In the land Down Under, cricket really matters

2009-02-13 00:00

FIRES have been raging in Victoria as tinder dry ground burst into angry flames driven along by high and fickle winds. Unaware of the severity of the threat till the last, many locals tried to protect their houses or else jumped into cars that became coffins. A sympathetic world watched in horror. Newspapers, radio and television kept a shocked public informed. Meanwhile, floods have been ravaging vast areas of Queensland, destroying towns and crops and leaving thousands of people homeless.

Of course, sport is nothing besides these tragedies. Recognising the fact, players have responded by wearing black armbands, as the Australian soccer team did in its World Cup qualifying match in Japan. The respectful hosts offered a minute of utter silence before the match began (the result was 0-0 and the Australians are well placed to reach the finals). Besides armbands, the Kiwi cricketers donated their fees from the recent one-day matches. Besides that, the Australians visited the devastated areas and people and were moved by the experience.

At such times trifling matters are put in their place. At present, the only serious topic of cricketing conversation concerns Zimbabwe, because that reaches beyond sport and into greed, brutality, and corruption in high places, cricketing and otherwise.

Although the fires have been appalling, Australians are constantly reminded about the power of nature. Even now, travellers suffering a breakdown in the Simpson desert can die of heat and thirst. Drought has driven many farmers from their land. For all the high buildings and tarmacked roads, Australia is a raw country. Although it looks and sometimes sounds like England, it is frontier territory, a place of snakes, loud birds, crocodiles, deadly spiders, kangaroos and so forth.

Inevitably this affects the way life is led and a game is played. Australian cricket cannot be understood unless the country is understood. Of course the same applies to South Africa, with all its traumas. Nor is geography the beginning and end of it. History also matters. Occasionally opponents object to the direct nature of the locals, but the early European settlers did not leave class-ridden England to build an imitation. They did not cross the oceans and go to a strange land with all its harshness in order to replicate the old country.

To the contrary, they wanted to be direct, open, honest, matter of fact. Australians sit in the front seat of taxis besides the driver, who is a fellow worker, not a servant. Lawyer migrants from South Africa are bemused to find theselves living next door to plumbers, but that is normal Down Under. In any case these tradesmen are actually small businessmen.

To a fault, some might think, the Aussies remain direct. The main contribution of the Australian language lies in insults and arguments. A fellow citizen might be deemed a dill, dork, drongo, dag, dipstick, deadbeat or dole bludger — and that’s just the Ds. Contentious types might indulge in a blue, stink or barney. Australia is about as subtle as a tomahawk. Add the toughness required by climate and vast inhospitable tracts of land, a remoteness that helps to forge unity, and the relative newness of the nation, and a picture forms of a resilient, proud, straightforward, insecure people, fearful of melancholy and isolation and not much else.

Inevitably cricket is played by these lights. Australia does not tolerate the grey or cautious.

Always its instinct is to attack. Fast bowlers, wrist-spinners, batsmen prepared to use their feet, fierce throws and sharp catches are features of Australian cricket. And the sense that a field is another place with its own rules. Australians shake hands and share a beer after a match, cannot understand those bearing grudges.

More than elsewhere, sport matters in Australia. It is an outdoors country with a youthful spirit and a love of sport. And cricket is the most important sport. It is the national game, the national team whose fortunes are avidly followed on national radio. Different footballing codes are played around the country. Tennis and golf are individual activities. Australia does not matter politically.

The cricket team remain its most obvious expression of nationhood. All the more reason to want it to play with honour and success, a combination often difficult to maintain.

And the relevance of this? Australia might lose their position at the top of the cricket rankings, but they will not sink as low as the belatedly awakening West Indians. Indeed they might hardly slide at all. Already signs of improvement can be detected, with Peter Siddle and Bruce McGain bowling again, a run-hungry young batsman selected, and the one-day team starting to play properly. Australia will bounce back. Cricket matters too much. The sense of service is too deeply rooted.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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