Why I love the Ashes

It's the age-old rivalry that makes matches like this weekend's Test so thrilling to watch.

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

England celebrate victory in the first Ashes test on 14 July. (Photo: Getty.)
Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood