It was at The Oval in 1882 that Australia claimed their first victory over England in cricket. An obituary was posted in The Sporting Times claiming that English cricket had died and its ashes would be taken (very very slowly) to Australia. The English media, gawdlove'm, dubbed the return series down under "the quest to regain The Ashes". Add to this the macabre gift of a tiny terracotta urn from some over-enthusiastic Melbourne ladies to the England captain and you've got yourself a rivalry to last the ages. Some one hundred and thirty years and sixty-six series later, Australia are leading by just thirty-one wins to England's thirty. It's still all to play for!
Perhaps after losing the 1882/83 series, the Aussie captain WL Murdoch said, "best of three" to the Hon IFW Bligh and it just carried on from there, the ante being upped every so often. There's probably a 1930's beermat somewhere with a drunken agreement scrawled on it, "the first team to twenty has its shoes shined by the opposition for a whole week," signed Hammond and Bradman. Where does it end? Or as my girlfriend asks, "what's it all for?" To which I reply incredulously, "who cares!"
I've heard it said of football, "it's not a matter of life and death - it's more important than that". Well, it's not actually, and nor is cricket. But it is a jolly nice way to pass the time, in between properly important stuff like death and shoe-polishing. And what makes it even more pleasurable is taking it far too seriously. That, and ridiculing your adversaries . . .
The English like to focus on how supposedly crass and uncultured Australians are (even the venerable David Gower was at it recently), and on how their strength and fitness is just the natural outcome of a more conducive climate. What they really want to say is: how come the convicts ended up with all the barbecues and surfing, when we (who didn't steal any loaves of bread) are stuck here digging our cars out of snow-drifts?
The Aussies have a fabulous pantomime contempt for the English. "Aw listen mate, the Poms are just a bunch of whinging big girls blouses who can't hold their beer or successfully satisfy their wives. No wonder they can't play cricket". The fact that England have won three of the last four series and look like winning the next two is but a small grey cloud in the otherwise clear blue sky of their innate superiority.
It is the original love-hate relationship, and both tribes play up to the caricature that the other side expects of them. Remember Jeff Thompson joyously provoking a crisis in Bumble's Balkans? Ted Dexter insisting he was unaware of any errors he had made after England went down 4-0 in '89? Merv Hughes snarling at Gooch, "I'll get you a piano - see if you can play that"? Or Johnny Douglas describing his 1921 England team as a "damnable side of picnickers"? (No, nor do I.) All the way up to Warner and Root's minor misunderstanding in the Walkabout the other week. It's all part of the fun.
Yet again, the cricket is of the highest calibre, but what makes these matches really unmissable is the pleasantly crackling undercurrent of mutual antipathy/undying admiration. Australia will not go down without a fight. It's not in their nature; their fabulous, insanely competitive, massively over-generalised nature. England should win, and despite getting off to a good start will no doubt do their very best to lose, always preferring the plucky underdog as they do. Whatever happens it means two months of sitting on the sofa, drinking posh alcopops and listening to the inspired ramblings of Bumble, Blowers, Beefy, Warney, Aggers and Athers. Life is sweet!
Neil Hannon is one half of The Duckworth Lewis Method. Their new album, Sticky Wickets (Divine Comedy Records), is out now