Raking the Ashes of English socialism

Lawrence Parker takes a look at cricket - history and present

Friday afternoon is never the most productive time for office workers. Even less so recently in my office when everyone has gathered around a television set to watch the latest Australian batting collapse. In case you hadn't heard, as the last match at the Oval gets underway, England are 2-1 up in the Ashes cricket series and, in a worse-case scenario, even if they lose they will have competed effectively against an Australian team for the first time since the 1980s. Despite a steady (and in the last couple of seasons spectacular) improvement in results since Nasser Hussain became captain in 1999, this is surreal territory for most England supporters. In years gone by, most of us had turned our attention to the tender encroachment of the football season, as the English cricketing summer spluttered to an ignoble end. CLR James famously analysed how a 'welfare state of mind' infected post-war cricket, producing a prevailing attitude of caution and a need for security. The England cricket that I watched in the 1990s was essentially the fag-end of this culture, mostly centred around then-captain Michael Atherton. He was a stoical, obdurate character upon whom the hope of the nation for a 'competitive' (which could be translated as 'hopelessly average') batting score fell. In fact, Atherton, despite some fairly heroic performances down the years, was actually no security against consistent English failure. He was the mythical rock with which the cricketing public kidded itself that things might just be all right. Thus sport was a confused mirror for a society that had ideologically turned its back on the security of 'English socialism' but still clung vainly onto manifestations such as the national health service which, like Atherton, was another last man standing. But the last vestiges of this sentimental socialism are falling away, leaving British society exuding a schizophrenic tension between extreme mass anxiety (terrorism, health scares, immigrants and so on) and an almost casual short-termism (fewer people are bothering with pensions/savings for old age and the available evidence suggests that more and more young people are disregarding warnings about 'safe sex'). Words such as 'change' and 'the future' have slipped out of public debate in any meaningful sense. And so the cricket of this summer, and the public's response to it, has been an accurate manifestation of this tension. The viewing of the previous three test matches, which saw an England revival beyond all expectations, was anxious in the extreme (England narrowly won two matches, while Australia scraped a draw in the other). Even the moment of victory brought, yes, joy, but a feeling that England had somehow got away with it. One could argue that this is a natural outcome of exhilarating cricket, but it is possible to predict another reaction of unfettered enjoyment if society was less interested in gnawing the bones of its self-induced fear. The cricket itself has moved a long way from the security blanket of years gone by. Run rates are soaring and games are much more likely to finish in four days than the traditional five. The cavalier way in which England set about chasing down a small total in the fourth test at Trent Bridge, almost losing the game in the process (itself the source of some vexed comment from English cricket broadcasters schooled in a more sedate world view) suggests that short-term daring is the order of the day. Instrumental to this has been the glorification of England all-rounder Freddie Flintoff. While commodified as a true son of John Bull (Freddie enjoys his grub and a pint; even his stocky figure suggests a certain rotund Englishness), his apparent 'doesn't give a fuck' enjoyment and ability to take the game away from the opposition by smashing a few sixes or ripping through the Australian batting order means that he is a most potent symbol of the carefree individuals most of us would wish to be. Of course, this reading is also partly a deception. Flintoff is in fact a much more measured and calculated cricketer than at the beginning of his England career. But then who would you rather go down the pub with - Mike Atherton or Freddie Flintoff?