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Why England and Australia love to hate each other

Anglo-Australian sport is invariably played with unusual and sometimes disturbing fervour. 

As soon as you step on that line, it’s war. These are the words of David Warner, the vice-captain of the Australian cricket team. Australia are taking on England in a series of five Test matches, starting on 23 November at the Gabba (or “Gabbatoir”) in Brisbane. But it’s not war, is it? Cricket is a game with a bat and a ball, admittedly played with some intensity, but nobody is supposed to die, and that differentiates it from most wars.

Sport is war minus the shooting, according to George Orwell – though it has always seemed to me that shooting is a rather central thing to leave out of a war.

Warner is famous in England for punching Joe Root, now the England captain, in a bar in Birmingham in 2013; he objected to the way that Root was wearing a joke wig on his chin. He continues the debate at the same intellectual level. When you start an Ashes Test match, “You try and get into a battle as quick as you can… You have to delve and dig deep into yourself to actually get some hatred.” He added: “History is a big part of this.”

History, eh? It appears that history is to blame, as the Englishman Haines explains Anglo-Irish relations in Ulysses. It must be quite a complex history if a grown-up – well, Warner is 31 – can confuse a children’s game with the horrors of total war.

Anglo-Australian cricket can be seen as an attempt to interpret the relationship between two nations as a kind of Freudian drama. That one nation begat the other affects politics and economics but has its most vivid expression in sport: sport played with peculiar vigour and sometimes with a bitterness that defies understanding.

Sure, there are other fixtures that take things beyond a mere question of sport. When England play Scotland, the Scots sing about a battle between the two nations that took place 700 years ago, and they sing as if it took place last year.

When England play football against Germany or Argentina, there’s a buzz inspired by more recent conflicts – and if Warner had taken part in either, he would have discovered that they weren’t a lot like cricket. When teams from the US met those from the Soviet Union, it was never just an examination of sporting skills. A team of American college boys beat the Soviet professionals at ice hockey at the Winter Olympics of 1980 and it was called “the miracle on ice”. Sports Illustrated magazine declared it the greatest sporting moment of the 20th century.

But the only times England and Australia have been in the same war, they’ve been on the same side… First I heard of it, mate! Yes, we’re back to Gallipoli, the terrible battle in which many thousands died. Gallipoli is also one of Australia’s undying foundation myths, and we’ll get there shortly. The point is that ancient tensions between England and Australia are still expressed in sport and with ever greater fervour.

John O’Neill, a senior official in Australian rugby and so presumably a reasonably responsible person, said in 2007: “It doesn’t matter whether it’s cricket, rugby union, or rugby league. We all hate England.”

Hate is a strong world, but strong words have been spoken on both sides. CB Fry, the athlete and polymath who was once offered the throne of Albania, said in the 1930s, in a remark sweetly calculated to give maximum offence: “In all this Australian team, there are barely one or two who would be accepted as public school men.”

And so it continues: dull, stuck-up, feeble, hidebound, decadent Poms against lovable, free-spirited, rough-tough larrikins. (Pomegranate: a jocular, not-quite-rhyming slang for immigrant.) During the rugby union World Cup of 2003, which was held in Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald printed a picture of the boot of Jonny Wilkinson, the England fly-half, with the caption: “Is that all you’ve got?”

The Daily Mirror responded with the same caption alongside a picture of Kylie Minogue’s bottom. As an expression of what’s called the cultural cringe, it could hardly be bettered. (As a footnote, England beat Australia in the final, thanks to a last-minute kick in extra time from Wilkinson. The English like to remind Australians of this on a reasonably regular basis.)

When Australia played England at football at Upton Park in London in 2003, the then England manager, Sven-Göran Eriksson – a Swede – failing to understand the intensity of Anglo-Oz rivalry, decided that it was the perfect fixture for experimentation. The lavishly motivated Australians won 3-1.

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Anglo-Australian sport is invariably played with unusual and sometimes disturbing fervour. Defeat cuts extraordinarily deep. It really matters, even though Australia is a nation with its own identity and problems, federated and independent since 1901. But in sport, Australia has a tendency to revert to a kind of spiritual adolescence while England, in turn, drops into comfortable senility. Sport allows both nations to become their own caricatures.

The First World War is generally seen as the first time that Australia was involved in world affairs as an autonomous nation. The popular narrative of its involvement centres on Gallipoli: Anzac Day, observed on 25 April each year, commemorates the invasion by the Allies of that Turkish peninsula in 1915. What happened is less significant than what people believe happened. In nationalistic myth, it’s about the stupid English callously wasting the lives of Australian soldiers: the glorious diggers, guardians of the larrikin spirit. According to New Zealand government figures, 9,000 Australians died at Gallipoli, along with 3,000 New Zealanders, 10,000 Frenchmen and 21,000 from Britain and Ireland.

But the notion of the English upper classes and their indifference to Australian suffering and death became an archetype of national life, and so inevitably it fed the sporting rivalry. The need for Australia to measure itself against the mother country – the one that established the first penal colony in Australia in 1788 – is less urgent than it used to be in most walks of life. But in sport, it’s as keen as ever.

Partly that’s because of a conflict that began entirely in cricket: the row over the “body­line” strategy. The Australian players pride themselves on their robustness, never confined by public school notions of how cricket should be played. Gentlemanliness is out of place here. Sport is tough, and it’s supposed to be tough. So deal with it. But then, on the tour of 1932-33, England used a tactic of fast bowling aimed at the body, and Australia complained bitterly.

