Paradise Lost – By Maxie Allen

Would you like to know my dirty little secret?

It might shock you. It could well annoy you. It may make you think less of me.

The thing is, I’m English, we’re in the middle of the Ashes, and I have an inconvenient cricketing truth, gnawing away at me.

Shall I just go ahead and spit it out? Well…here goes. I couldn’t care less whether England win or lose the Ashes. In fact, given a choice, and hand on heart, I’d rather Australia won.

Perhaps I’m not being completely honest with you. I want Australia to win.

So now you know.

I am a heretic. An apostate. A traitor.

I used to support England. Oh yes, I followed England with great passion and loyalty. And I did so for more than three decades, dating back to 1983, when I was eight years old.

For all those years, I hung on England’s every move. Every run, every wicket, every result. I cared. I mean, I really cared. If England were hurting, I was hurting. If England triumphed, so did I.  I was a part of the England team, and the team was a part of me. We were indivisible.

In the days before Sky and the internet, I’d watch entire sessions via Ceefax. I flew to Australia to watch the 2002/3 Ashes. I attended test matches as often as I could. And when this happened, I hugged a series of total strangers. But I also supported England unquestioningly and uncomplainingly through all the bad times, and there were plenty of those in the 1980s and 1990s. No one could have accused me of being a fairweather-fan or a Johnny-Come-Lately. I was the real deal.

So what changed? Some of you may already know, or can guess, as you might remember me from another blog, which I used to jointly run, or indeed saw this piece which I wrote in early 2016. In essence, it boils down to a series of events between February 2014 and May 2015 which left me alienated from, and disgusted by, English cricket.

Now, don’t worry – I’m not going to rehash all of that again. I won’t exhume the details.  The point is, nearly four years later, I’m still unable to move on.

But why? Am I being completely ridiculous? Aren’t I taking nose-cutting to spite-facing to an absurd level of masochism? Haven’t I taken these old events so monstrously out of proportion that I now regard one player and one press release as more important than my country winning the Ashes? I fistpump when Cook gets out: am I mad/twisted/deliberately obtuse? Or just too stubborn to let bygones be bygones? Have I thrown out a huge baby with a drop of bathwater?

The answer to all of these questions is – maybe. Perhaps. Arguably. But I can’t help it. It’s just the way I feel.

I’ve been thinking recently about how this looks to my friends. Or to any third party, especially casual cricket followers. They would see my position thus: I have abandoned my national team, the one I passionately followed, as man and boy, and now want their oldest enemy to beat them, and beat them in the Ashes, of all things. And the reason? A few backstage shenanigans which the majority of cricketer followers were barely aware of and have now entirely forgotten. By any rational analysis, my position is absurd. To any England supporter, it must seem insane. But as I say – I can’t help it. And to me at least, it makes sense.

It all began with the very first Test England played after February 2014. As the match reached a dramatic denouement, I found myself – despite being at work – in front of a TV showing the coverage on Sky.

With the first ball of the final over, Stuart Broad took Sri Lanka’s ninth wicket, and a strange thing happened: instead of punching the air in delight and excitement, my heart sank.”Oh God, England are going to bloody win”, I found myself thinking. With the fifth ball, Nuwan Pradeep was given out LBW, and as Broad and Cook celebrated wildly, I felt forlorn and bitter, as if ‘we’ had lost, not won. There was a twist in the tale, however, because Pradeep then called for a DRS review which revealed a inside edge. Reprieved, he narrowly survived the final ball and Sri Lanka saved the game. I was delighted.

This was my epiphany: the moment I realised my cricketing life was transformed. Unconsciously, and instinctively, I now wanted England to lose, not win. A total reversal of the position I’d held so ardently for the previous three decades. And as the months passed and Test matches came and went, my feelings only hardened in that direction. I supported the opposition, because my enemy’s enemy was now my friend.

It wasn’t that I’d calmly formulated my new position by deductive reasoning on grounds of principle. I hadn’t sat down with a pen and paper and sketched it out. I didn’t say to myself “well, as I think x and y about such-and-such, this regrettably but logically means I must oppose England”. No, it was an instinctive emotional response. But the more I reflected on it, the more it made sense, and the more I saw that it was underpinned by a solid rationale.

In a nutshell – and I’m trying desperately not to reheat old material – my view was the people who ran English cricket had made something very clear: the England team belonged to them, and to them only. The team existed purely as a cricketing representation of their corporate entity. Added to that was my sense of betrayal, and also of outrage at a great injustice. This all combined to corrode and nullify any pleasure I could draw from the actual cricket on the field of play. By extension several of the key individuals became opponents. In sport, opponents become enemies, and you want your enemies to lose. Boy, did I want my enemies to lose.

This might not seem very rational to you. Chiefly, my position appears obtuse because of my apparent sense of priorities. I’ve taken a one-off personnel issue, and a few comments by officials, and made them more important than the team itself – and more important even than England beating Australia in, all of things, the Ashes, with all its history and significance. I’ve abandoned thirty years of passionate support to start cheering on the opposition.

That sounds irrational, to put it mildly, but in sport all support or opposition is fundamentally irrational. Is it rational for Arsenal and Spurs to hate each other? Is is rational to cheer on Mo Farah at the Olympics? Is it rational to want to beat Australia at cricket?

The thing is, I didn’t want any of this to happen in the first place. None of what happened was my doing. I mainly feel sad and regretful about it. I wish things were different. And I had hoped for resolution, as I wrote in April 2015 when it looked like the tide might turn, only for those hopes to be dashed.

