarter given, but in the England cricket team the two countries faced a common enemy - an enemy, what is more, displaying a touch of imperial presumption and even snootiness towards us rough colonials.
Or maybe it was just that among the cricket books I received as Bar Mitzvah presents there were two by A.G. Moyes - Australian Bowlers (1953) and Australian Batsmen (1954) - that appealed to me. The line drawing on the dust jacket of Australian Bowlers showing J.M. Gregory in action is still Proustian for me; and the plates, within, of Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly chimed in with my ambitions at the time - utterly hopeless, it must be said - to become a spin bowler to be feared; though off-breaks (very slow ones) were my speciality, and not wrist spin. Maybe it was because of Bradman, whose batting pre-eminence brooked no contradiction and of whom I was even then in awe. Or maybe it was because when Ian Craig's Australians - yes, the very same ones, but before the Test series had begun - played at Queen's Ground in Bulawayo and I approached the enclosure in which they were sitting, in the hope of getting autographs, Richie Benaud not only gave me his own but also took the trouble to ensure that his team-mates obliged. I could hardly believe my luck. Richie signed the book over a picture of himself taking a catch at gulley to dismiss Colin Cowdrey in the Lord's Test of 1956, and then passed it on to other members of the team also pictured, who obliged at his urging. I have those autographs still: as well as Benaud, Jim Burke, Ken Mackay, Peter Burge, Ian Craig, Alan Davidson and more, all in my rather worn copy of The Picture Post Book of the Tests 1956 by Denzil Batchelor. Who knows? The exact aetiology of my ranked loyalties is lost in the mists, even for me.
In any case, the fact that England had lately been beating Australia (in 1954-5 thanks to Tyson and Statham, in 1956 thanks to Laker) as well as South Africa (in the English summer of 1955) became the basis of another 'duality' in my attitude to Australian cricket. I have mentioned this once before, in the book I wrote with my friend Ian Holliday about the 1997 Ashes series. But it has lately struck me in a new light and so I come back to it again. Bradman himself; his 'Invincibles' of 1948; other legends of Australian cricket, like Bill O'Reilly and the aforesaid Miller and Lindwall; and that thumping of the Springboks in 1957-8 to which I have referred: these had all lodged in my mind an image of Australia at cricket as being beyond merely tough, and tending towards the mighty. Guys who looked, some of them, like they'd just walked in from the outback - sunburned, grizzled, giving not an inch, ready to grind opponents down; and recently capable, whether in the person or with the aid of their most prolific batting genius, of building individual and team totals that would put the game out of sight of whatever opposition they were playing. Alongside this impressive cricketing might, however, or at any rate alternating with it, there was, as I saw it, an extreme fragility that could suddenly overtake Australia and plunge it into debacle. Here, the influence of 1954-5 and 1956 on a young mind should not be underestimated. The country of Bradman first blown away by the pace of Frank Tyson, and then conceding 19 of 20 wickets in a single match to the offspin of Jim Laker. Horrors and ignominy; defeat upon defeat. The 4-0 victory to Benaud's Australians in the series that followed these two in 1958-9, though celebrated by me with much relief and as being a return to the proper order of things, did not altogether erase from my consciousness this image of Australian fragility, rubbing shoulders there with that other image, of Australian might.
In the 1960s I followed the game more intermittently than I had during the second half of the 1950s. I never lost interest in Test cricket, and certain events from the 60s still caught my attention: among them, the tied Test at Brisbane in 1961; Bobby Simpson's triple century at Old Trafford in 1964 and the general shape of that drawn game, all but exhausted by two first innings of over 600; above all, Gary Sobers's West Indian side in England in 1966, when I was present for a famous match-saving partnership between him and David Holford at Lord's. But mostly my mind was not on cricket, it was on more serious things. The main reason for this, I believe, is that the milieu into which I settled as an undergraduate after arriving in England in the autumn of 1962, with the interests of many of my friends centred, like my own, on philosophy and politics, was not especially receptive to fervour about either sport in general or cricket in particular. On the left - my political home - this was much more the case than it is today; serious-minded people wouldn't waste their time, as it were, on a mere game. It could well have been this that dampened my earlier enthusiasm. However it may be, by the end of the decade I was more distant from matters of cricket and not especially focused on South Africa's exit from international competition (though I did, for political reasons, support its exclusion, while simultaneously regretting the effect of this in depriving Test cricket of supreme talents like those of Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards). My passion for the game had become more or less dormant.