It was all about Don Bradman. Australia, hammered by the Great Depression and struggling for national identity, had at least the consolation of a genuine world-beater; Bradman is still regarded as the finest batsman ever. In a time of mass unemployment (25 per cent or higher) and national self-doubt, Bradman offered a certain certainty. If Australia could produce Bradman, then at heart Australia was all right.

The England captain, Douglas Jardine, thought that he spotted a flaw in Bradman. “He’s yellow!” The ploy of attacking him – Jardine called it “leg theory” – and his team in this intimidating fashion was brutally effective, helping England win the series 4-1. The England attack was led by Harold Larwood, a former miner. The Australian Cricket Board cabled Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s and demanded that England stop employing the tactic: “It is likely to upset the friendly relationships existing between Australia and England.”

The MCC’s response was disdainful and withering: “We… deplore your cable.” Both nations fell back on long-establilshed defensive positions. It became a diplomatic incident and the politicians stepped in, fearing a British boycott of Australian produce. Later, the laws of cricket were changed. Bodyline is now illegal.

It has been variously regarded as the longest whinge in sporting history and as a classic example of a colonising nation bullying its colonies. Either way, the collision of sport and politics was remarkable.

It was ironic, then, that in the 1970s cricket was dominated by the Australian fast bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, who habitually bowled fast bouncers directed at the body. Thomson said: “The sound of breaking Pommy skulls is music to my ears.” Lillee, more of an intellectual, said: “I want it to hurt so much that the batsman doesn’t want to face me any more.”

All of which neatly reversed the moral stance the two nations had held four decades earlier. The Australians were no longer victims: they were the swaggering larrikins who let tradition go hang. The English were complaining because they simply weren’t good enough, but what do you expect from the Poms except whingeing?

And so, when England once again found defeat and humiliation, there was always the cultural cringe, summed up for all time by Dame Edna, who explained Australian sporting excellence as a result of “the sun, the diet, the healthy outdoor life and the total lack of intellectual stimulation”.

Ian Botham, always a man with a taste for conflict, once walked out of an event in Australia at which the Queen had been mocked. He was accused of being precious by the then Australian prime minister, Paul Keating. “I’m very proud of my heritage,” Botham responded. “And unlike Mr Keating, I do have one.”

Yeah, yeah, right. It’s old banter. Besides, the great Australian novel has actually been written, and it’s Patrick White’s Voss, an epic about the exploration of the new land. “The map?” its protagonist Voss asks. “First I will make it.” And that is still part of the joy – part of the point – of Australia: the sense of infinite possibility.

But the novel remains a problem to Australians. White was not only the great Australian novelist, he was also homosexual and went to Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire and Cambridge University. Heroes could often be better designed for their purpose. Bradman was notoriously difficult: a small, prim, private man, over-careful with money and somewhat stiff in his moral joints. Not exactly a larrikin.

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A further development in the Anglo-Australian relationship came with the great immigration that followed the Second World War, under the slogan “Populate or perish”. More than a million people travelled from Britain to Australia in those years. No skills or qualifications were needed: just the willingness to take on the great bargain of assisted travel. They were known as “the ten-pound Poms”.

Not all of them found instant happiness. A 12,000-mile journey can never solve the problems of the universe and of your own nature. The British immigrants who failed to find the paradise they were looking for became the classic whingeing Poms. It didn’t help that some of them cheered for England in Ashes Test matches and referred to the England team as “we”. The same thing continues today with immigrants to Australia from India, who fail to pass Cobber Tebbit’s “cricket test” and cheer for the land of their origin.

Four years ago, the England cricket team travelled to Australia and lost the Ashes series 5-0. England weren’t just beaten. They were destroyed, not just as cricketers but, it seemed, as human beings. Two of their number, Graeme Swann and Jonathan Trott, left the tour early, unable to cope with its impossible demands. In the anguished aftermath, England sacked their leading run-scorer, Kevin Pietersen.

These days, many Australian taxi drivers are of Asian or North African extraction, but there was a time not long ago when an English person’s induction into Australian life began at the airport with the climb into the back seat of a cab. “Wozza madda, mite? Do I stink?” You ride up front. This is a business contract between equals, not a master-servant relationship. Instant realisation: you have checked out of the class system, an unimagined freedom. I remember explaining to flabbergasted Australians that an English person usually has a pretty decent notion of another English person’s social background after about ten seconds of conversation. It was a concept beyond Australian imagining.

This winter, English people will travel to Australia in their thousands. They will do so to support their team – and because they long to be in Australia during the northern hemisphere winter. It’s rare to find an English person who travels there and fails to love Australia. And Australians.

It works the other way, too. Australians who come to England equally fall in love with the old place. True, they may moan about the rain and the beer (you know what Aussies are like), but the dizzying sense of rootedness always gets to them.

Being English, I always love that sense of personal reinvention that comes with arrival in Australia, the feeling of leaving a load of unwanted baggage behind. What life would I have led had I arrived there in my twenties? But everyone asks that.

And it doesn’t affect the desperate desire for an England win. A professional sports writer is supposed to move beyond such coarse things as partisanship, but I still remember a defeat in Adelaide in 2006 with something not far from horror, while the exhilaration of England’s victory in the same city four years later was a matter of deeply shocking joy… And all the while, I loved the place and loved a few carefully selected Australians for good measure.

The relationship between the two countries goes deeper than love. It goes deeper than any comparison with family, with parents and offspring and siblings. England is necessary to Australia and – though England is far less aware of this important truth – Australia is necessary to England. We are not each other’s antithesis. We are each other’s completion. So let’s try to tear each other apart again.

Simon Barnes was the chief sports writer of the Times until 2014

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder