After losing three Ashes series on the bounce and following much soul-searching about the decline of its national sporting prowess, Australia is giving England a pounding in the cricket. For many, all is right again with the world.
Recently, I sat at Melbourne Airport as Australia’s resurgent fast bowler Mitchell Johnson – the butt of some cruel humour by visiting Barmy Army fans during his erratic, neurotic last home series – terrorised the English batsmen. Many people were watching the cricket on screen, with one fellow traveller loudly proclaiming:
There is no greater pleasure than sticking it to the Poms in the cricket!
As the dust settles after a decisive change of government, it is time for the main support players to call in their favours. Among the cheerleaders for a Coalition government, none was more vocal than the Murdoch media, which subjected a wounded Labor government to a barrage of obstreperous tabloid front pages, relentless broadsheet criticism, and a constant stream of syndicated hostility across its many platforms.
News Corp Australia was not shy about being led from the top in this campaign. Chairman Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter (with a characteristic apostrophic error) in June to declare:
Australian public now totally disgusted with Labor Party wrecking country with it’s [sic] sordid intrigues. Now for a quick election.
With mission accomplished, and after Murdoch’s Lowy Institute pep talk on “Australian values” and “the key drivers of prosperity: trade, technology and free market” last month, attention has turned to the juicy concessions that might be extracted from a sympathetic government.
An Ashes series – the latest set to commence in Brisbane – symbolically ushers in the Australian summer in a manner akin to the loud soundtrack of thrumming cicadas. The media will cover the sporting exploits with forensic intensity, but once again are using the Ashes to define and refine myths of Australian identity, masculinity and class.
The first blow in the most recent battle for the Ashes landed early and from an unanticipated angle. The body shot did not come from an Australian fast bowler’s short ball thudding into an England opener’s midriff. Instead, it was a little above-the-belt ridicule of the proposed content of a touring cricketer’s stomach.
The leaking of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s catering requirements and accompanying substantial recipe book stimulated a lot of mirth among Australian journalists and hard-bitten old players about the high-end dining demands of the visitors.
The wishlist of 194 food and drink options to be served up to the England team at Australian cricket venues contained a good deal of culinary exotica. It included the latest health-affirming wonderfare like quinoa and kale.
There was great play with requests for such gastronomic delights as “Buckwheat pancakes with probiotic yogurt and fresh berries” and “Raspberry and oat cranachan pots (protein-based maximuscle)”. Fairfax Media gleefully quoted the response of paunchy, moustachioed former Australian paceman Merv Hughes that he would “dry retch for the next three days” if presented with England’s serving suggestion of “Piri-piri breaded tofu with tomato salsa”.
Much was made of former Australian spinner Shane Warne’s proletarian preference for baked beans, pizza and coke when in his playing prime. Even the British tabloids felt that exposing England’s sophisticated dietary secrets would feed Australian hostility.
An opportunity for additional fun, though, was missed when the menu’s critics failed to notice that England’s meticulously prepared menu misspelt “dessert”. If detected, it would have prompted multiple puns about starving beefy cricketers in “health food deserts” or the supercilious English getting their “just deserts”.
Some of this response is obviously generic resentment at the privileged treatment of a small number of sportspeople (mostly men) in the era of global sports business. As the commercialisation of sport advances apace and the amateur ethos recedes into the world of the museum, both the media who live off commercial sport and the fans who pay for it complain about how celebrity sport professionals are now detached from the lives of common folk.
But as I wrote in a trilogy of articles on its implications for sport, nation and media during the last series in England, the Ashes phenomenon has a very specific history that recurrently replays and refashions the colonial history of its antagonists.
All the mirth about the English team management’s prescription of the likes of “hummus, black olive and sun-blushed tomato” is, in fact, an attempt to distinguish effete colonialist pretentiousness from the earthy authenticity of old-school Australians. This is a familiar and effective rhetorical move. And yet, it comes at the price of reproducing the stereotypes of beer-swilling, pie-scoffing unintellectual Australians that populate the ribald songs of rival Barmy Army fans.
It is difficult to see how, in an Australia that has made snobbery about caffeine, premium wine, boutique beer and food into a cross-country sport, there is much to gain by pretending that the national dish consists of instant coffee, chateau chunder, home brew and a Dagwood Dog.
There is another element of fantasy in fingering the English as food fad elitists – that unlike the Septic Isle, Australia is a steadfastly classless society. At a time when the quest to accumulate cultural capital through private schooling has never been so intense – and the Australian Bureau of Statistics describes the nation’s distribution of wealth as “asymmetric” and becoming more so – the faux classlessness of Aussie sporting mateship is exposed as a convenient smokescreen.
