Every high-achiever needs a nemesis, an antagonising muse who cajoles greater success through fierce competition. The Beatles had the Stones, Blair had Brown, Batman has Bane and Vegemite has Marmite.
The same is true in sport. It is also true that if you are a rung below greatness then fierce competition will confirm the fact and keep you there. Novak Djokovic has greatness in him and has been able to join the elite band of current tennis legends alongside Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Andy Murray, on the other hand, is a very good tennis player, but (sadly) not great.
For so many years the England cricket team was not very good. It is now. However, to become great this young(ish) team arguably needs a challenger to define themselves against and overcome. Right now, it is difficult to see who that challenger is.
India was presented as such last summer, and left the British Isles with a four nil drubbing in the Test series, thereby confirming England as world no 1. This summer, the Saffers will compete in a three Test series to determine who’s the world’s top Test team. They, too, are a very good side, and there is clearly some ‘needle’ between the teams after previous encounters, but they don’t quite fulfill the villainous role required to truly push England on to higher things.
The England cricket team has always used Australia as the benchmark, and vice-versa. When England were in the doldrums in the 1990s and early noughties Australians revelled in their team’s supremacy. Very rarely did they bemoan the lack of competition between the two teams. Some pretence was made in both the 2001 and 2007-08 series that India could replace England as the antagonists-in-chief. But, truly, despite the controversies and the close competition, their hearts weren’t in it. They just wanted to bash the Poms again.
The English are built slightly differently. We don’t have such a chip on our shoulders. We don’t see ourselves as needing to take an opposition down a peg or two; we (wrongly) believe we have a God-bestowed right to be top dog and, when we are, it seems like the natural order has been re-established. Of course, our psyche is much more complex than that. There is also a paradoxical in-built inferiority which often holds us back against the very best. This has been long-diagnosed and its absence from the likes of Mark Cavendish, Martin Johnson and Ian Botham makes/made them such wonderful beasts.
Now England are palpably better than Australia at cricket I’ve noticed a slight yearning for a more even-sided contest between the two. On one level, this is a very dangerous thing to wish for. On another, it is normal to want to recreate such titanic struggles as the 2005 Ashes series. I, for one, would quite happily settle for another half a dozen 2010-11 series, even if this generation of England cricketers then lack a credible defining contemporary and therefore struggle to compare themselves with the greatest teams of all time.