It began to reawaken in the mid-1970s, first on account of Lillee and Thommo, then - decisively - with the visit to England of Clive Lloyd's West Indians in 1976 and the Centenary Test at the MCG in March 1977. When Greg Chappell's side toured England in the northern summer of the same year, I returned to watching Test cricket in the flesh, and have never since tired of it. It is, for me, one of the great glories, whatever its level of importance in the larger scheme of human affairs. But woe - the Australians that year were not at all of the mighty sort; they were, rather, of the fragile. Symbolic in this regard was the second Test at Old Trafford, where I spent the first four days (only missing the fifth because of an editorial meeting I had to attend in London); a game in which, second time up, Greg Chappell played a wonderful innings of 112 while the rest of his team could muster no more than 90 runs between the whole lot of them. I remember both his flawlessly elegant on-drive and the look of dismay he once or twice allowed himself as yet another Australian batsman feebly perished. Some to-ing and fro-ing in the years that followed ensured that Australia didn't go entirely without success against England - they won in 1979-80 when the Ashes were not in contention, and again in 1982-3 - but the latter part of the 1970s and most of the 1980s made up a wretched period for an Australia supporter. Australia were trounced 5-1 in 1978-9 as most of their best cricketers chose to play for Kerry Packer; put to the sword by Botham in 1981, a summer, for me, of cricketing misery (on the day of Botham's famous Headingley innings I was in Liverpool listening on a transistor radio and couldn't believe how he just batted on and on, blasting away); stuffed again in 1985; and stuffed once more in 1986-7. What an ordeal.
Strange to relate, however, it was in this very period that my Australian allegiance solidified into the primary sporting preoccupation it has become, and even reversed the ranking of loyalties that had prevailed during my childhood and early adult years. I began to back Australia against all comers and this would include, on their return to official cricket, South Africa. Why it happened, don't ask me. Perhaps it was a natural effect of South Africa being out of the official game. Supporting Australia against the Poms, against the Windies, against all the other Test-playing nations, I just settled into supporting them, period. What had started as a surrogate cricketing identity, active in the context of the Ashes only, evolved now into a permanent one. By the time South Africa came back into international cricket in the early 1990s I was 'lost' to them (though they remain the team I support against everyone else). Never let it be said, consequently, that the shift in loyalties resulted from an opportunistic search for cricketing triumph. The truth is demonstrably otherwise: this shift occurred when England were mostly getting the better of Australia; it was the reaffirmation of an old allegiance, forged with the drama of Ashes cricket as its backdrop, and extended now to cover the entire field.
And lo and behold, what should in due course happen but the dawning of a period of Australian cricketing ascendancy beyond my wildest dreams. From 1989 Australia began to appear truly mighty where the Ashes were concerned. They put together one success after another until those supporting England began to wonder whether their team would ever win again. Theories were spun as to why Australia were bound henceforth to enjoy a natural cricketing superiority over England, theories to do with everything from the differing climates of the two countries to the structure of the English domestic game.
It can be told in many ways, the Australian Supremacy of the next decade and a half. Look at the sequence of series scorelines before England would again win the Ashes (in 2005): 4-0, 3-0, 4-1, 3-1, 3-2, 3-1, 4-1, 4-1. One-sided? You bet. That's 28-7, a ratio for Australia of four victories to every defeat. Or look at Australia's largest totals: in 53 Ashes Tests between 1989 and 2007 they made more than 600 in an innings six times, more than 500 in an innings eight times, and more than 400 in an innings sixteen times. Thirty times, then. England's figure for the same thing in the same period is 10. The disparity for totals above 500 and above 600 was, in turn, 14 to 1 and 6 to 0. Fully six of England's meagre nine victories over Australia from 1989 to 2007 occurred when the contest for the Ashes was already settled and so didn't really matter. During this time Australia won the first Test of the series eight times to England's once, and the second Test of the series eight times to England's once. At Lord's, in Brisbane and in Perth, England won nothing while Australia won, respectively, four, four and five times. At none of the Test venues in either country, save only for the Oval, did England win more times than Australia. It was, in a word, magnificent.
