As sporting rivalries go, England and Australia remains oddly paradoxical: infused with a patina of goodwill, staked out around a homely selection of shared sporting activities, and by most measures at the more fraternal end of the range animosities. Except, that is, when things go wrong. For all the multifarious sense of good-natured simmer, there is also a history of intermittent sporting ferocity, a series of collisions that have marked what is one of the world’s oldest and most culturally nuanced sporting rivalries.
Rugby union is by nature a violent sport, but somehow when these two nations take the field the needle just seems to lurch to the right a little, leaping into the territory beyond the merely necessary and into something more profound. At the far end of the scale, the battle of Ballymore between Australia and a majority-English British and Irish Lions in 1989 was described by Mike Teague, who played in it, as “the most violent game of rugby that has ever been played”. This was a Test that began with a massive punch-up between the two scrum halves in the first minute. It went downhill all the way from there and came to reflect what was still at that time an enduringly raw postcolonial animosity.
A desire not just to win but also to exact revenge, to assert some form of wider cultural superiority, to win in a way that might feel like the end of something. If Australia has often looked to portray itself as a youthful, sunlit kind of place, freed from the lingering, pigeon-chested hierarchical neuroses of the old country, sport has presented not just an arena in which to exact a measure of symbolic revenge, but a place in which to define itself as decisively different, more muscular, forward-looking.
Similarly victory for either nation on the cricket field — in a sport of both technical skill and physical bravery — has rarely come unaccompanied by wider theorising on one nation’s moral, organisational and physical superiority over the other.
The most obvious occasion for this was of course the defining moment of 20th century Anglo-Aussie sporting relations, the ”Bodyline“ Ashes Test series of 1932–3, during which England captain Douglas Jardine instructed his fast bowlers, led by Harold Larwood, to attack Australia’s batsmen, and in particular the peerless Don Bradman, with short, hostile, leg-side bowling. This was an unambiguous kind of sporting warfare.
During the journey to Australia Jardine had instructed his players that they needed to actively “hate” and made at least one request that Bradman be referred to as ”the little bastard“. As Australia’s batsmen were repeatedly hit and bloodied, a riot was narrowly avoided at the Adelaide Oval after Australia’s captain was felled by a short ball from Larwood.
England won that series, causing a change in the laws of the game to prevent “leg-theory” bowling, but they were subjected to a kind of revenge 40 years later when a touring team led by Mike Denness was battered relentlessly by Australia’s fearsome fast-bowling pair, the ”twin terrors“ Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.
“Never in the 98 years of Test cricket have batsmen been so grievously bruised and battered by ferocious, hostile, short-pitched balls,“ Wisden reported as two England batsmen suffered broken hands in their first innings of the series. Never has the furiously avenging, open-shirted beer-drinking Aussie Larrikin bloke extended such furious ancestral revenge through the mannered strictures of professional sport. The irony was not lost on the Australian captain at the time, Ian Chappell. His grandfather vice-captained the Aussie bodyline side.
And if the edge has faded from this, if perhaps there is less in the way of genuine proximity to genuine postcolonial animosity, the needle is still there.
The rivalry between the British cycling champions Victoria Pendleton and Australia’s Anna Meares has been as jarringly physical as anything seen inside a velodrome, carrying with it its own shades of English vanity — the beautifully-groomed Pendleton, princess of the saddle — against the concussively no-nonsense Aussie Mears. At the 2006 world championships Pendleton berated Mears as a rider who “likes to push rules” after she cut her off during the final. By the time Pendleton retired after the London Olympics of 2012 this was a sporting rivalry that looked to have run its course, fading into affectionate respect — just as that strain of genuinely vicious Anglo-Aussie sporting brutality now looks as passé as the old world itself, a hangover from more obviously oppositional times, perhaps even in its own way part of wider process of exorcism and catharsis.
Where forces beyond the simple urge to compete and succeed intrude, there is a lurking uncertainty to any sporting contest. England against Australia has often been an unpredictable affair, right from Australia’s initial flowering as a sporting power in the late Victorian years, when pretty much any Aussie victory at all was considered an affront to the imperial order.
The Ashes itself is a term coined out of sporting upset, the first ever defeat on home soil for the English cricket team at the Oval in 1882 that drew a satirical obituary in The Sporting Times, stating that English cricket had died and the ashes of the body would be cremated and taken to Australia.
