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After the Ashes

Nick Bryant | 06:31 UK time, Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Writing a final blog about the Ashes - and I promise it will be the last instalment - feels like wondering across the empty stage at some repertory theatre in the Home Counties, as the removal men are hauling the giant bean stalk into the truck, and the wardrobe department is packing away Jack the Giant Killer's costumes.

The modern-day series has become an uproarious pantomime, where many of us enjoy adopting traditional, seasonal roles and engaging in some rowdy audience participation.

Andrew Strauss of England lifts the Ashes urn Perhaps it is more accurate to describe it as Pavlovian pantomime, given how easily various national impulses are triggered. For when it comes to the Ashes, many of us are products of classical conditioning, a form of associative learning (and here, I plead guilty) where the nursery was Headingley in '81 or the WACA in the age of Lillee and Thommo.

Or perhaps many of us suffer from a sporting variant of Tourette's Syndrome, and fall prey on these occasions to verbal tics that are repetitive, stereotyped, usually derogatory and often obscene.

To truly enjoy the victory, we seem to want the vanquished to suffer horribly in defeat, which exacerbates these twin conditions.

For what it's worth, I think the hoopla surrounding the Ashes is starting to tell us more about modern-day Britain than modern-day Australia.

For a start, I suspect it reveals once more how we have become a country of exaggerated emotional responses, whether it is how we react to the death of a Princess or the musical abilities of a Scottish songstress.

Thankfully this time, Andrew Strauss and the ECB have been more restrained, and his honest assessment of England's achievement was endearingly level-headed. 'When we were bad, we were very bad,' he said. 'When we were good, we were good enough.'

Under the headline, Australians Wake to a Country in Mourning, The Times reported earlier in the week that Australian television presenters were wearing black armbands, which is precisely how we as Britons want Australians to react. But it isn't true.

Why do we want to believe it? Perhaps the false notion that Australia suffers enormous angst and pain whenever it is beaten by the Old Country is deeply comforting for a post-colonial nation which is suffering from the neglect of other former dominions.

After all, India is too busy becoming a superpower to dwell on the legacy of the Raj; America is defined by the revolution which ousted the British rather than its subjugation beforehand; and Canada's insecurities are a product of 'small neighbour syndrome' rather than being the last North American outpost of the British Empire. Australia is unique: a country where the rivalry with Britain continues to arouse great passion.

As a nation, I suspect we are rather flattered by the continued attention of our Australian cousins, for it is heartening to think that we can still rely on their abiding enmity and peevishness. The Ashes therefore allows us to indulge in some good, old-fashioned colonial condescension.

It is soothing, if misplaced, to think that the Aussies are motivated by a desire to 'balance the historical ledger', since it implies an outstanding deficit and a perpetual state of borrowing. Here is it interesting to study the repertoire of the Barmy Army, with its 'God Save Your Queen' and 'You All Live in a Convict Colony'. I wonder sometimes whether these songs, along with the fervour with which they are ritually performed, now reveal more about our own national insecurities.

It does not help that since the Ashes started, Newsweek has run a cover story piece on 'Shrinking Britannia: The Collapse of British Power', which came hot on the heels of Time magazine's admiring front-cover profile of Kevin Rudd. Nor that that the Australian prime minister has become one of Barack Obama's 'best mates', according to Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for the Asia-Pacific region, news that would have resonated in Whitehall if not the Western Terrace at Headingley.

For sure, some Australians do have a habit of contributing to their own stereotyping, and some of the worst offenders occupy senior positions in sport. During the last rugby world cup, the Australian rugby chief John O'Neill spoke of a national hatred of England, and its 'born to rule' mentality. Four years earlier, John Howard was extraordinarily graceless when he presented the victorious England rugby team with their trophy and medals.

Then there was John Coates' oft-quoted reaction to being overtaken in the medals table by the Poms in Beijing - not bad, he said, for a country with 'very few swimming pools and not much soap'. Again, it's this Pavlovian pantomime: the seasonal adoption of supposedly crowd-pleasing roles.

Much as I enjoyed the series and delighted in the result, I look forward to resuming normal sleep patterns and spending my office wager windfall (a mighty Aus$50). I'm already looking to next year's series, but in true Panto spirit, I guess it's time to put the last one behind us.......


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