The Ashes, for the benefit of cricket infidels, is the name given to the more than a century long cricketing rivalry between England and Australia. Whoever won the last series has them. And today, an Ashes Marathon begins, in the form of no less than ten five day international cricket matches between England and Australia in the space of less than a year. In order to get the Ashes to stop clashing with the Cricket World Cup, or something, there will be a five match Ashes series here in England, and then straight after that another five match Ashes series in Australia.
England now have the Ashes and all the smart talk says that on paper they are by far the stronger side, and will still have the Ashes in a year’s time.
But sport is not played on paper. I remember as a child being utterly bewildered when Australia defeated, by the sickening margin of four games to nothing, an England cricket touring team containing batsmen May, Cowdrey, Graveney and Dexter, and (get this) bowlers Tyson, Trueman, Statham, Laker and Lock. To many Samizdata readers, those names will only be names, but believe me, those are names. You want paper? The paper they wrote that team on was paper all right. Yet England, on the actual pitches, were hammered. (Also hammered rather too much off the pitches, from what I have since read.) I learned the lesson good and early that with sport, you never know.
Consider that final British Lions v Australia rugby union game, last Saturday (highlights here – don’t click if you don’t want noise). Michael Jennings and I and a couple of mates watched it in a pub in Southwark, with me getting there about fifteen seconds before the kick-off, which was just as well because the Lions, having scored no tries at all in the previous game, scored their first try of this game in hardly more than a minute. We all then sagely agreed that going down in a game very early can be an advantage, because you then have to forget your nerves and really play, and often you do, with the resulting momentum sweeping you to a big win. Australia will be back, we said.
At first we were wrong, as the Lions opened up an amazing 19-3 lead. But although the Australian backs were operating behind a losing scrum they still looked dangerous, and Australia scored thirteen unanswered points either side of half time. Who was to say they wouldn’t carry on scoring? We all then expected a game just like the previous two, of the sort that would be settled by whoever kicked their penalty kicks in the final few minutes coming out one or two points ahead, in a series that could easily have gone either way, 3-0 in either direction if just a few kicks had fallen just a bit more this way or that way.
So, Lions only 3 points up, and from having been unstoppable suddenly looking very vulnerable, with about half an hour to go. What then happened? What happened was that the Lions backs suddenly sprang to life and scored three dashing tries, sweeping the Lions to victory by the mind-boggling margin of 25 points. Who saw that coming? Not me. Not Michael, or the two other blokes. In retrospect, that most flawless of observational procedures, it was all inevitable, given the scrum advantage the Lions had established. But at the time, it was astonishing.
Or consider Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win the following afternoon. No less a personage than former champion Boris Becker, commentating for the BBC, said that the one score-line he had really not been expecting was three sets to nil. He didn’t think either player would let that happen. Yet Djokovic, famously a man who is never beaten until truly beaten, did. Murray, who had come back from two sets down in an earlier round and who lost the first set of his semi-final, did not, come the final, lose a single set. What odds could you have got beforehand against that happening?
I am sure that there is some suitably Samizdata-ish moral to append to the above, about how the uncertainty of sport mirrors the uncertainty of life itself, and that the uncertainty of life proves the necessity for the private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Well, that will have to be it. I have a cricket match to attend to.
England have won the toss, and will bat.