Now that England have gone 2-0 down in the series, the usual scapegoat hunt is well underway, with Duncan Fletcher in the firing line and Freddie Flintoff’s captaincy being questioned by those who think that remembering Ian Botham’s short-lived tenure is a sign of age and wisdom.
For once, I think that the debate’s overcomplicated. We’re losing for two reasons.
- Half of the side is either out through injury or is playing injured. In the last Ashes series, we suffered our first loss through injury in the last test of the series. Australia were less lucky – this time, the boot is on the other foot. Fully fit, and on form, we can match them. We’re not, and we’re not, so we’re not.
- Because we won last time. Our national preparation for sport has improved over the last ten years to the extent that we can now, when suitably determined, actually make it to the top, once. Both the Ashes win and the Rugby World Cup were built up to with a long series of confidence-building wins and a long run of luck with injuries. We use the latest methods and techniques and break with the past. Once victory is ours, we assume that it actually came as the result of good old English virtues and everything else was ancillary. We relax and celebrate. (I don’t see much wrong with this, so long as we are honest about ourselves when we lose next time and keep the lynch mobs at home).
None of our major sports, even athletics, is set up with long term international success in mind. What we do have, at least up to now, are thriving domestic games in which huge numbers of people participate. These produce average-to-good international sides, which the public want to win rather a lot – more than they want to create the conditions in which that winning might take place. If we created those conditions, we’d do so at the expense of the “traditional values” that we celebrate when victory does come. And we might like that rather less than we expect – we might love those winning teams less than we think we would.
In the end, “loving the underdog” and “setting loose the lynch mob” seem to go hand in hand in English sport. Perhaps it’s the price we pay for keeping our sports under the heading of “serious fun” rather than “serious business”. Worth paying? What do you think?