Two of Australia's captains during this time - Allen Border and Steve Waugh - were my kind of Aussie cricketers. Both tough as they come, though in different ways: Border never too early on a declaration, keen for Australia to amass totals that would be unassailable; Waugh attacking, attacking and attacking, from the strength he knew he commanded. And each of the two only conceding his own wicket as if it were welded to his very being. Other cricketers I watched during this period and the like of whom you will see only once in a lifetime: Shane Warne, probably the greatest spin bowler ever and always offering a dramatic performance to enjoy - every grimace, every expostulation; Glenn McGrath, whose lethal accuracy during the most relentless of his spells was breathtaking to watch; Adam Gilchrist, on his day a terrifying proposition, coming in at number seven with a bat full of quick, devastating runs.
I lived, ate, breathed and dreamed these years of Australian cricket. I watched three full Ashes series - in 1997, 2001 and 2006-7 - and wrote accounts of the first two of them. When I say I watched the three series in full, I mean at the ground, every day, and from the first ball of each Test to the last. If I missed a few deliveries here or there to go and attend to my bodily needs, I scarcely missed two consecutive overs. In addition to that, in 1989 I saw the whole of the Test at Old Trafford and a couple of days at Lord's, and in 1993 I saw three days at Lord's and the whole of the Test at Old Trafford. And when I wasn't watching at the ground I'd be watching - plenty - on TV or listening on the radio.
I have seen not only Allen Border and Steve Waugh (in the latter case, including his two hundreds in the same Test at Old Trafford in 1997); not only - all at the ground - Warnie's 'Ball of the Century' in 1993, and his 400th Test wicket at the Oval in 2001, and his 700th wicket at the MCG in 2006; not only Gilchrist's 152 in 143 balls at Edgbaston in 2001 and his century in 59 balls at the WACA in 2006. I have seen, as well, Terry Alderman bowling himself towards a tally of 41 wickets in 1989, how many of them LBW; and Mark Taylor, David Boon and Michael Slater making hundreds in the same innings at Lord's in 1993; and Ian Healy stumping Mark Butcher at Old Trafford in 1997, so quick that many around me in the stand didn't know what had happened; and Jason Gillespie taking 7 for 37 at Headingly in the same year; and hundreds by Ricky Ponting at Headingley in 1997 and 2001 - the second of these 'wasted', as it happens, because of a complacent declaration by stand-in captain Adam Gilchrist that seemed to infuriate no one else but me - and, again, at Old Trafford in 2005, this one not at all wasted but saving the day; and Mark Waugh passim, in his case, not just batting, elegant, relaxed, but also taking catches at second slip with the same apparent nonchalance and ease.
In 1989 I watched David Boon hit the winning runs at Old Trafford to regain the Ashes. In 1993, late on during an opening stand of 260 between Mark Taylor and Michael Slater, I heard the crowd at Lord's applauding ironically when one of the two (I don't remember which) played at a ball and missed; it had been the first England 'success' for a while. In 2001 I had a second close encounter with Richie Benaud, this time at Headingley. He came down from the TV commentary box, on his way out to the middle of the ground to present Simon Katich with his Australian cap, and walked along the row of seats in which I was standing with a friend. 'How're you doing?' he said as we made way for him. Doing fine, I was. Gilchrist's irresponsible declaration still lay in the future of the game about to begin.
It had to happen, finally, that I should travel to Australia, distant place of this passionate cricketing allegiance; and it did. I went in 2006-7 with Ian Holliday, the friend with whom I had also followed the series in 1997. Call it mere coincidence, or call it nothing at all, but exactly in the summer I chose to be there, Australia beat England in all five Tests for the first time in 86 years, to achieve a 5-0 clean sweep. How could I, for my part, not see Fate as having taken a hand?
It was, in any event, the holiday of a lifetime. Part of this was directly because of the cricket and matters related. Flying from Brisbane to Adelaide, I found myself in the seat next to Ian Healy, who was kind enough to talk to me about cricket for some of the journey. This was a double coincidence. It wasn't just me, Australia supporter in Australia for the first time and for the Ashes, finding myself in the seat next to... Heals. More than that: I'd already come across him inside the airport, where he happened to be on the phone in the next booth as I checked my emails. I'd obtained his signature, together with good luck wishes, on my 3 Mobile series brochure! Next thing, not an hour afterwards, he strolls on to the plane and takes the adjacent seat, saying 'Hello Norm, small world.' Imagine my surprise when, talking later, he referred to the 1989 series as 'the one we stole'. Stole? At 4-0? But he reminded me of what the expectations had been at the beginning of that series. Then, once I was in Adelaide, Australia's victory there on the last afternoon was one of the most satisfying I have ever watched, a victory scarcely foreseeable at lunch on that final day and due as much as anything to English folly, but seized on by an Australian side with aggression and confidence to spare. The win at the SCG to clinch the 5-0 result, and the 'party' afterwards to mark the simultaneous retirements of Warne, McGrath and Justin Langer, are still fresh in my memory. And visiting the five Test venues for the first time, places I'd been reading about for more than 50 years, meant a great deal to me in itself.
