Australia celebrate an Ashes victory driven by pure lust
You always remember your first cricket bat. For me it was , a chunky dream-wand of pure English willow with a smooth, perfect red valley down its back that gave it, in my mind and those of the theoretically athletic seven-year-olds I grew up with, a pigment-appropriate foretaste of the cherries that would surely before long stud its front. This was the mid-1980s, a time when cricket would soon join pub rock and economic reform as an area in which Australia led the world. The SCG was still a good decade away from serving coffee. Steve Waugh, master of the back-foot punch square of the wicket under greying skies, had yet to make the a fetish object for every Australian cricketer under-10, and bats that bore the names Slazenger, Target and Kookaburra were still seen as cheapies more suited to the team kit bag than worthy personal investments, junk-bats to use in the nets before the real willow took over on Saturdays.
But more than the bat itself I used to love the place I got it from: . Even as my family shifted from home to home through the decade, pinballing through suburban Sydney from Cronulla to Maroubra to Brighton-le-Sands and beyond, the Kingsgrove Sports Centre remained the anchor of all our retail sporting experiences. Sure, we could have shopped at Rebel or Mick Simmons or any number of other sport stores dotted through the city, but there was something special about the shop that Harry Solomons, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, had started with $9,000 in 1976.
What’s special about the Kingsgrove Sports Centre, beyond this hammy little exercise in personal reminiscence, is the sheer breadth of people who walked through its doors at the time. It brought together everyone, from thrusting part-timers to future captains of Australia, and it continues to do so today. As I, a specialist lower order batsman with a tidy side-line in overweight right arm slow-medium, was strolling its aisles in the late 1980s, pawing new arm guards as I dreamed of a future that involved wearing more than gloves and a single front foot pad, Michael Clarke, two years my junior, was too, though possibly with different thoughts on his mind.
Years later David Warner and Steve Smith would also become regular customers, “the tiniest players I’d ever seen,” as Solomons recalls today. Brad Haddin and Shane Watson still take their bats there for repairs. And Clarke, famously, worked at the store while he was making his name as a player, following in the part-time employment footsteps of Steve and Mark Waugh. As the shop itself has grown, from a space “no bigger than a bedroom”, in Solomons’s words, to a palace stretching over 28,000 square feet with outposts dotted throughout Sydney, so too has its influence over the country’s cricketing culture. The Kingsgrove Sports Centre is Australian cricket’s retail spirit place, and today, as the country lauds the achievements of some of that place’s most illustrious sons, it’s perhaps fitting that the praise flows in recognition of a victory that was much like the rise of the Centre itself: a careful achievement of method, application and togetherness, perfectly capturing the endeavour and ambition of this, the most steadfastly middle-class of Australian sides.
I don’t mean “middle-class” literally, of course; wait while I explain. The last Australian side to score a 5-0 Ashes clean sweep was the ultimate virtuoso team, a collection of individuals so greedily gifted it sometimes seemed that all they had to do to ensure victory was show up to the match on time. Much of Australia’s rise through the 80s and 90s was the work of talents in this mould, unburdened by training and indifferent to work: Boony necking tinnies on QF1, Shane Warne with his baked beans and cigs, Boof and his Boof-gut. This side, on the other hand, encapsulates the triumph of hard work, a band of medium-range talents whipping themselves to victory via a shared sense of purpose and the dull repetition of practice. Where previous Australian Ashes-hammerers relied more on the slingshot of natural talent, this group, still so fresh from its humiliation in the English summer, has done things the hard way. Their victory is a tribute to anyone who’s ever done it tough, a middle-class tale of exertion and advancement if ever there was one.
Nothing captures that spirit of merit and reward better than Clarke, who prepared his series victory plan with the bloodless dedication and care of a philandering husband. The long hours of training, the obsessive strategising: of course it’s taking the analogy too far, but there’s been something of the ethic of the Kingsgrove Sports Centre in everything Clarke has done this series. Indeed to listen to the man’s press conferences, you might think he still works at the place; most of his sentences are delivered, chin thrust forward, with the solicitous retail buoyancy of a store manager handing a junior floor staff member his first annual performance review, positive notes mixing with regular exhortations to improvement, the whole coalescing into a kind of cricketing methodism. That’s what makes this victory so special: the Australians knew they had problems and they trained to the bone in order to solve them. For the first time, seemingly, in a long time, Australia’s cricketers had to work for it.
Was this the best series victory Australia’s cricket team has ever produced? I have no idea; in any event, “best” is a bland superlative. But there’s little doubt that this was the most carnal of victories – carnal because it was a pure product of desire, an achievement so driven by lust it could easily pass as a Pedro Almodovar film (“La Revancha: Los Ashes”). And it was a victory that, more than any other in recent memory, the country as a whole could relate to at a deep level, a feast more enjoyable for the famine that preceded it, the kind of win to make you believe in progress, and self-betterment, and the very perfectibility of things.
Watching the Australians play this series just past – to see Mitchell Johnson transform the corridor of uncertainty in his brain into the corridor of dead certainty on the pitch, to watch Brad Haddin undo a career of scores in the mid-30s with lower order batting of unprecedented authority and fluency, to marvel as the 34-year-old former sick bay regular Ryan Harris launched himself into each delivery on that final afternoon with venomous, end-of-the-world intent – has been a privilege and delight, most of all because we’ve been treated to the spectacle of players finally making good on the promise of their youth.
By the end of the series, the English had given up, their every movement on the field a small sketch in surrender and regret. This was not so much because they didn’t care as because they’d been exhausted by the sheer relentlessness and unity of Australia’s attack. You could see a lot of that unity in the way . To call it singing, of course, is a slight exaggeration; what Nathan Lyon led the players in was more a crouched, collective thrash metal shout, a sort of a cappella mosh. The most beautiful songs come from those who sing the worst; the most beautiful victories from those who have lost the hardest. Like Andrew Johns , this is a team that has earned the right to inflict its tunelessness on the country for months to come.
Australia, a country handed as many gifts as obstacles of nature, has always made the most sense when the paradoxes are most keenly felt. Where is this team going? We don’t know. Well, that’s not strictly true. In a literal sense we know exactly where it’s going: first to Shane Warne’s house for a few nights of deep house and tequila, and after that, to Africa, .
But beyond that there’s only one certainty, and it’s something the Australian public, hardened and forced into maturity by the disappointments of the last few years, now understands better than ever before: the bust is on its way, and it will have nothing to do with Watson’s pecs. Boom and bust, laughter and despair, days on water and bread followed by nights eating red wine and meat, boom and bust, boom and bust. Not every narrative of progress ends happily, the way things have for Solomons and the Kingsgrove Sports Centre, and nowhere is that more the case than in sport, where it’s impossible to live without a keen sense of fatalism: whether sooner or later, hard times are on their way. That makes celebrating today all the sweeter. For Australia, this is a time to bask – in the luxury of victory and the indulgence of the extended metaphor – and to admire an accomplishment that everyone in the country – grafter and natural talent, bogan and wanker, Brisvegan and Taswegian alike – can see a little of themselves in. , you fucking beauty.