By the same token it didn’t take long for English rugby’s unbeaten history to go the way of all flesh as Australia won the first ever rugby union international between the two at Blackheath in 1909. Australia’s 9-3 victory was considered something of a black eye at the time in a sport that epitomised a militaristic public schooled sense of athletic rectitude, and was dismissed as a product of outrageous good fortune in the English press, with the Manchester Guardian saying the Aussies’ “nippiness and grit got them through, but their football… was rarely removed from the commonplace”.
History suggests there was no real upset here though: England earned some small measure of revenge at Twickenham 20 years later when they beat the touring Australians 18-11, but that was as close as they have ever come to being ahead in the series between the two teams. Albeit Australia’s defeat of England in the 1991 Rugby World Cup final must still count as one against the head, victory in the opposition stronghold against an England team of fearsomely reductive physical power.
In fact it is here rather than the more concussive contests between the two nations, that there is a sense of another kind of coming together, of Australia as a lighter, happier, more spunkily unbound kind of sporting force, able to outwit the English heavy cavalry with its native underdog elegance. This has long been a theme in Australian rugby union, where English physicality has so often met Australian flair and invention.
And it seemed the case again when Australia’s Socceroos beat England for the first and only time at Upton Park in 2003, a match that appeared to mean very little to England, who changed their entire team at half time (including the introduction of a 17 year-old Wayne Rooney making his international debut), and a great deal to the Aussie victors who put on a violently focused performance to produce a prized bloodying of the English nose in pursuit of its national sport. And it is in this propensity for fraught and violently-cherished upset victories that another shade of the Anglo-Aussie sporting relationship emerges.
Such is the peculiar balance of power and expectations that it seems at times that any victory for either nation in any sport might be seen as some kind of upset. Fear, loathing and respect for, separately, sporting and economic superiority has created an atmosphere of finely nuanced neurosis, the oddity that both can simultaneously see themselves as the sporting underdog.
Hence perhaps England’s bizarrely — and indeed embarrassingly — overheated celebrations on winning the 2005 Ashes series, complete with open-top bus rides, prime ministerial drinks bash and MBEs all round, the most widely trumpeted, narrowly sweated 2-1 series victory against a depleted opponent on home soil of all time.
Hence also the occasionally glorious see-sawing nature of so many meetings between the two, none more so than cricket’s greatest upset victory, the Ian Botham-inspired victory at Headingley in 1981 for an England team on the verge of losing the series in double time, and priced by bookies just before the fight back began at 500-1 to win.
That Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, playing for Australia in the game, both took up the odds and ended up winning £7,500 betting against themselves, only adds another, deeper tone to this peculiar sporting rivalry, where nobody gets to be the underdog, or even the favourite, where no rubbers are ever truly dead, and where even imminent victory can still come with its own peculiar sense of loss.
Like tetchily affectionate cousins there has often been a sense among the English and Australian sporting public that both are capable of being appalled by and also secretly delighted by each other’s eccentricities. We are a bit like them: but we really are at the same time — let’s make this clear — very different from them.
England‘s Ashes captain during the bodyline series, Douglas Jardine, may have been reviled and barracked wherever he went in Australia but in his cussedness, his awkwardness — Jardine was known for his uncoordinated but passionately committed scrabbling on the boundary — there was something eccentrically dogged that even an Australian couldn‘t help but respect, even guiltily. Walking out to bat on that tour in Adelaide, Jardine swished a hand across his face at some passing insect. “Oi, Jardine leave our bloody flies alone, they‘re the only friends you‘ve got here,” came a lone voice from the stands, according to popular myth. Jardine, starched, upright, infuriatingly neckerchiefed, waved grandly back.
Similarly English sporting audiences have often revelled in the more eccentrically uber-Aussie qualities of that nation‘s sporting mini-greats. Perhaps the outstanding single instance of Anglo-Aussie sporting oddity is the story of Reg Spiers, an Australian javelin thrower of the 1960s. Aged 22 Spiers looked a certainty for the Aussie team for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics until he injured his throwing arm. In a bid to qualify he came to London to compete in the northern hemisphere season, after which he found himself penniless and facing the thorny prospect of how to return home. Unable to get a job as a sailor, Spiers hit on the idea of posting himself the 10,000 miles back to Australia (cash on delivery), enlisting a fellow athlete to build him a five-foot long wooden crate. Despite spending 63 hours without food or water — (why didn‘t you take some water Reg? Why?) inside the hull of a Boeing 707, Spiers described himself as “comfortable throughout” his successful return to Perth, his hairiest moment coming only when he almost fainted through dehydration after being left out in the baking sun with the rest of the freight during a stop over in Calcutta.
