“”Where the hell are they?” I wondered out loud as I nestled back down on the sofa in the early hours of this morning, scattering bits of newspaper and biscuit crumbs.
Moments earlier I had been moved to bounce up out of my seat with rare Tigger-esque energy as Jimmy Anderson sent Ryan Harris trudging back to the hutch for a tragically hilarious King Pair – the images of English jubilation beamed back from the famous Adelaide Oval hill no doubt mirrored in chilly living rooms across the frostbitten United Kingdom.
But then I noticed something was missing.
There was no vanquished foe. No ripped, bleach-blond surf-bum in an Aussie Rules vest slumped in quiet submission. No group of willowy, face-painted lovelies waving their Southern Crosses forlornly, as their beefcake beaus chewed cans of lager and chuntered at the pitiful collapse unfolding in front of them. No Australian supporters at all, in fact. Not one.
Granted, there was not much in it for them (short of the kind of gruesome car-crash entertainment provided by hopelessly mismatched opponents). No doubt most folk in the greater-Adelaide area have some sort of gainful employment: sheep-shearing, maybe… grape-picking – that kind of thing – but surely a few die-hards could have made the short, cut-price trip to the Oval for a bit of cricket on a Tuesday morning? Taken a punt on an unlikely comeback? Cheered on Hussey and Haddin and the gathering storm clouds? Forfeited work in favour of sitting in the sun drinking lager?? What the hell is wrong with these people???
But as the camera panned round the ground, yellow was conspicuously absent. White wasn’t. Nor were lobster-red fizogs, flambéd in the sun - or Union Jacks with “Hartlepool” emblazoned across them in big, proud letters. Trumpets blaring out the Neighbours theme tune and dad-dancing accountants from Tunbridge Wells, bankrupted by Qantas and Victoria Bitter, but still singing Waltzing Matilda until hoarse and delirious and in need of a good lie-down.
Was it the coverage, maybe? Biased Pommie producers revelling in our unlikely dominance? Nope. These were Channel Nine pictures (as the Sky Commentary Team juggernaut was pained to remind us at regular intervals after frequent bouts of shoddy camerawork).
There was only one explanation: They hadn’t come. Pure and simple.
It was the same story in Brisbane, where there had been whooping and hollering galore as the England captain was dismissed in the first over. But on the last day, after the record-breaking partnership between Alistair Cook and Jonathan Trott had sapped the enthusiasm from the larrikin punters, they went AWOL again. Perish the thought that precious desk-time should be sacrificed for some high-quality international sport…
Sir Ian Botham indulged in schoolyard “Spot the Aussie” games – training a camera along the deserted aisles - feasting on their meek surrender like a malnourished Labrador slobbering on a bone. Two stadiums in less than a week – emptied of home fans, and left to the Barmy Army and their cheery celebration. Beefy enjoyed this immensely, of course.
But I found it curiously dispiriting. And terribly unfair.
For twenty years, we have kept on coming. England cricket fans have always been realists. We’ve endured the taunts and the ribbing. Smiled sardonically through the ineptitude and despair. But I’ve never seen an English cricket ground three-quarters empty during an Ashes test match – even if we’re 4-0 down and staring down the barrel.
I despise tub-thumping patriotism – and I find hardcore England fans a borderline embarrassment at times. But yesterday I couldn’t begrudge them their moment in the sun. I was just sorry they had no-one to bait (apart from dear old Ricky Ponting, sitting in his flip-flops and chewing his cheeks as Jerusalem echoed around the empty stands).
Away supporters in any sport have always had an “us against the world” mentality, which is why they often sing the louder. But a stadium filled solely of away fans reduces this ancient and noble contest to little more than a hollow charade.
I remember vividly the Ashes in 2005. At the Oval on the penultimate day in gloaming light and with Australia on the ropes, a great swathe of Green and Gold fans donned sunglasses in a futile attempt to persuade the umpires the light was perfect. In response, the Peter May stand heaved with 5,000 Englishmen opening our umbrellas.
And yet the end result is far emptier than those glorious days five years ago. Nobody likes a mis-match – a thrashing. When Graeme Swann took that last wicket to seal the first innings defeat for Australia at home in 17 years, I allowed myself a small congratulatory chuckle, then I went off to bed. No point in staying up for the presentation. The home fans didn’t bother, so why should I?
There is hope, of course. You would imagine that Melbourne and Sydney in the holiday season will be better supported – and if the series is still alive, the excitement will return.
But, my Antipodean friends, after all those years of success, you have to learn how to lose. And with the current crop of no-hopers – it looks like you will be getting plenty of practice.
No doubt the natural order will be restored soon (in Perth, probably) and the fairweather fans will be back in their droves. Fast-forward ten years, and there will be a new wave of Warnes ripping us apart at Lords and Edgbaston and the rest. And we will be there – deep into the last day, with our warm beer and wry smiles - soaking up the taunts like a wet bar-towel. We will clap off our fallen idols and catcall over the Australian captain’s smug victory speech.
But at least we will be there. Make no mistake, we will be there.
Not here. These Australians look disinclined to shake hands, lick their wounds, roll up their sleeves and rejoin the battle. No Warne, Gilchrist, McGrath or Lee. A mediocre team and disinterested fans.
And they’ve cheated us of our moment. When it suited them, they chose ambivalence over their fabled sporting passion. I am a fervent Aussie-phile – but a little bit of that long-nurtured warmth departed me yesterday.
This has been more a more clinical England, no doubt. More aggressive, disciplined and foot-on-the-throat professional. More (dare I say) Australian.
When we won that series, we had no idea how to celebrate - uncertain as a toddler taking his first steps - and what followed was an organic, and very touching display of sportsmanship. Australia’s beaten heroes were gracious in defeat, and their supporters warm – congratulatory, even. I can only assume they had been Anglicised to such an extent, that they relished the battle, even in a losing cause.