So, it should be clear that the animated response to MasterChef: Cricket and compulsive manufacture of other Ashes stories that play on images of national cultural identity says as much about contemporary Australia as it details the development of English cuisine in its post-fish-and-chips and warm beer phase.
Digesting the Ashes Cookbook demands much more than pondering the dietary virtues of “Papaya, glass noodle and prawn”. It offers instead a spicy smorgasbord of postcolonial dishes, marked by a clear preference for raw ideological ingredients and bubbling mythological hotpots, with a little dash of cricket on the side.
Another foreign coach of an Australian national sports team has been ushered to the overseas departure terminal. Having overseen the team’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Socceroos’ German coach Holger Osieck has been sacked only eight months out from the event.
Still, Osieck’s successor will have more time to get organised than Darren Lehmann. The former Australian player replaced South African Mickey Arthur as coach of Australia’s cricket team only two weeks before commencement of the last Ashes series in England.
Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie, who also once played for the team that he now coaches, took over from New Zealander Robbie Deans in July this year. Deans’ failures included his countrymen winning the 2011 Rugby World Cup and an unbroken series of Bledisloe Cups.
Is there a pattern emerging here? Could it be that foreign-born coaches, so often the epitome of cosmopolitan sporting sophistication, are now being supplanted by home grown talent?
Debates about nationality in sport are perennial, and extend far beyond the passports of coaches. Sport’s most prestigious national and international competitions are awash with capital from the media, sponsors, spectators and governments. This creates a ruthless, restless search for the best athletes, supported by the most able coaches.
For this reason, a global sport labour market has developed that I and colleagues describe as sport’s contribution to the New International Division of Cultural Labour. This is the apparatus through which athletes and coaches flow around the world, free of the confines of the individual nations that spawned them.
Sporting mobility has many dimensions. It involves young footballers from Africa and Australasia – and baseballers from Central America – supplying inexpensive and often-exploited athletic labour to cost-inflated sport markets in North America, Europe and East Asia. Or, as has recently been alleged in Australia, it may entail “journeyman” footballers and coaches moving into low-profile leagues around the world in order to fix matches at the behest of illegal gambling organisations in third-party countries.
At the top end of the global sport labour market there are elite players and coaches plying their trade in countries that pay handsomely to retain them. Their employers are haunted by the fear that they will be lured across borders by ever more extravagant rewards.
This geographical fluidity of personnel varies across sports and competitions. For example, there is negligible movement of Australian rules footballers between countries and there are few foreign players in Sheffield Shield cricket. The reasons are fairly obvious – the former lacks an international professional presence and the latter is a low-profile, poorly remunerated domestic competition.
By contrast, Australian players and coaches in rugby league and cricket substantially populate, respectively, the UK Super League and the Indian Premier League. In Olympic sports such as athletics, swimming, and cycling, there has also long been a vigorous trade in coaches in both directions.
What do sport fans and the sport media make of this fly-in, fly-out sporting workforce? Their reactions typically display the ambivalence attending a certain pride at a local player or coach making it in the big wide world, but also a sense of loss at the diminishing domestic sport scene.
Similarly, hiring an international marquee player or a renowned coach validates Australian sport’s global status, but also prompts concerns that importing overseas talent deprives locals of opportunities and ultimately stunts the development of domestic sport.
Sporting success tends to soothe such discomfort. But its absence invites little sympathy and, frequently, provokes hostile judgement.
In the specific case of soccer in Australia, the game’s development was long retarded by its close association with the world beyond its shores. For the xenophobic, the non-Anglo migrant ethnic bedrock of football symbolised a lack of commitment to its newfound, New World home.
The positioning of multicultural broadcaster SBS as the“home of football” confirmed the suspicions of those who demanded a closer affinity with the traditional Anglosphere. There was also a corresponding inferiority complex about the quality of the local game, meaning that the appointment of foreign coaches to the national team was favoured.
It has now been confirmed by Football Federation Australia chairman Frank Lowy that a local will take charge of the national team. But it is the sport’s troubled history that reveals why the strength of calls to appoint an Australian as Socceroos coach is indicative of the comparative health both of multiculturalism and of the world game in Australia.
Conventional advocacy of the recruitment of star overseas coaches such as Guus Hiddink has been overshadowed by arguments in favour of the likes of Ange Postecoglou andTony Popovic – respectively Australians of Greek and Croatian background. The once-bemoaned problem is now the suggested solution.
As it prepares for its third consecutive World Cup appearance and experiences a surge of interest in its domestic A-League, soccer in Australia occupies a mid-market position in world sport, attractive to itinerant and settled sports workers alike. This is something of an historical turnaround for a nation more accustomed to being a net exporter of its best personnel to Europe.