This is fairly extreme stuff (Spiers later found a home inside a slightly larger man-made box after being convicted of drug smuggling in Sri Lanka) but the slightly cartoonish edge to sporting relations, a sense that interaction between English and Australian is enough in itself to bring out an exaggeration of those characteristics likely to be most infuriating to the other, is a recurrent theme.
Derek Randall’s wonderful hundred in the Centenary Test in Melbourne in 1977 was most memorable for his successful enraging of Dennis Lillee, doffing his cap to Australia’s premier fast bowler after evading a particularly nasty bouncer, and generally producing an entirely provocative pastiche of an absent-minded English eccentric, Frank Spencer in pads and gloves.
Summarily Merv Hughes was perhaps the most memorable Australian cricketer of the early 1990s, a figure who, with his razored hair and walrus moustaches, his pantomime glower almost seemed to have arrived in fancy dress, decked out as a petty Victorian convict. Hughes minced in to bowl off a preposterously long run, growled at the crowd, snorted in English batsmen’s ears and developed a massive and still undimmed popularity among supporters of both teams, welcomed to England on his final tour here in 1993 as a kind of cowboy-booted returning hero.
Similarly, albeit perhaps less warmly, David Campese is as celebrated in England as he is in Australia. He was an almost ludicrously inflammatory figure in his time as a brilliant rugby union winger, Campese has carved a high-profile parallel and post-rugby career as an incarnation of the pom-bashing Aussie larrikin nitwit-scamp. Player of the tournament at the 1991 World Cup he will be remembered for deliberately knocking the ball on, close to the final hooter with England wing Rory Underwood apparently about to score, an act of base misconduct that Campese has rather winningly laughing off ever since. “My memory of the game against England was that we won,” he said years later.
Naturally enough for two nations so intimately entwined the spirit of sporting one-upmanship has often permeated beyond the pitch, the wicket and the track into a more tangible kind of engagement.
The key note of the Bodyline controversy during England’s 1932-3 cricket tour of Australia, so often seized upon as evidence the tangle of institutional confusions between the two nations, is the background rumble engagement at governmental level. When it comes to England and Australia the personal can so easily become the public: England‘s Bodyline captain-to-be Douglas Jardine, a fiercely confrontational Scot, had tangled unpleasantly with the Australian tourists in the previous decade while batting against them as a student. A few years later on his first tour to Australia, Jardine was mocked and even spat at by some in the crowd while fielding in typically ungainly fashion on the boundary, this starched and sweating England player an obvious target for the Aussie spectator.
Informed by one colleague that Australians didn’t seem to like him, Jardine is said to have replied “it’s fucking mutual”. When he returned with England as captain for the Bodyline series a degree of personal animosity was all set to harden into something more profound. And so it came to pass: by the end of the third Test of an increasingly bloody and acrimonious series Jardine’s tactics of aggressive, concussive leg-side bowling led to the Australian cricket boards sending the MCC a telegram alleging “unsportsmanlike” behaviour by England’s captain “likely to upset the friendly relations existing between Australia and England”.
Amid public outrage on both sides the MCC and Jardine threatened to withdraw from the tour unless the accusation was retracted. As politicians shifted uneasily around this colonial snarl-up the governor of South Australia complained to the British government about the impact on trade between the two nations, a gathering tension that was only resolved with the intervention of the Australian prime minister Joseph Lyons, who ordered the board to apologise, citing “serious economic hardship” that might be caused by Britain recalling its debts. The tour rumbled on — and it has continued to do so ever since in dilute form. It was only recently that Australian cricketers adopted the tradition of visiting the Gallipoli military cemeteries as a stop off on their way to Ashes tours of England (subtext: betrayal and revenge).
And still the sporting relationship continues to seep out into the wider cultural life. When Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer successfully destabilised world cricket with his highly-paid, glitzy breakaway league in 1977 his mole inside the elite game was Tony Greig, England captain, described by Bill Lawry after his death as an “Englishman with an Australian attitude”. Greig’s poaching by Packer and the new world of free market commercial opportunity was akin to planting a cold war double-agent at the heart of the MCC, and would prefigure in its own way the violent commercial revolution enacted on another English institution, the 104 year old Football League, which was transformed via the lure of Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB cash riches into the Premier League in 1992.