It would have helped enormously if England had been hammered in the 2015 Ashes, which I know is an odd thing to say. I longed for the defeat of the Cook/Strauss regime, and what it stood for, but despite Australia’s emphatic victories in the second and fifth tests, it wasn’t to be. Australia’s collapse at Trent Bridge cost me dear, because an England defeat would have lanced the boil and cleared the way for a new start.

I now find myself in very strange and lonely place. I am probably the only person in the world who holds my position, and I certainly don’t know anyone else in everyday life who thinks as I do. My friends don’t understand it, and they definitely don’t like it. They think I’m mad, or being a self-martyr, or being deliberately provocative. But I just can’t help feeling the way I do.

When I talk along these lines on Twitter or Facebook I might come across as a troll, trying to wind people up. I’m not really, I’m just saying what I think. And face-to-face, especially when I meet new people, I’m rather coy about not supporting England – embarrassed to admit it. I’ll be talking to a new acquaintance and the subject of the Ashes comes up, and they assume I’m gutted that England are two-nil down. What do I say? How can I explain where I’m coming from, in the space of a normal conversation? How do I make sense of this to someone with a casual, patriotic attachment to the England cricket team, someone who watches just for fun, who has little idea what I’m talking about, who’s never heard of Giles Clarke, and who believes, quite understandably, that England beating Australia is more fun than obsessing about a four-year-old press release?

Speaking of fun…I don’t find cricket much fun any more, and I derive little enjoyment from watching it save the hollow satisfaction of an England setback. I sorely miss what I used to have – not just a team to support, but a community, a family, of fellow supporters. I miss that camaraderie and fellowship, the sharing of mutual experience. I used to be a part of those conversations, but now I inhabit an alien land.

Nor do I even get much enjoyment from memories of supporting England pre-2014. I can’t dig out the 2005 DVDs and relive that series with joy and pride, because I know what happened later, and that has tarnished everything. With the exception of my village team, my whole life in cricket has been a waste. Every England success I rejoiced in now means nothing.

Now, to you this must sound incredibly self-important and self-pitying. You’ll feel that I am whinging about wounds which are entirely self-inflicted. I don’t believe that’s the case, but I’ll understand why you might think that. People tell me to snap out of it. I can’t. People tell me to move on. I can’t. How can you move on when nothing has changed, and nothing been resolved?

One argument in particular is often put to me. Most sports have bad administrators, and most clubs have bad owners. But everyone else puts that aside and supports the players – and so should I. Regrettably, that analysis doesn’t hold true when it comes to English cricket. The ECB aren’t like the Glazers – they’re not outsiders who barge their way in but eventually sell up and move on. It’s the other way around.

Why? Because the only permanent and irreducible thing about the England team is the ECB. Players come and go but the board and its ethos remain, and the ECB configure the team as a representation of its values and philosophy. The England team is a show they’re putting on. Supporting England means supporting the ECB, and I don’t think you can separate them. I’m open to persuasion, but I’ll need a lot of convincing.

What’s interesting, though, is I now watch cricket in a very different way from how I did in the past. England are a much better team when you’re not supporting them. Seriously. Before, if England were batting, I’d fear a wicket every ball. The batsmen looked like sitting ducks. Now I don’t want them do well, England’s batsmen look composed and authoritative, hard to remove. I used to think Australia’s bowlers were unplayable and their batsmen invincible. Now, to my eye, they often look flawed and unconvincing. From my unusual perspective, beating England looks much more difficult than it used to do.

Will I ever have a change of heart? One of my best friends said to me: “when we’re in our seventies, and we go to the cricket together, will you still be supporting the opposition because of something which happened thirty years ago?”. Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not quite sure what could realistically happen which would change the way I feel. Nor do I know what approach to take should my daughter, currently aged two, develop an interest in international cricket. Pretend to support England, for her sake? Is that actually a beneficial thing to do anyway?

Now and again I get the odd England twinge, the occasional conflicted moment, when I forget myself briefly, and feel a brief pang of connection or empathy with the England players and what they’re trying to achieve. For a beat or two I feel English again. It’s usually to do with players. I’m fond of Jonny Bairstow and when he’s batting there’s a part of me that’s pleased to see him do well. Dawid Malan, too.

Every now and again I slip and refer to England as ‘we’, but by using the word ‘slip’ I don’t mean to say there’s a pretence, or that I’m deliberately trying to subvert my instincts through stubborness. It’s just the old rhythms and cadences of my past life breaking through.

These little ‘twinges’, though – they pass quite quickly and leave me back where I started. What do I do? Do I try to force myself to support England again? Or do I convince myself that I’m just being pointlessly bloody-minded and that if I could only eat humble pie, move on, and support England again, life would be much more rewarding? Again, I don’t know.

I can imagine my hostility fading with the passing of time. But not opposing something isn’t the same as supporting it. Can I ever feel excited about England again? What would it take for my heart to leap with joy, as for so many years it did, at the sight of an England bowler taking a wicket? What might inspire me to cheer when Alastair Cook reaches a century?

I’ll finish by making an important point. Whatever my own position. I’m not trying to convert others. I’m not telling you or anyone else what to do. I’m not scolding England supporters for their adherence to the regime. If you support England, good luck to you, and I hope you enjoy the team’s successes. A part of me wishes I could join you. But for now, at least, I cannot.

Maxie Allen co-founded The Full Toss and has written on cricket ever since, family permitting.

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