Even as the many Western Australians who decked themselves out in the blue and gold enjoy the ecstasy of a third national Australian Rules football title, the state’s sporting consciousness inevitably turns with the spring breeze to the national summer sport.
The first non-Victorian team to purloin the Premiership back in 1992, one suspects that many Eagles supporters fondly imagine that the AFL Cup is only at home when it is under glass and key in Perth. The little urn containing the Ashes, in contrast, rarely leaves England and will not physically change hands should Ponting’s men triumph this summer.
If you follow the Australian cricket team, whether you are of the generation of Benaud or Border, or younger even than Michael “Pup” Clarke, chances are that your knowledge of the game includes the principle that win, lose or draw, the Ashes remain in their home, at Lords.
Even when we beat England, as we did in every series between 1989 and 2005, the Ashes belong in their home and most cricket-lovers are content that the Old Urn stays there. Sometimes tradition or sentiment is simply more important than the winner taking all.
One Australian who will be following the cricket this summer is the self-confessed cricket tragic, Prime Minister John Howard. Perth is hosting the third test in Perth from the December 14 to 18 and capacity crowds are expected every day.
Mr Howard may make it a couple of sessions in the series, but a cricket season is a lengthy business and despite his obsession, the prime minister will probably only see a fraction of the overall play. Nevertheless, he will no doubt follow the score in that strange osmotic way that many Australians are capable of doing. Middle of a meeting; someone else’s office; “know the score?” “Yep, England 3 for 78 at tea”; such transactions are a part of the culture and probably as common in the Federal Cabinet as any other workplace. After all, Mr Howard cares about cricket.
But cricket is time-consuming. The Australian men’s test team are all on sufficiently lucrative contracts that they can afford to make playing the game their full time employment. However, the health of the sport nationally depends on there being a mountain of which Ponting and company are merely the shining summit.
The cricketing massif is composed of tens of thousands of Australians: playing, coaching, ferrying kids, umpiring, encouraging. Your average suburban cricketer devotes a couple of nights a week to training and perhaps one day a weekend for the matches, for half of spring and most of summer. Then there is fundraising, rolling wickets, maintaining gear and all the associate ritual and rigmarole.
Only a sport, of course; but games build friendships, character and community and are the stuff upon which suburban legend is made. Essential feelings of home and season are infused with the smell of batting gloves or indeed the gentle patter of the ABC radio commentary. The sensory associations, in the span of a single human life, can feel timeless.
Though it might seem a safe part of the national tradition, cricket is vulnerable. Indeed this year something has happened which could, in the long run, have a devastating impact on the sport.
In order to be seriously involved in cricket, no matter how amateurish, you have to be able to regularly and reliably commit substantial chunks of time to the game. So what, one wonders, will happen now that large numbers of Australians have less control over their own time than ever before?
What if your fellow opening bat can’t play on the weekend, because he now has to be at the workplace on Saturdays or he will lose his job? What if the under-16s can’t get a coach, because Mr Smith who has held the position for years isn’t able to leave work on Wednesday nights any more? What if Ms Jones - who usually not only drives her own son to the game, but picks up a couple of his mates on the way and then stays to score the first innings - can’t do it anymore because she is forced to get back for another shift? Sadly, these hypothetical examples are not a “what if”; this is the world of the WorkChoices legislation introduced by Mr Howard, the cricket lover.