English football, and the English leisure economy, has never been the same since, Murdoch’s subscription-TV wealth driving the making over and general macro-expansion of English football clubs founded in the Victorian sporting boom, just as his adored Margaret Thatcher had already done to the industrial and urban communities out of which so many of them sprung. Perhaps only an Australian could have assisted so gleefully, and with such iconoclastic zeal in the remaking of England’s national sport.
Generally, though, it is a more competitive instinct that tends to take sport beyond its boundaries and into the realm of international relations, not least in athletics, with its attendant Olympic gloss. One of the world’s first female athletics superstars and Australia’s own first “golden girl” of athletics, Decima Norman won five gold medals at the 1938 British Empire Games held in Sydney, a boon not just for the Australian sense of itself as a healthier, happier, newer nation able to take on and lay low the frowsy old colonial power, but also for women in athletics generally. Norman had to help found a women’s athletics club simply to get the international authorities to recognise her right to compete, having missed out on the 1936 Berlin Olympics due to her lack of official affiliation. The Olympic rivalry, with its attendant sense of some unarguable macro-point being made, a cultural and systemic victory as much a sporting one, has endured ongoing Anglo-Aussie attempts to outdo one another in the medal tables.
Britain’s modern Olympic transformation began at the Sydney Games in 2000, when a wretched performance at Atlanta, with just a single gold medal in rowing, was the spur for an 11-gold haul in Australia, triumphantly received by those present, and archly noted by many Australians amid a brilliantly successful Games for the host nation. The build up to the 2012 London Olympics was duly marked by its own pre-Games medal table trash-talk from the other side of the world as the Australian press, and even one or two athletes, made rash predictions about stealing the host nation’s Olympic thunder. “In the days to come it will bring us even more delight that old enemy Australia’s Olympics are already unravelling into disappointment and recrimination,” the Daily Mail would duly be heard trumpeting from its own pages on the sixth day of the London Games as Australia were overtaken in the medal table by Kazakhstan. Great Britain eventually won 29 golds, finishing third on the medal table, compared with a disappointing 10 from Australia, who finished 10th.
And yet for all the historic enmity, the cultural oppositions, the cartoonish ancestral antipathy of Larrikin-versus-stuffed-shirt dynamic, this is a relationship between two mutually promiscuous sporting nations. Strip away the weeds of international sport and beneath it all there are very few nations with such a tendency towards defection and intermingling, a kind of house-swap notion of competition where snarling partisanship can just as easily be put aside, where us and them can so easily dissolve into a happy camaraderie.
Australian cricketers in particular have a habit of assuming a status of revered and cherished Anglicisation, even towards the end of the most gloriously pommie-bashing career. Richie Benaud, a great Australian captain and a grand old Australian broadcasting kingpin lived for many years a double life of never ending Anglo-Aussie summer spending his home winters in England (commentating on Test cricket) and the rest of the year in Australia (commentating on Test cricket) and generally becoming as beloved a fixture of the English summer as any broadcaster of any era.
Before Benaud the brilliantly charismatic and chivalrous Keith Miller became something of an honorary English sporting gentleman, serving as an airman in England during world war two and later producing during an interview with Michael Parkinson his own famous last word on the rigours of professional sport (“pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not”). A much loved figure around English race courses and cricket grounds, Miller was even rumoured to have had an affair with Princess Margaret.
Shades here, perhaps of Shane Warne, an even more brilliant cricketer who has performed his own version of the Anglo-celebrity self-reinvention in the years since his retirement from Test cricket, squiring the actress Liz Hurley, and appearing in adverts for online gambling and baldness cures as often as the TV commentary box and the pages of celebrity magazines. Warne, hammer of the English, now seems to divide his time between commercial engagements in Mumbai and London.
Beyond cricket English football has also proved a hospitable seeding ground for the expat Aussie. Tony Dorigo was born and grew up in Melbourne but ended up playing for England at the 1990 World Cup. Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell, Australia’s greatest ever footballing duo, were central to the Leeds United team that reached the Champions League semi-finals. Kewell, who married a pulchritudinous soap star, became the first real Aussie Premier League glamour-brat superstar, adopted UK footballing royalty.