But, paradoxically, the demand for a home-grown coach may also betray a tinge of xenophobia. Having forsaken a foreign white knight or “rainmaker”, it is likely that more tolerance of failure will be temporarily extended to a coach who is “one of us”, and not the caricatured globally mobile gun for hire with no greater investment in the national soul than their latest sizeable paycheque.
Lingering doubts that a foreign coach’s heart isn’t really in it (or, worse, that they’re a Trojan horse) can be soothed by a belief that a local will have a deeper, more intuitive understanding of the players and the domestic game’s traditions. The home-grown coach might buy a little more time and sympathy, but if unsuccessful on the unforgiving field of play, the call of the global will be heard once more.
After the gladiatorial combat of the federal election campaign, prime minister-elect Tony Abbott appeared on Sunrise to call an Olympic-style truce.
Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics, because it shows that there is a fundamental unity, it shows that the business of the nation is normally under reasonably good management if we can be as excited as we usually are about sport.
After the people had decided the fate of competing teams, sport could once again displace politics in Australia’s media.
A less familiar political force was also pleased to have sport back in the limelight. The Australian Sports Party (motto “Supporting Australia’s sporting culture”) had come from nowhere to take a screamer – in football parlance – and win a seat in the Senate. Very little is known about the Sports Party, except that it favours greater participation in sport and recreation in the interests of health, and more expansively believes that:
Sport has long played an important social and cultural role in Australia, providing a form of social glue which binds communities and creates broader communities.
Once again, sport’s place in Australian national life has been affirmed in the political sphere. Although subjected to the forces of globalisation and transnationalism like other social institutions, sport remains resolutely wedded to the very idea of an Australian nation. Throughout the distraction of the messily unheroic processes of parliamentary democracy, Australian bureaucracy has held its end up in the sporting stakes.
For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s glossy pamphlet Australia in Brief, designed for people wanting a quick summation of Australia, unequivocally pronounces that “Australians love sport” and that:
The nation unites when Australians succeed on the international stage. Sport is a powerful force in creating social harmony in a nation made up of people from so many different countries.
Those who want to become Australians rather than just know about them will find that in Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond, the official information booklet for the citizenship test, “Australia’s identity” begins with “Sport and recreation”. This section precedes “The Arts” and “Scientific invention and achievement”. Aspiring citizens will learn that:
We are proud of our reputation as a nation of ‘good sports’. Australian sportsmen and women are admired as ambassadors for the values of hard work, fair play and teamwork. Throughout our history, sport has both characterised the Australian people and united us.
They will also get to know a little about Sir Donald Bradman.
Australia is not alone in promoting sport as an important part of its national culture and in explicitly relating it to citizenship, but it is unusual in giving so much emphasis to it. For example, sport features in Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship. But it is notable that under “Arts and Culture in Canada” it follows literature, visual arts, performing arts, film, and television. And under “Canadian Symbols” it is preceded by “Parliament Buildings”. Discover Canada makes no comparable claim definitively connecting sport to Canadian national identity as occurs in its Australian equivalent.
Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents does contain information on sport. Indeed, it has been described by one critic, Thom Brooks, as like a “bad pub quiz” and “impractical, inconsistent, trivial, gender imbalanced, outdated and ineffective”. But it comes well behind Australia in championing love of sport as an essential element of the national character.
The problem with projecting so much onto sport as a marker of the Australian nation is that it is not all about gold medals and glorious moments. What happens when things go seriously wrong on and off the sports field? If sport is integral to national identity, does it then follow that a crisis of sport is also a crisis of Australian national identity?
What is curious about Tony Abbott’s pleasure in sport returning to the front page is that, in 2013, it has rarely been off it – but for all the wrong reasons. Sport has been beset by repeated scandals that have tarnished the reputation of this “nation of good sports”. Lance Armstrong might have done his bit for the Americans, but this has been a vintage year for sport scandals in Australia.
In February, the release of the Australian Crime Commission report, Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport, heralded the so-called “blackest day” in Australian sport, and signalled a series of inquiries by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) that engulfed Essendon and Cronullafootball clubs. Performance reviews of Australian swimming uncovered “culturally toxic incidents”, “poor behaviour” and an apologetic conference by the male swimmers dubbed the“Stilnox Six”.
On the day that the prime minister-in-waiting announced his new ministry, the front pages were devoted not to ministers and parliamentary secretaries, but to a soccer match-fixing scandal in Victoria that has since extended to Queensland. Sport had again overshadowed government in the nation’s conversations with itself. For those who concur with Donald Horne’s famous dictum in The Lucky Country that “sport to many Australians is life and the rest a shadow”, order in the country has been restored.
