A special Australian agony: having to support England against India

With Australia’s World Test Championship hopes resting on Joe Root’s men drawing a series they trail 2-1, it’s a difficult time for fans who would happily back North Korea against England

Stuart Broad in action against India
Australians will be cheering on Stuart Broad in the fourth Test against India in the hope England can win and keep Australia in the World Test Championship final. Photograph: BCCI
Australians will be cheering on Stuart Broad in the fourth Test against India in the hope England can win and keep Australia in the World Test Championship final. Photograph: BCCI
in Melbourne

Last modified on Wed 3 Mar 2021 13.44 EST

“It feels bloody terrible,” he said, head bowed over his pint. “Suddenly everything gets turned upside down. I don’t know how to feel about it.” Picture a couple of men huddled over a table in the corner of a pub – there have been millions of variations of a conversation like this. In the beer garden of the Great Northern hotel in Melbourne last week, though, I was offering solace to a friend about having to support England in a cricket match.

The World Test Championship final in June will feature two teams who qualify based on their win-draw-loss percentage in their relevant matches. New Zealand have secured their place in the final, with the remaining place being between Australia and India. India will pip Australia to the spot by beating or drawing with England in the final match of their ongoing series, currently led by India 2-1. So Australia need England to win instead; one half of the Ashes rivalry relying on the other.

For Australians this creates a deep inner conflict. Covering cricket professionally, I’m spared the angst of parochialism and can enjoy the game more broadly. It’s much more relaxing, and highly recommended. But since India flipped the pitch in the current series to win two Tests in a row, the angst on the faces of my cricket compatriots has been clear to see. Wanting England to win is anathema to everything we’re raised to believe.

The order of favour is ranked by a mix of underdog status and existing rivalry. Ireland, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka are in the top bracket for support. West Indies and Pakistan are next, sharing with Australia a strong history but without antipathy. Any of the above would be supported against New Zealand, because New Zealand is just over there and kind of annoying. The Kiwis are backed against India, because India have the money and power. India would be preferred to South Africa, because the contest between Australia and South Africa gets … well, rough. Then comes England. North Korea could start a team. Charles Koch could start a team. Novak Djokovic could join a team. It is anyone, anyone, but England.

After New Zealand’s 2019 World Cup campaign met the boundary countback rule, nobody was more furious about it than Australians. To English complaints about Indian pitches, no one has been more dismissive than Australians, who complained furiously about pitches last time our team toured India. Not that it’s one-way: nobody took more delight in Australia’s sandpaper experiment than some English supporters, and nobody got more querulous in January about Steve Smith marking guard on a Sydney pitch that was hardened to concrete.

For those England supporters, losing one more Test in India may seem a small price to pay. Nobody would want a winning Australian team in town, lording it over everyone (except the English cricketers who are actually lords). But then, a win for England would mean an Indian tour drawn at 2-2, an achievement that Joe Root said would be “monumental”. Decisions, decisions.

As for Australians, can they stomach tuning in to cheer for Dom Sibley or Stuart Broad? And if they could, would it be worth the emotional turmoil of selling out given the remote likelihood of it working?

If the pitch is another turner, then England’s chances in India look as remote as Australia’s chances before that, or South Africa’s before that, or New Zealand’s before that. Supporting a doomed cause is far less compelling. And if the miracle arrives, how will supporters feel about England handing them a spot in the final? Australia blew two chances in the last Ashes and three chances at home against India to do the job themselves. You don’t want rivals having anything to hold over you.

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Most likely, supporters of all stripes will do the logical and honourable thing: those who make the WTC final will rejoice in vindication, those who don’t will ignore it completely. What bauble could be more meaningless, after all, than a bauble that your team doesn’t have the chance to win? Rather than cheer England on for the duration, Australians will likely flick to the scorecard on day five (or three, or two) when it’s over. If the result happens to have fallen the right way, happy days. If not, those grapes were probably no good anyway.

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