Beyond the boundary, aside from the cricket, it was the holiday of a lifetime for other reasons too. Here I was in the beautiful country of Australia at last, and though following the Test series didn't leave me much time for going about, I went about enough to get some feel for each of the five cities I spent time in, and to see - especially in Sydney, thanks to the immense hospitality of a friend - some of the natural splendours. Everywhere I went in Australia I received such kindness, hospitality and friendship, including help with obtaining tickets for the five Tests. The land only of a cricketing affiliation heretofore, and of my researches and imaginings in that department, Australia between November 2006 and January 2007 treated me like a returning son. Rather an old son, at 63; but what the hell - the time for it was then, and I wouldn't have had it in any other year by preference.
Now, as I write this [in January 2011], it is four years, give or take only a few days, since I returned from that unique holiday. Four short years, and the might of Australian cricket has all but disappeared. Ponting's side has lately been blown away by Andrew Strauss and his men. In 2010-11 Australia somehow managed a victory at Perth, but otherwise suffered three defeats by an innings. They went through days full of pain for them and their supporters, as their bowling looked all but threadbare and their batting not a whole lot better. Fragility is hardly the word for it: they were humiliated.
And it dawns on me, finally, that those twin but opposite images from my boyhood, of this great cricketing country, are no more than particularistic and exaggerated versions of a much more general experience we all have in following sport. You win some and you lose some. True, there are victories less crushing than those Australia enjoyed over England for much of the period 1989 to 2007; and there are defeats less one-sided and demoralizing than the ones Australia have just suffered. But when all is said and done, in victory and defeat in sport both the players and their followers partake to an extent of universal, atavistic experiences, willingly or unwillingly inflating the results in both directions so that these results often feel much better and worse, respectively, than they are. 'Crushed', after all, is only a metaphor and happens to nobody on a cricket field; players and supporters walk away and resume their lives. No one dies. The joy of victory, equally, though it can make a person's day or even their week or month, subsides; it gives way to more pressing, or just more continuous, preoccupations. Mighty and fragile in this domain, tough and feeble, are in their way symbols of life outside the cricketing arena: of how, for example, small disappointments, reverses, obstacles can turn a day into a bad day, and small welcome occurrences, or compliments, or pleasant surprises, can put a person, as the saying is, on top of the world. In cricket we live - as well as its beauties, its skills and its dramas - the ups and downs of life, and must know how to take them both, in order to appreciate the game's inner verities, its true stature.
And that other duality from my youth, the one that made the young South Africa supporter I was an Australia loyalist when the Ashes were in contention - this too points outwards into the world beyond the cricket field. Returning in January 2007 from that wonderful Australian holiday into the dark morning of the Manchester winter, where was I returning but home? I was returning to England, which had been to that point my home for 44 years, and one I would not, at my age, exchange for any other. Yet in cricket I have supported Australia against England. It is the way of the world. There is something of the contingent and accidental in sporting allegiance. This is true even where the allegiance is based on national identity, or regional or local connection. Many times, the supporter just latches on to a team that is, in some way for him or her, 'to hand' – close by, in the news, winning something, boasting a great or attractive player or what have you. And the allegiance then both sticks and grows. Yet it matters - in the way and to the extent that it does matter - despite the adventitious nature of this origin. Of how much else in life is the same thing true. We are beings, we humans, with needs we have in common with others, with the shared abilities and concerns that make us, precisely, human, and with universal rights on account of these common traits. But we each have our own particularities and attachments, and these matter as much as anything does: our specific purposes, families, loves and loyalties. Accepting and respecting that combination of the general and particular, and getting it in a proper balance, is the art of just moral and political order.
In the years of my maturity Australia at cricket has been for me a continuous and special passion. It has been the very heart of my love for the greatest of all games.