This sense of mutual sporting resettlement, of finding a kind of shared nationality in Anglo-Aussie sport is nothing new. One of the oddest aspects of the story of Harold Larwood, the bowler at the heart of the Bodyline furore, was his emigration to live in Australia in 1950, where — in contrast to his rather cool treatment by the English cricketing establishment post-Bodyline — he was warmly embraced and eventually died aged 90 as a much-loved Anglo-Aussie figure.
This kind of sporting communion, hands unexpectedly joined in the shadow of one of the most vitriolic of sporting rivalries, is perhaps best exemplified by the convivial surroundings of Wimbledon where Australian players have only ever been welcomed, a familial west London oasis lodged on the fringes of a portion of the capital that has always been hospitable to the Aussie diaspora. During a 12-year span from 1960 to 1971 Australians won the Wimbledon men‘s title 10 times, while Evonne Goolagong, an Aboriginal Australian, won the women’s title twice and became a darling of the home crowd. Her two Wimbledon trophies are currently in the national Museum of Australia.
And then of course there was the 2001 People’s Final, a rain-enforced spill-over to an additional Monday’s play, which saw Pat Rafter play Goran Ivanisevic in front of basically an entire Centre Court of people in Wallabies shirts waving inflatable kangaroos, still giddy after weekend victories for their rugby union team against the Lions and their own touring Ashes side. A lot of good it did: Ivanisevic won in five sets. But the All England Club was, for one day at least, colonised by affectionately received yellow and green.
“Nothing of interest comes from Australia except gold and black cricketers,” proclaimed the British Daily Telegraph with a mixture colonial arrogance and paternal intrigue. The year was 1868 and a squad of 13 Aboriginal cricketers had just arrived on the shores of Gravesend, bleary-eyed after three months sailing from Sydney. Whilst the collective memory of Anglo-Australian sporting relations often begins with the formation of the Ashes, the truth is that it began two decades earlier. The 1868 Aboriginal tour was the first time an Australian side had visited Britain, and within the grueling schedule of 47 matches the characteristics of an enduring rivalry were starting to be realised.
The majority of the team were men who started playing the game just two years prior to the tour, on the cattle stations of west Victoria. They were captained by an English emigrant, Charles Lawrence, who had played first class cricket for Surrey and subsequently toured Australia with England. There is no doubt the tour was motivated by financial reward — games at the Oval and Lords saw huge crowds turn out — but the surprise success of the team, who won 14 matches, lost the same number and drew 19 was the real story.
Not that you’d necessarily read that from this Manchester Guardian report of a match at Longsight, which remarks the team’s “docile” attitude hampered them whilst batting, but quaintly reassures: “they possess qualities which may in time enable them to hold their own against good elevens”.
On the return match weeks later the Australians trounced the Longsight team, leaving you wondering whether the subsequent match report would have taken a similarly grandiose tone, a lexical habit, incidentally, that still pervades in the modern era when English sides reign supreme on the field.
There is no doubt who the star player of the touring side was. Jonny Mullagh of the Jardwadjali people in Victoria, was an all rounder who, in the words of the former Australian Test cricketer Ashley Mallett was “the equal of any batsman in England … possessing the style and temperament of a top-flight first-class player.” During a match at Lords against the MCC — undoubtedly the toughest team the side faced on tour — Mullagh scored a “faultless” 75 and almost steered his side to victory. He averaged 23.65 across the tour and picked up 245 wickets. But there is a sadness to his story.
According to Mallett, Mullagh began to straddle two cultures whilst in England. He was torn by them. During the tour he collected photographs of British women and remarked to a coach that “a white woman won’t have me … and I will never have a black one.”
The tour ended and the players returned to Australia, the success was marked in the British press (although the players received none of the resulting financial rewards). Upon their arrival back to home soil, the government of Victoria — who had tried unsuccessfully to halt the tour before it began — enacted the Aboriginal Protection Act, effectively killing the game of cricket for Aboriginal Australians, by controlling where they lived and worked, and who they could associate with.
It 1963 the Trinidadian theorist CLR James, wrote that “cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it,” and yet the disparities between the tyrannical aspects of colonial rule and the fair play of the cricket field, had already been so vividly realised nearly a century beforehand.