But the match-fixing affair is one form of sporting excitement that the nation can surely do without.
This article is based on David Rowe’s 2013 Australian Sociological Association (TASA) 50th Anniversary Public Lecture, Sport: Scandal, Gender and the Nation, delivered at Parramatta Town Hall on Thursday September 12.
We’re about to reach intermission in the ten-part Ashes series. What have we learnt about the way we consume the sport of cricket as a social and cultural construct? EPA/Peter Powell
The end of the English summer beckons, and Act One of the current Ashes drama is reaching its appointed denouement across the Thames from London’s Theatreland at The Oval. The interval will last until the sun also rises high on the other side of the equator in November in Brisbane.
Individual cricket performances have come and gone across our television screens like shower squalls over the Pennines in northwest England, leaving behind statistical records and contested narratives. Televised sport has been revealed once more to be a curious synthesis of live theatre, outside broadcast and in-house studio production. Performers excel or fail before our eyes, but most of us were somewhere else, and so depend on camera angles selected by others to shape what we see, and on broadcast commentary to tell us what we have seen.
The game’s twists and turns are welded into coherent spectacle only as it unfolds. The script is still being drafted after the live performance has commenced. One moment, as during the washed out third Test and for much of the fourth, Australia seemed to have seized the initiative, and a new plot line of resurgence was underway. However, the clatter of falling wickets followed by defeat at Durham demanded an instant re-write along the lines of a false dawn or a dead cat bounce.
Media corporations are willing to pay very large sums to acquire the rights to live sport because of this very unpredictability and immediacy. Sport is one of the few forms of regular programming – apart from the reality TV confection that has increasingly imitated it – where the live broadcasting of history can be witnessed. Pivotal live sporting moments cannot be conveniently time-shifted or boxed for DVD viewing binges. They are all about the now – and popular real-time drama comes with a hefty price tag.
But if this is to be a price worth paying viewer attention is essential in order to maintain the healthy economy of the eyeball. Because live sport’s many large and small outcomes cannot be reliably predicted, spectator appeal must be primed and retained even if the events on the field fall short.
It is for this reason that athletes are turned into thespians, coaches into auteurs, and administrators into executive producers. There are plots and sub-plots, dramatic sequences and pauses, and characters with admirable qualities or malign intents. Because this rather bizarre spectacle has to be pitched at a high emotional register to draw in even those who barely understand it, the governing genre is melodrama, with notes of pantomime and farce.
Television sport isn’t generally classified as drama alongside the likes of Downtown Abbey and Underbelly, but it unquestionably lives and dies by its dramatic potential. Its principal narrative tension lies in the enduring conflict between competitive nobility and the ethical holiday of win-at-all-costs. A Greek chorus of commentators draws the necessary moral conclusions – but generally, like the teams, from the viewpoint of opposing sides.
Roles are assigned along conventional principles of archetype. For example, the dashingly heroic character played by England captain Alastair Cook can be drawn to contrast with his villainous teammate Stuart Broad, whose barefaced refusal to walk when obviously out revealed the ruthless streak of the congenital cad. Similarly, the immodest strutting of English batsman Kevin Pietersen may be neatly offset by the Dickensian humility of his Australian opponent Nathan Lyon.
Large-scale themes might also be introduced, such as one based on the back-breaking injuries of social class. Brawny fast bowlers like Australia’s James Pattinson and Englishman Tim Bresnan can play the proletarians mightily labouring, frequently in vain, to supplant the aristocratic elegance and languid foppery of batting stylists Ian Bell (the series’ leading runscorer) and Australian captain Michael Clarke.
Or the troubling body versus machine question, with its haunting spectre of technology rendering the human factor obsolete, might be evoked in the application of a battery of visualisation methods to legitimise or overrule the evidence of the unassisted eye. Here a nightmare world is portrayed, more Bladerunner than Howard’s End, where human inventions have turned on their inventors, aided and abetted by the unseen prosthetic hand of the mysterious third umpire.
The mise-en-scène extends far beyond the pitch. Transgressive offstage conduct is duly referenced, such as David Warner’s Birmingham nightclub swing at his fake-bearded opponent Joe Root, or Monty Panesar’s Graham Greenesque urination over bouncers on a Brighton seafront. The impetuosity of such public drunkenness constructs a rambunctious anti-hero figure who throws into sharp relief the soberly calculating bat-tamperer, secretly thwarting Hot Spot technology unseen by the camera phones of the night.
