From the age of five, I was already a sports fanatic, particularly crazy about cricket, so when we were forced to leave central Africa at independence and my father began talking about Australia as a possible destination, I was his most enthusiastic supporter. At the age of thirteen I flew into Sydney airport with my family, a new immigrant to the lucky country.
As we sat waiting for a connecting flight to Brisbane, I pulled out my little portable radio and listened to commentary on the Davis Cup tennis final between Australia and the USA. The first words I heard in Australia were ‘G’day, mate, what’s the score?’. It seemed to me that every second man who walked past knew about the match and was interested. Immediately, I realised I was in Paradise.
Previously having lived in a part of the world isolated from most big sporting events, I learned about them from books. I read spellbound as the brilliant Neville Cardus, Robertson-Glasgow, Alan Ross and others described cricket battles of yesteryear and always Australians were tough, uncompromising, determined, confident, courageous and usually successful. Bradman, Oldfield, Grimmett, Harvey, Lindwall and Miller were my heroes. In Australia I discovered rugby league, which I later played. The national side had a prop named Noel Kelly, nicknamed ‘Ned’ after the notorious bushranger, who shortly after I arrived received the fastest send off in rugby history, being banished in the first couple of minutes of a test for trying to take someone’s head off. John Sattler of Souths played almost an entire grand final with a broken jaw and won the match. Weeks after I arrived I saw film of the Tokyo Olympics in which Dawn Fraser in swimming and Betty Cuthbert in athletics were ruling the world. Lionel Rose was winning a world boxing title. Australians were winners, it was clear. Not only did they win as often as not but the nation expected them to win.
For reasons I will not dwell on here, my stay in Australia lasted only as long as my teenage years but during my time there and for many years afterwards the Aussies did extremely well at sport, excelling in cricket, rugby league, swimming, tennis and many others. In close, tough matches Australians came out on top, they hung in there, turned likely defeats into victory, never gave up.
Perhaps it is only in this century that things began to change. In 2005 an unbroken run of Ashes victories going back sixteen years came to an end. Since then four series in a row in England and one in Australia have been lost, to the ‘Poms’ of all people. In 1996 and 2000 Australia was far more successful in Olympic competition than Britain. In the past three Olympics the British have streaked progressively further ahead with each one. The Australian rugby union team has just ended a run of six defeats with a win over a Springbok team that has its own problems. Australian swimmers who once dominated the waters do not win often. Australian mens’ tennis, once the best in the world is in the hands of a pair of over-hyped, petulant, foul-mouthed brats named Tomic and Kyrgios, neither of whom has the stomach for a fight or any achievements to boast of. Womens’ tennis is not worth talking about.
However, it is not the results themselves that are the focus of this article, it is the approach and the attitudes of the sports men and women. It is not that they lose but the way they lose. In the recent Rio Olympics four Australian swimmers entered the fray ranked number 1 in the world. Between them they competed in a number of events and emerged with a grand total of one silver medal. Swimmers who qualified number 1 for finals finished second, third or out of medals altogether. Reigning sailing champions were beaten. Rowing favourites were beaten. Cycling favourites were beaten. The two hockey teams, both ranked in the top four in the world, finished without a medal. In the men’s BMX cycling, competitors are divided into two sections. There are three qualifying races for the final in each section. In section A an Australian won all three races and in section B an Australian won two out of three races. In the final they both finished nowhere. In basketball the Australian team which had won easily over Serbia in the preliminary matches slumped to a heavy defeat in the knockout stage against the same team.
It is easy to say the rest of the world have caught up. Certainly the British now take their sport seriously and have excellent systems and support in place to make the most of their talent but there is more to it than that. For much of my life when I watched an Australian sportsman or woman in a tight situation, backs against the wall, I just knew that the contest was not over. No matter what the eventual result, the opponent never had it easy. The match was not over until the last point had been played, the final whistle had sounded. It is no longer like that. The toughness has gone – Australian fast bowlers, for instance, have become a joke. There has not been any period in the past few years that more than sixty per cent of likely candidates have been uninjured. Pat Cummins at 18 was man of the match in his first test match. He is 23 and has not played another test since. Pattinson is constantly injured. At this very moment Cummins, Pattinson and Siddle are unavailable because of injury. Australian rugby players suffer long term injury warming up before a match. In years gone by Aussies turned almost certain defeat into victory; nowadays the opposite is more likely to happen.
I am not going to offer a definitive reason for the disappointing results in Australian sport in the past decade and remember we are speaking in relative terms here. Australian sport is still better than most. I would be interested to hear the views of others, particularly those living in Australia but what I would say is that Australia is a wonderful country in which to live. Perhaps life has just become too good; Australians are too pampered; they have become soft; things come too easily; nobody needs to be anything other than prosperous; there is a lack of hunger; complacency has set in. Whatever it is, I would like to return to the days when determination and raw courage were so much a part of Australian sport. I will leave you with a story of the incredible series against the West Indies which produced the first tied test. Australia’s last pair were required to bat the entire final session to draw the test against a very good WI attack, which included the lightning fast and aggressive Wes Hall. Ken ‘Slasher’ Mackay, whose nickname belied his character was one. Craggy faced, gum chewing Mackay had few shots and played even fewer but every ball was a personal challenge, which he met with relish. His partner was Lindsay Kline, possible the worst number 11 in history. Captain Benaud sent him to the nets during the tea interval to get some batting practice for the enormous task to come. Benaud was startled to see Kline return a few minutes later with the man given the job of providing throw downs for him. ‘It was hopeless’ said the man to Benaud’s raised eyebrows. ‘I got him out five times in the first couple of minutes’. Benaud sighed and perhaps accepted the inevitable.
Two hours later Mackay and Kline approached the final over, still undefeated. ‘Slasher’ ensured he was on strike to Hall, who sent down a ferocious final few balls in an effort to win a match which a little while earlier had seemed a certainty. In those days, of course, there was none of the protection which batsmen employ today. At last there was only one ball to be bowled. Survive that and Australia would have achieved the near impossible. Hall steamed in, shirt open almost to the waist, chain flapping against his chest and hurled one final vicious bouncer at Mackay. Without hesitation, Mackay dropped his hands, ensuring that there was no chance of ball catching bat or glove and puffed out his chest, taking the full force of the delivery on his torso. Without acknowledging the pain, he turned on his heel and headed for the pavilion. It would be good to see a little more of that from Australian sport.