An Observation on Australian Sporting Culture

The other day I caught an interview between one of the presenters of the Australian cricket show and the former Australian bowler Glenn McGrath.  McGrath said something which would have passed unnoticed by most viewers, but for me it spoke volumes about the difference between sports in Australia and sports in the UK.

The presenter asked McGrath if he thought the on-field sledging of the English batsmen by the Australian players had gone over the top.  McGrath’s response was along the lines of:

“No, not really.  We kopped it when we played over there, with the Barmy Army singing all their songs, so we’re just dishing it back out now.”

I doubt most Australians would consider this answer remarkable, but for this Brit it was.  McGrath is effectively equating Australian players getting stick from an English crowd with English players getting stick from Australian players on the field.

In England, the players and the crowd at sports matches are very much separate.  What the crowd says or does is in no way representative of the players, and there is a large psychological divide between the two.  The players are not an extension of the crowd, or “one of us”.  And the behaviour of the two is expected, rightly, to be quite different.  Were Alistair Cook to start behaving like the Barmy Army it would be frowned upon by all, including the Barmy Army.

But I’ve noticed in Australia that the psychological dividing line between the crowd and the players is much less clear.  A television advertisement that ran throughout the Ashes series – I think one for Cricket Australia – showed the players in a stadium crowd with the voiceover saying “they are not taking on a team, but a nation”, implying that the players were inseparable from the supporters.

It’s interesting, because just watching the coverage of the Ashes here shows that the fortunes of the national cricket team takes a far greater precedence in societal affairs than in England, and more so than even the English football team.  I don’t think anything short of a World Cup win would put a sports event on the front page of a newspaper to the exclusion of anything else in the UK., and maybe not even then.  The Melbourne papers put the retention of the Ashes following the Perth test as an exclusive front-page story, with a full-page colour photo.

This might explain the reaction of many Australians to English objections to the behaviour of the Australian players at times throughout this series.  Most Australians interpreted Michael Clarke’s threat to have his fast bowlers break James Anderson’s arm, an exchanged picked up by the stump microphone, as fair game and many justified it by referring to taunts made by the English supporters.  By contrast, had Alistair Cook made such remarks the majority of English supporters would be utterly ashamed, myself included.  Taunting Shane Watson about reviewing an obvious LBW is about as harsh as was dished out by the English players in the previous series, but in this Ashes the Australians took it to another level of in-your-face aggression of which they seemed proud, players and supporters alike.

For Australians, it’s not just the case that sport features heavily in society, but societal behaviour appears to feature heavily in sport.  I’m not sure that’s altogether a good thing, even if it does occasionally produce results.

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17 Responses to An Observation on Australian Sporting Culture

  1. Bardon says:

    Irrespective of what McGrath has said above, are you saying that the English cricket team do not partake in sledging?

    I thought that Clarke’s threat was made to Jimmy Anderson after he threatened to punch Bailey, which was also recorded on the stump microphone, would that not be classified as sledging?

    I certainly wouldn’t label the English cricket supporters as solely being represented the Barmy Army either so again McGrath seems to be out of context.

    For me a far more obvious contrast between both of the teams that may have spread to the respective support base would be the nationalistic spirit exhibited by the players themselves. This was best explained by the English BBC Cricket commentator that had been reporting on the Ashes series last night. When asked what he seen as the major difference between the teams (not the support base) he said it was clearly the national pride issue, the baggy green was something special, something of value, something that was cherished and held in high regard, he said that this spirit of national pride was something that the English team seemed to have lost in recent times.

    Maybe this cultural difference is filtering through to the respective support bases as well. One of the examples that he brought up was the infamous English cricket teams urinating on the Oval incident. He actually still to this day found that quite shocking and inappropriate and was obviously very offended by it, to the extent that he recalled it last night when queried and used it as a prime example of the differing teams cultures even after such a dismal performance on the field which he also discussed. He suggested that the cultural differences as he sees them, are not a recent thing either.

  2. dearieme says:

    I was waiting at Sinny airport once, and found a room with a telly showing a Rugby League match, with half-a-dozen keen fans engrossed in it. Being too tired to mind my manners, I started refereeing the game and calling out the moves. The chap next to me was so impressed by my performance that he said – in awe, not sarcastically – “You’ve played this game, haven’t you?” That was the first time that it had occurred to me that anyone would watch rugby without having played it himself.

    Of course, the stupidity and ignorance of the average English football fan leaves one in little doubt that he hasn’t played football, nor any other team game either.

  3. Tim Newman says:

    are you saying that the English cricket team do not partake in sledging?

    What I am saying is taunting Shane Watson about reviewing an obvious LBW is about as harsh as was dished out by the English players in the previous series, but in this Ashes the Australians took it to another level of in-your-face aggression of which they seemed proud, players and supporters alike.

