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.