Testy feelings

The Australians' sense of humour failure shows their true character

It's hard to have a sense of humour in defeat, as anyone who's been watching the Ashes whitewash will know. Being humourless in victory is, however, a real achievement. In an online match commentary, Cricinfo - a well-respected website owned by Wisden - revisited an old nickname for Justin Langer, referring to the diminutive Australian batsman as a gnome.

It was a passé joke, the kind you might half smile at and forget seconds later. But Cricket Australia, the sport's governing body, was outraged. It issued a press release denouncing the much-loved website for its "juvenile and infantile approach", and Cricinfo's Australasian editor, Peter English, was forced to apologise to Langer, who was apparently considering a lawsuit.

I can only assume that the noise I subsequently heard ringing in my ears was the clang of pots and kettles. This is an Australian cricket team that prides itself on its policy of sledging and "mental disintegration". It's the same team that got under the skin of Ian Bell, the England batsman, by dubbing him "the Sherminator", after the horny ginger dude in the American Pie movies. Cricket Australia, by the way, is the same organisation that was keen not to take things too seriously when Monty Panesar was racially abused during a match. A spectator in Sydney had yelled: "You can't speak English, you stupid Indian." The CA chief executive's response? "I don't think there's too much racist about that."

During the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, my family and I sat in the MCG's infamous Bay 13. The banter from the Fanatics - the Aussie version of the Barmy Army - wasn't anything special: "You're shit, your bowling's shit and your team are shit" was one piece of information I'm sure Matthew Hoggard found enlightening as he fielded a few yards away. But what it lacked in wit, it more than made up for in decibels.

The Aussies revel in their reputation as larrikins, with laid-back attitudes that are supposedly the antithesis of ours, we stuck-up Poms. So how come they can dish it out, but can't take it?

The Australian press is a case in point. A friend of mine, Lawrence Booth, recently published a light-hearted dictionary of cricket in which he mentioned that the Ashes were "kept in whichever country has won the most recent series - unless that country is Australia". The Australian wasn't impressed - his jokes were "tasteless" and "bloody obvious". "The pernickety Booth finds fault with almost every aspect of this Great Cricketing Nation which has loyally stood by England through two world wars," it wrote. Press conferences Down Under are nauseating love-ins; any question that dares challenge an Australian player is glared down by the rest of the room. When journalists suggest that a particular player is overrated, or that they'd love to see a decent fight instead of a walkover, they are condemned as Pom-lovers.

This larrikin stuff is an act. Their national costume may be board shorts and flip-flops, but it's the sporting arena that displays Australians' real identity: fiercely sentimental, desperate to be taken seriously.

When Ricky Ponting's side regained the Ashes in Perth, his team set off on not one, but three victory laps, and the talk in the Australian press was not of a disappointing contest but of Gallipoli. And that's why Cricket Australia has got its knickers in a twist about a gnomic utterance. Australian sportsmen aren't just invincibles, they're untouchables.

Hunter Davies is away

Emma John is a sports journalist and deputy editor of Observer Sport Monthly magazine. She writes on the arts for The Guardian and is a former Time Out theatre critic.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics