Token trophies

The England cricket team may have lost the coveted Ashes but, hey, at least they won the big shiny wotsit trophy.

Duleep Allirajah

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It’s been a week of mixed fortunes for English sport. Firstly, the England football team were booed off the pitch at Old Trafford after a pitiful 1-0 defeat to Spain. But shortly afterwards, after an abject tour of Australia, the English cricket team finally won some silverware.

In truth, neither result means much in the grand scheme of things but, such is our national propensity for getting things out of perspective, that we’ve been simultaneously celebrating a rare cricketing triumph while throwing rotten fruit at Steve McLaren and his underperforming megastars.

I’m not sure that many sports fans could actually name the trophy that Andrew Flintoff held aloft on Sunday. What was it called again? Ah yes, wait a minute, it was the Commonwealth Bank Trophy. No, I’ve never heard of it either, but you’ve got to admit that it was a rather impressive piece of silverware. It was big and shiny which is all you can ask from a trophy. I’m not sure what it was supposed to represent; possibly the Humber Bridge if you screwed your eyes up a bit.

Paradoxically, it seems that the larger the trophy, the more meaningless it is. And let’s be honest, winning the wotsit cup was a welcome confidence-booster ahead of the World Cup, but it wasn’t the prize our cricketers were after when they boarded the plane to Australia. The prize they wanted, the Ashes, might be just a tiny and not very lustrous urn but it remains the most cherished trophy in international cricket (admittedly the rest of the world is excluded from even having a pop at winning it, but let’s not quibble). England, of course, went to Australia as holders and they promptly lost it. In fact they didn’t just lose it: under-prepared, underperforming, and under Shane Warne’s spell, England were annihilated in the Ashes series.

The tri-thingamy win has restored some pride ahead of the World Cup, but England hardly covered themselves in glory throughout the tournament. They lost all but only one of the first seven games in the tournament and only scraped into the finals because New Zealand were marginally more atrocious. Now having won a worthless consolation prize, the whiff of success has already started to go to people’s heads. ‘Having beaten Australia three times in a row with a young side there will now be a belief in the camp that we can take on all teams’, said Andrew Flintoff.

Former England pace bowler Gladstone Small believes that England can even win the World Cup. ‘[T]hey are peaking at the right time for the World Cup and they can win it if they show some of the form they have displayed in recent matches’, he said. ‘By beating Australia so comprehensively….England must realise that they really can win the World Cup’, concurred Geoffrey Boycott.

Now, while regaining a bit of self-belief is no bad thing, we really shouldn’t get carried away with the cricket team’s mini-upturn in fortunes. We saw what happened in 2005 when we recaptured the Ashes. There was an open-top bus parade and MBEs all round followed by a year of complacency and underachievement. The Aussies weren’t slow to rub English noses in the dirt over our penchant for premature decoration. Shane Warne famously sledged Paul Collingwood for bagging a gong despite only playing a bit-part role in the Ashes victory. ‘You got an MBE, right? For scoring seven at the Oval? It’s an embarrassment’, he taunted. And he was right. It’s time to stop the backslapping and start performing well in tournaments that really mean something.

Having got a bit overexcited over a Mickey Mouse cricket trophy, there has been an all-too-familiar self-flagellatory reaction to the England football team’s latest defeat. Again, while the performance and, in particular, the chronic inability to keep possession of the ball, didn’t exactly inspire confidence, we shouldn’t start slashing our wrists yet. The game against Spain was a friendly. It meant nada. It was no more meaningful than the 3-2 victory over Argentina in November 2005 that provoked an absurd bout of speculation that England’s name was on the World Cup. Or the 6-0 warm-up thrashing of Jamaica that led some people foolishly to mistake Peter Crouch for an international footballer. Or even the 4-0 win over Greece last August that fooled us into believing that Sven’s assistant wouldn’t serve up the same old unimaginative gruel that we’d endured during Eriksson’s tenure.

Friendly results count for nothing. They are no more than glorified exhibition matches. Half the squad cries off with dubious niggles; a few fringe players try a bit harder to impress the manager; and the first-team regulars just want to avoid getting injured. Friendlies tell you very little about how players perform under pressure. A team that plays without passion or commitment in a friendly can suddenly raise their game in a proper tournament. Equally, players who stroke the ball around imperiously in a friendly can freeze like rabbits in car headlights on the big stage.

So, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up after losing this particular friendly. Rather we should save the orgy of self-loathing for when we fuck up against Israel in next month’s Euro 2008 qualifier. Then we can crack open the sleeping pills and declare a state of national mourning.

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spiked-issue: Sport

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