    One of the examples that he brought up was the infamous English cricket teams urinating on the Oval incident. He actually still to this day found that quite shocking and inappropriate and was obviously very offended by it

    Indeed, which is why an apology was demanded and received. The difference is you don’t hear anyone defending this, like you do boorish behaviour on the part of the Australian players.

    When asked what he seen as the major difference between the teams (not the support base) he said it was clearly the national pride issue, the baggy green was something special, something of value, something that was cherished and held in high regard, he said that this spirit of national pride was something that the English team seemed to have lost in recent times.

    This is true, and although I would guess that it is a product of the professional era of sports, I wouldn’t be surprised if British sports teams have never played with the same degree of national pride as Australians. Sure, they’ll go on about it when they win something, but I think in the modern era a lot of professional sportsmen see national selection as merely another job level instead more than a representative honour. That certainly seems the way with a lot of the English football players, whose interest in playing internationally often seems to be superceded by their club interests. And for sure, the Australian cricket team go in for the whole national pride and representative honour far more than the English cricket team does.

    The thing is though, I don’t think it matters in the long run. For sure, pride in wearing the baggy green will be roled out as a reason why Australia beat England, but the fact is it was line, length, and pace which did for England, not a difference in national pride. I’ve seen Australian cricket teams brimming with national pride being demolished by teams with less pride but far greater ability: pride is a nice addition if you’re doing well, but pretty useless when you’re not, and if you have the technical ability, pride and passion doesn’t matter. Also, when it is being wheeled out when a team is not doing well – as was the case a few years back when stories of Justin Langer sleeping with his baggy green emerged to try to galvanise a weak Australian batting line-up – it is positively cringeworthy and brings a certain Samuel Johnson quotation to mind. Justin Langer was not successful because he was patriotic, he was successful because he was damned good. Hoping Ed Cowan will become Justin Langer if only he sleeps with his baggy green is desperate stuff.

    Indeed, one of the greatest follies of the supporters of English and Scottish football over decades has been a call for greater pride and passion amongst the players, particularly after suffering a heavy defeat. The problem is, the players are simply not technically good enough compared to their German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, etc. counterparts. Whereas the English players may not play with the same degree of national pride as the Brazilians or Australians, it is their technical ability which lets them down, not their motivation. A failure to recognise this has been the cause of decades of overexpectation and disappointment on the part of English football fans, and has been a constant setback for the cause of English football for generations.

  4. Tim Newman says:

    That was the first time that it had occurred to me that anyone would watch rugby without having played it himself.

    Not being from the North or insane I’ve never set foot on a rugby league field, but have watched countless games. RU I played growing up in Wales, obviously. But yes, I think one of the big appeals about RU and RL is that its supporters have played the game. Your comments about football fans is spot on.

  5. Bardon says:

    “What I am saying is taunting Shane Watson about reviewing an obvious LBW is about as harsh as was dished out by the English players in the previous series, but in this Ashes the Australians took it to another level of in-your-face aggression of which they seemed proud, players and supporters alike.”

    I really don’t think that you, me or the supporters will ever know what is said on the field by the players and therefore any general comment on the harshness of what was dished out by players of either side in any series couldn’t be substantiated and should therefore be avoided as a basis for jumping to conclusions.

    The only reason that sledging hit the headlines in the current series was the recorded incident where Clark threatened Anderson. This was erroneously broadcast and consisted of a few seconds of what was obviously the culmination of some heated discussion on the field where Clarke got involved at the culmination. Some commentators who heard all of the recordings had mentioned that the broadcast was only one side of the story, which it would have to have been only being a few seconds in duration. The broadcaster has apologised for this erroneous transmission.

    What we do know though is that James Anderson who was involved in this incident is a self confessed major supporter of sledging and he often writes of his support of it in his regularly published columns in the English media. Jimmy has even went to the extent of saying that he sees “sledging as a skill’. It’s very strange that a professional international sportsman would publish this and also that the English readership would accept it, particularly the middle class cricketing fraternity, but they have accepted it and they continue to accept it.

    Why he cant just stick to commenting on his natural sporting skills and sees the need to publicise his view that sledging is a “skill’ that he has somehow or another perfected, without any rejection would suggest to me that sledging is well and truly part of the English cricketing culture.

    I am not aware of any Australian international professional cricket player that has so publicly, continuously and widely supported sledging.

    “The difference is you don’t hear anyone defending this, like you do boorish behaviour on the part of the Australian players.”

    Once again if we go back to the main incident, following the game Alistair Cook said that he had no problem with what was said and is generally said on the field, he did not raise a concern. So no concern was raised by him then or since then and therefore there is no need for an apology. The only public defending of sledging is that of the well publicised defense and support of it by Jimmy Anderson of England.

  6. Tim Newman says:

    I really don’t think that you, me or the supporters will ever know what is said on the field by the players and therefore any general comment on the harshness of what was dished out by players of either side in any series couldn’t be substantiated and should therefore be avoided as a basis for jumping to conclusions.

