In a winter in which snow came unreasonably early, snarling roads, closing airports, wrecking the festive season for tens of thousands; in which a government of hair shirts cut expenditure on popular programs galore; in which the recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s was fitful and slow, the English could take solace in one thing: Australia had it worse.
And no, I don't mean the floods in Queensland, awful though they are. I mean the cricket. On the morning of Jan. 7, in Sydney, England beat Australia in the final game of a five-match test series, to win the contest 3-1. It wasn't just the victory that mattered. It was the manner of it. England and Australia have been playing each other at cricket since 1877, in a series that since 1882 has been known as the Ashes. (I'll spare you the explanation.) Rarely, in that long sequence, has an English team so thrashed an Australian one on the Aussies' home turf.
Records fell like ninepins. Three times England inflicted the ultimate cricketing indignity on Australia, winning a game with an inning to spare. (Test cricket is played over two innings and five days, with the winner being the side that accumulates the most runs. An "innings defeat" means that the losing side scored fewer runs in two innings than the winning side did in one.) In their first inning in Sydney, England scored more runs than they had done in any match in Australia, ever. England's batsmen dispatched the Australian attack as if it was a pub team; its fielding was athletic and precise; its bowlers were both aggressive and parsimonious. "Holy a___-mustard!" tweeted the actor and cricket fan Stephen Fry to his million-plus followers. "Sydney! Not just a win, but a lesson, a humiliation. We've outplayed Australia IN EVERY DEPARTMENT OF THE GAME."
The Australia mood, by contrast, was foul. The cricket, said the Sydney Morning Herald, was an "embarrassment of historic proportions." The Australian side was the "worst ever fielded for an Ashes series." Cricket fans everywhere else thought: tough. Australian cricket is not what it was, but the rest of the world still remembers the swagger and sense of innate superiority with which Australia dominated cricket for much of the past 20 years. It needed taking down a peg or two. It just got taken down 10.
That it was England, of all nations, that visited such horror made everything worse. For more than 100 years, the Ashes has been about much more than the game. It has been the canvas on which the complicated relationship between the mother country and its most rambunctious offspring took form. Cricket gave Australians the chance to show that they were smarter, better, stronger, than the Poms, as the English are known Down Under. It was an opportunity to rise above slights real and imagined, from Gallipoli to the English upper-class condescension of Australia and everything in it from its people's origins to its trees, which to some English eyes, though not mine, are curiously neither green nor pleasant.
When in 1932-33, an English team led by Douglas Jardine (Australians may now hiss), a patrician Winchester and Oxford man, played dirty, bowling deliberately at batsmen in what became known as the Bodyline series, it almost led to a diplomatic incident. The Australian cricket authorities sent a famous telegram to their opposite numbers in London. Bodyline bowling, the telegram said, "is causing intensely bitter feeling between the players, as well as injury. In our opinion it is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once it is likely to upset the friendly relations existing between Australia and England."
But this is familiar stuff. The role that cricket has played in Australia's sense of national identity has been told long and often. More interesting is the way in which the English read the same text. Although Australians have long thought that the English condescended to them, that has never, in my view, been the whole story. On the contrary, for generations of working-class English, Australia (the idea as much as the place) has not been something to look down on, but rather something to aspire to the society that they would have built if they had been given the chance, democratic, big, boisterous, open, where all the men are fit and all the women are gorgeous, where the sun shines and the sea sparkles and the bush stretches untamed to a far horizon.
And so when it came to cricket, in their hearts, most English fans have always expected Australia to win. The inferiority complex that famous "colonial cringe" that Australians have been trying to rid themselves of since the First Fleet of convicts arrived in Sydney Harbor in 1787 has in fact been just as marked among the English. And with reason: for most of the past 133 years, the default standing of the two nations' teams has had Australia on top. England's victories have often been the consequence of unexpected acts of individual brilliance by the spin bowler Jim Laker, say, in 1956, or the all-rounder Ian Botham in 1981. But as a system, as a collective, as an expression of national purpose (O.K., I'm getting carried away ...) Australian cricket has always had the edge.
Sensible English people have always recognized this, even if they could not admit it over a pint at the Dog and Bacon. My father was what Australians would call a cricket tragic, someone who pored over the scores in the newspaper each morning. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Aussies toured England, he would take my brother and me Dad neatly dressed in shirt and tie to see a day's play at the Manchester test match. We all cheered when England did well. But here's the thing: I've long been convinced that Dad secretly supported Australia. His sporting heroes were not English at all: they were men such as the Australian fast bowlers Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, strapping, handsome, dashing, bringing a bit of sunlight and devil-may-care into the gray austerity of post-1945 England. Back then, when a team of Australians arrived in England, they were not thought of as twigs from a poisoned root, they were what Englishmen wanted to be.
And now? Now the world is turned upside down. The English are on top, the Australians feckless, tattooed, undisciplined a miserable, gutless rabble. But I promise: there are few English cricket fans who think things will long stay this way. If he could have heard the news from Australia this (northern) winter, Dad would have said, "The Aussies will be back, you know." And they will.