Such real and imagined displays of mortal weakness manicure the moral landscape of Ashes cricket. The next instalment of this allegory of glove will continue after a short intermission in deference to the revenue requirements of its impresarios, Cricket Australia and the England and Wales Cricket Board.
The caravan tour of the England-Australia Ashes series, spanning two hemispheres and ten Tests in the space of six months, now rolls on to Manchester’s Old Trafford ground.
The current series has so far been marked by Australian despondency over their early failures, English triumphalism, and an obsessive focus on the capability of technology to reveal what really happened accompanied by rancorous debate about player conduct. A royal baby may have appeared between Test matches to lighten the mood, but now it’s back to the serious business of sporting attrition.
The Ashes might display quaint touches of their Victorian-era origins, but sepia tones and quirky traditions cannot disguise the ruthlessness of the pursuit of victory. It may be a faux-naive question, but why should it matter so much to so many when sport – at least in its own cherished mythology – was devised first as careless pleasure and then as moral training for participants and spectators alike?
The mystery deepens when observing the apparent absurdity of sporting contests which, when reduced to their bare bones, are rather eccentric technical exercises in rule-bound physical play. As the fixation on regulating movement – in cricket achieving the status of “law” – intensifies, massive attention is focused on whether a small part of a ball or person was over a line, or whether contact between bodies was admirable play or a heinous offence. Technologies such as super slow motion cameras, Hawk-Eye, Hot Spot and Snickometernow take the finest distinctions of sporting space and time to their most excruciating limits.
The answers paradoxically lie in recognising that irrespective of the microscopic focus of coaches, conditioners, players and fans on the action, sport is plainly always about much more than the physical contest itself. Victory and loss compulsively extend beyond the field and the stadium. At stake for those who care – and even for those who are only half-watching – are communal prestige and bragging rights across suburbs, cities, regions and, especially, among nations.
Claiming as one’s own the best individuals and teams as measured by frequently narrow, even fluky victories in sport events enables ready extrapolation to other, more elusive achievements and characteristics. It is not just that a country’s sporting representatives on this or previous occasions are better than another’s as measured by the scoreboard. Winning at sport can be made to symbolise a superior way of life or even imply, for the racially inclined who prefer to ignore the global circulation of sporting labour, higher-order national genetic stock. The reverse is the case for the vanquished.
Sport stubbornly stands in for something else that is bigger and more resonant than the fleeting contest. When modernity produced bounded nation states and internationalism tried to regulate cross-border military combat, sport offered the ideal fantasy war game. When large public and private media organisations developed with the explicit remit of narrating the nation – and a professional sport media industry emerged to provide them with boundless purple prose – the recipe for shadow warfare was complete.
Sportsmen, in particular, were transformed in media-speak into “warriors” and “heroes”, selflessly putting their “lives on the line” and “going into battle” on behalf of a grateful citizenry. The hyperbole that habitually attends sporting contests inflates in tandem with the expansion of the print, broadcast, online and social media complex designed to provoke and maintain interest in the often-arcane action performed by a few for the many. The exploits of those whom the sport-phobic mock as “muddied oafs” and “flannelled fools” acquire epic qualities, embodying the nation and attaching their hyper-specialised fortunes to the common weal.
This popular emotional dynamic explains why, in the long-running tragicomic series of England-Australia sporting encounters, each party strives for rhetorical advantage. For decades Australia seemed to have the edge, operating with deceptively effortless efficiency a production line of sports champions out of its abundant space, sunshine and veneer of New World classless freedom. Many English sport fans, having artfully refined the gallows humour generated by perennial failure against the “Aussies”, bought the line that the loss of Empire was the historically inevitable precursor of loss of sporting self-respect.
But now the wheel has turned. England – or more accurately Great Britain, when sporting fortunes suit – is winning the cricket and has the Wimbledon men’s tennis champion (Scot Andy Murray) and back-to-back Tour de France victors (Bradley Wiggins and Nairobi-born Chris Froome). The British and Irish Lions rugby union team, a sporting marriage of convenience involving three devolved countries, another nation state, and a post-imperial power, has recently succeeded on Australia’s home turf.
Not only did Team GB, albeit with its over-representation of successful Scots acting as mobile pro-independence models, win more medals than Australia at the London 2012 Olympic Games, but the host city trumpeted that it had eclipsed Sydney 2000 as the “best Games ever”.
Australian sport journalists and fans now feel trepidation at having to face English counterparts still flushed with unaccustomed success. The British press and the Barmy Army are exacting revenge for the lost decades of loss. There is little prospect of escape from victory or defeat, and few on either side will question how willow and cork ever became weapons of a phoney war.