    So we should not take what we *actually hear* being said and draw conclusions; but instead we should accept we don’t know what is and isn’t said, and draw a different conclusion? Got it.

  7. Rugby League has the sort of following in Sydney and Brisbane that soccer traditionally did in England – it is the mass participation and mass spectator sport of the working classes, and (in winter) it gets the bulk of the headlines on the sports pages in the newspapers and equivalent coverage on television. This means that you are constantly exposed to it, whether you play it or not.

    The following of rugby union in Australia is much smaller. It is a minority sport played by people in richer parts of Sydney and Brisbane. It’s not necessarily all that snobby, though, and it can be a route to social mobility. Come from a working class place, get into Sydney University, join the rugby club, and you will be made welcome and will meet lots of useful connections. People who follow it are likely to have played it, though, which is not necessarily the case with rugby league. (I grew up in Wollongong – a big working class rugby league town – and I did not seen a game of rugby league played either on television or in person until I was about 16 years old). Someone in my position would be more exposed to it today, but rugby league still overwhelms union.

    I still meet people in England who are entirely unaware that rugby league is played in Australia, or who flatly insist that I am wrong when I say that it is a much bigger game than rugby union is. Plus I encounter people in England regularly who think that losing at rugby hurts for an Australian as much or more as losing at cricket does. Losing at rugby is barely noticed by much of the population – even those who follow a lot of sport. Losing at cricket is just about the worse than thing that can happen for our sense of national virility, particularly if we are losing to England.

  8. To this I might add that cricket is rather uniquely mixed up with Australian nationalism. Australia has had a national cricket team since 1877. Australia has been a nation since 1901. The cricket team came first.

  9. Tim Newman says:

    Australia has had a national cricket team since 1877. Australia has been a nation since 1901. The cricket team came first.

    Heh!

  10. Bardon says:

    From The Telegraph and relevant to the reasons why the difference between the poms and the Australian culture. The disconnected pommie players and supporters as opposed to the passionate baggy green holders and their closely knit support base.

    “Nasser fought for, and won, central contracts, but the unforeseen consequence has been England players who are detached from their counties, and hence the bedrock of cricket supporters. Bussed from sports science lab to five-star hotel to media training seminar to sponsor junket, the players are remote figures to the casual observer.”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/cricket/kevinpietersen/10561787/Kevin-Pietersen-is-box-office-so-there-can-be-only-one-winner-in-his-battle-with-England-coach-Andy-Flower.html

  11. Bardon says:

    “The following of rugby union in Australia is much smaller. It is a minority sport played by people in richer parts of Sydney and Brisbane.”

    Our local union club is located on my street, my son plays there and I quite enjoy taking him to Friday evening training which also includes a a barbecue and drinks. I live in Bulimba and inner city riverside suburb that used to be a very low socio economic area with wharfies and the like. Now gentrified those days are in the past.

    Anyway there is an older guy form my street that also attends and we catch up and have a chat about. He rues the day that the club switched from league to union. The league team had to move a few suburbs out. He says that apart from the league games being more entertaining to watch, the craic was better at the club, they wouldn’t be serving wine, beer only and the car parks and adjacent streets would have been full of utes not SUV’s and European sedans!

  12. dh says:

    Hi Tim,

    Sorry, don’t agree. Plenty of people take exception to the way Australian sports teams behave. I hated the Aussies back when Warne was at his peak and *choke*choke* even supported the English, and that made me ILL!

    I think Australians overall have forgotten what sportsmanship means, but not all. It’s not just being a good loser, but a good winner as well.

  13. Tim Newman says:

    Yes, you have a point there dh. A common sentiment heard from foreigners is that Australians make poor losers but even worse winners, and I know more than a few Australians who were put off by the swagger and arrogance of their cricket team during the glory years.

  14. I don’t think Australians make worse losers than most other losers. (The world is full of bad losers. European football is full of losers who go around and smash things and/or beat people up, and Australians are not like that at all). I think Australians make quite good losers. I agree that they are bad winners.

  15. dh says:

    Michael, those running amok over lost soccer games in Europe are not poor losers, they are nothing but thugs masquerading as fans, winning or losing their behaviour is the same. Their whole reason of being is to wreak havoc.

  16. That depends. Watch how the fans behave after certain national sides lose. I won’t name which ones, but you know them.

  17. Henry says:

    This sledging thing has been going on for decades – I do get the impression it’s rather one way. Aussies always justify it which I find odd – as it always seems rather aggressive, and certainly not reciprocated to anything like the same degree.

    Some friends were in Oz at the time of a previous Ashes series being held there – they were getting stick for being British. They didn’t even care about the cricket. I think they kind of wished this attitude towards the would sort of go away, and I can’t blame them

    Maybe it shows how important the Ashes are to those down below (far more than they are to us). To be fair, they really took the 2003 Rugby world cup final like men. Different conceptions of “fairness” I guess – and I imagine they are innately cynical about Brits lecturing them about fair play.

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