Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The Ashes - and the fallacy that big events must have big causes

Just a couple of weeks ago, Australia's touring cricketers (above) were labelled the 'worse Australian side in history' to visit these shores. The worst since the all-conquering side of 1989 played England off the park, one thought - and, to be fair, they were pretty bad. Their first innings capitulation at Lord's, the home of cricket, was absolutely pitiful, embarrasing and an insult to fans who had paid to travel to Britain and then to get into the ground.

But lots of commentators went over the top. They committed a common fallacy among those who aren't historically trained: to say that important events have to have important causes.

So the search was on for 'deep-seated' weaknesses in the Aussie game, which were preventing the formally dominant Australians from developing new players. It must be Australian cricket's over-reliance on its T20 competition, the Big Bash. It must be state-level pitches, which have stopped allowing batsmen to bat and bat (and bat) all day. It had to be the availability and popularity of other sports - Aussie Rules, for instance, or soccer.

Until the Australians fought back magnificently at Old Trafford, and were probably only thwarted by the rain. Then all their problems didn't seem so 'deep-seated' all of a sudden. It was down to particular players - such as their under-performing opening batsman, Shane Watson, a walking wicket if ever there was one at the moment. The unfortunate pre-series punch aimed by one of their players at England's young Joe Root in a nightclub (the less said about this one the better). Tensions inside the squad. The lack of a single gifted player to come in as a spinner to rival England's extraordinarily successful Graeme Swann.

So suddenly it was all about people. All about the moment. All about gumption, or 'stick', or 'dog', or whatever else you want to call it. That's actually more insightful, more likely to be correct - and more helpful to the Australian players themselves, who can do little about tournaments, pitches and rival sports at home.

It all reminds me of that great controversy about the causes of the First World War, which professional academic provocateur A.J.P. Taylor argued was caused by nothing any more exotic than the rail timetables which made it impossible for the German army to hold back in the West when they wanted to swing around and fight Russia as soon as possible. There was more to it than that, of course, and there are indeed usually long-term factors involved. Why were the railways so important to mobilisation in the first place? Why did the German High Command fear and hate the Russians so much? These were and are also pertinent questions.

So the backgrounds, the experiences and the playing history of these Aussie cricketers can't just be ignored. But as they have now so admirably showed, we are not just the captives of 'wider forces' and the 'contexts' of our actions. Some sportsmen and women, some competitors, some politicians and some generals insist on making their own contexts by sheer bloody-minded force of will or skill.

There's a lesson of history for you.

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