The MT Diary: Howard Davies at the Ashes

Even the tasteless Aussie beer couldn't mar the delight of England's Ashes victory for MT's diarist.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 11 Mar 2011

It was a warm and sunny lunchtime at the Sydney cricket ground. One of my sons had just been to the members' bar for a round of schooners of Victoria Bitter. I glanced up at the scoreboard, to note that England were 605 for eight while Mitchell Johnson was preparing to serve up six more tempting pies to Graeme Swann. Opposite us, the Barmy Army sang 'your next Queen is Camilla Parker Bowles' to the tune of Yellow Submarine. A gloomy Australian in the next row offered the friendly thought that 'bloody Poms shouldn't be allowed in this stand'.

Had the grim reaper chosen to harvest me at that moment (or at least when I had finished the beer), I could have had no grounds for complaint. Perhaps, in my youth, I used to be able to think of more exciting ways to spend an afternoon, but those promiscuous days are well behind me, and earth hath not anything to show more fair than watching our heroes whip the Australians on their home ground, day after day.

This will surprise you, dear reader, but I have to report that they didn't take it terribly well. Many explanations were offered for the debacle, from selection errors, through too many extra-curricular activities by the boys in baggy green, to sunspots. But the idea that England are simply rather a good team these days, and better than the Aussies in every department, was dismissed as too far-fetched to contemplate.

You would need a heart of stone not to take pleasure in their discomfort, so gloat we did. Q. What do you call an Australian with a hundred runs? A. A bowler. How we laughed. I suppose if we carry on winning for another 20 years I might start to be gracious about it, but I can't promise.

There are many good things about Australia, but this year the summer weather was not among them. Sydney could be climatically twinned with Manchester if Melbourne hadn't got there first. (Queensland, of course, was in a different, quite horrific category.)

But I can think of many worse ways to spend an evening than at the Sydney Opera House. The performances are OK, but the intervals are especially good. Hanging out on the terrace overlooking the harbour, with a glass of Tumbarumba Chardonnay in hand, beats the crush in the long bar at Covent Garden any day.

We spent a very agreeable weekend too in Mudgee, a kind of poor man's Hunter Valley, and much less chi-chi. But getting there was traumatic. New South Welsh roads come complete with aggressive road signs promising nameless retribution for any marginally deviant driving behaviour, and from time to time a bloodthirsty neurosurgeon from Sydney glares out from cricket pitch-sized posters with the brutal legend: 'Late, or crushed skull? Choose wisely'. There must be an excluded middle, one thinks.

Australia has become a safety first, second and third culture. Mexican waves, beach balls and plastic beer mug snakes are all banned at the SCG on safety grounds. You have to show ID and have a barmaid gaze into your eyes to check for tell-tale signs of inebriation before you are allowed to buy a weak and tasteless lager. At the Sydney festival a man was evicted for carrying his two-year-old son on his shoulders - an obvious case of child abuse. As the eurosceptics here would tell us, it must be the malign influence of Brussels.

When it comes to the economy, things are becoming more interesting down under. The Australian dollar is riding high - now above parity with the greenback. To simplify, but not by much, BHP and Rio Tinto are digging up the continent and selling it to China, which is creating the mother of all mining booms. That is changing the terms of trade in a big way and giving the Antipodeans a dose of Dutch disease.

The visible consequences are a decline in manufacturing and tourism. Who would export a Holden from South Australia these days? And fish and chips in Sydney costs about £20. It is a very expensive place to win an urn, unless you earn dollars. So Sydney pubs are now as full of English waiters as London walkabout bars are of Aussies.

What can our Strine cousins do about it, except buy Toyotas and enjoy more foreign holidays? Some argue that Oz needs a sovereign wealth fund on the Norwegian model, to build up overseas assets which can be run down when the whole of western Australia's subsoil has been sent to China and there is nothing left to export.

It is a plausible idea, but the government doesn't seem ready to explain to their taxpayers why it makes sense to run a surplus. They are crypto-Brits, after all, not prudent Scandiwegians, and just as we peed North Sea oil against the wall in the 1980s and 1990s, they are set on doing something similar with their coal and iron ore. The Liberal government planned a big fund to invest in research and higher education, but we hear less about that now.

So their dollar could remain strong for some time. Which may just be a good reason to restrain one's glee at their discomfort. Aussie visitors to London are now seriously rich. So while in the privacy of our cold little houses we will be laughing up our sleeves, to their faces it had better be 'yes, Bruce, no, Bruce, three bags full, Sheila', from now on.

Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics.

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