Joy in the Ashes of nationalism

Nationalism is a scourge on the planet, dividing people along arbitrary lines in order to stir up hatred and xenophobia, justify conflicts and reinforce the gap between the haves and the have-nots of this world.

Except when it comes to cricket. Then it’s just a right laugh, innit?

The second annual Balkan Ashes – fought out yesterday on a wildly unpredictable pitch amid the industrial estates of outer-suburban Belgrade – served as the perfect stage for that light-hearted, sporting kind of nationalism between two countries that hopefully won’t be bombing each other any time soon: England and Australia. Even I, a self-declared ‘citizen of the world’ (*vomit*), felt a sense of national pride burning in my heart as I took to the field, although that could’ve just as easily been indigestion.

Despite this, the nationalism on display during this Ashes showdown was thoroughly confused. England followed hilariously in the footsteps of its national team by a selecting a line-up consisting primarily of overseas-born players. Australia’s squad was a bit more on point, consisting of eight Aussies and three Serbs who work at the Australian embassy. However, our choice to wear a shirt that resembled a knock-off New Zealand cricket uniform didn’t exactly fill our supporters with that green and gold pride.

The Aussie flag was … well, not really flying, but it was there.

The match started with fireworks (not literally, although most events in this country do involve pyrotechnics). Our opening batsman, Richard, did his chances of getting a British working visa a world of harm by smashing the ambassador for 22 off the first over, then duly retiring. The fact that the slaughter was being filmed by a local TV crew didn’t look great for anyone.

Things swung back England’s way in the second over, with youngster Jovan Reb claiming the scalp of our other opener, Stefan, for a duck. It was perhaps the first Ashes wicket in history to involve neither an Australian nor an Englishman …

Andrew and Isabelle ticked the scoreboard along for a few overs of leg byes and late cuts, until the former fell to a thunderbolt from the Bowler Formerly Known as Prince (he’s legit called Prince – what a name!).

That brought me to the crease. Those of you who’ve played cricket with me in Australia will know that I’ve carved a very comfortable niche for myself at number 10, with a set of batting skills that includes a shaky defence, a lack of attacking shots and a terrible temperament. My promotion to number 5 in this match was part of a cunning plan from our captain Glenn, which was duly described as “I’m not sure if anyone else knows how to bat”.

I usually bat best when there are no opposition players on the field.

Despite having become very good at being a rubbish batsman over the course of my career, I managed to make a decent fist of this innings. Yes, there were a few edges and near misses, but I actually hit a few boundaries, too, and nearly even clunked a six. I’m pretty sure me hitting a six is one of the harbingers of the apocalypse, so let’s be thankful that I made it to retirement without bringing the world to an end.

Australia’s next – and unfortunately last – significant partnership came between two mates who are named for the big moments: Tony King and Paul Champion. The NSW duo blasted a partnership of around 35, with Champion smashing sixes and King lording it over the Englishmen with his master strokeplay. Unfortunately both fell just short of retirement, leaving our vulnerable tail exposed.

After losing our last few wickets in quick succession, Richard returned to the fray, only to be bowled attempting a hoick across the line. I went back in as the final wicket, and almost straight away spooned a simple catch to the British captain, Andy. Thankfully Andy was feeling generous and decided to give me another life. Glenn was dismissed soon after – leaving me with an unbeaten innings that my average DEFINITELY needed – and we were all out for the not particularly great score of 101.

At this point I should point out how amazing the lunch buffet was. There were mountains of cevapi, kilos of kobasice, clusters of kajmak and even VEGEMITE SCROLLS. During the innings break I forgot about the match and ate myself blind for 15 minutes, until I eventually had to roll back onto the field. If cricket matches can be judged by their spread, this was Undoubtedly The Greatest Match Of All Time.

Cricket is great, but it’s NOTHING without lunch!

There was tension in the air as the English openers strode out to begin their tricky but gettable chase. They got off to a bright start, taking Glenn and myself for some nice singles and well-placed boundaries in the first few overs. The fourth over proved the charm, however, with a few quick yorkers and a (quite dubious) LBW decision giving Yours Truly three wickets from four balls.

A few more wickets fell, leaving England looking shaky until Eddy Lee and Stefan Nerandzic came to the crease for a stabilising partnership. Eddy – the Kevin Pietersen of the England team, both in terms of batting prowess and South African accent – was his usual composed self, picking off runs where possible and proving fiendishly difficult to dismiss. He and Stefan rotated the strike prudently, notching up the runs and looking solid in their partnership. Finally, some genius field placement from Richard and crafty bowling from Glenn brought an end to Stefan, and victory was in sight for the Aussies.

Eddy’s retirement on 20 lasted only about an over as the England tale collapsed, bringing him back onto the pitch for one last stand. However, Eddy’s partner couldn’t hang in there, with Tony King taking his second wicket to wrap up the match for the Aussies. Two wickets to Richard, as well as scalps to Glenn and Paul Champion, rounded out an even Australian bowling card.

The celebrations were raucous, and Yours Truly had his first cold tinnie in hand about 30 seconds after the final wicket fell. After surrendering the Ashes to England last year, the Aussies had regained the urn with a 101 to 64 victory!

A gallant England side was beaten by the Australians, who looked sharp in their Kiwi shirts …

Champion once again lived up to his name by claiming the award for the best Australian player, while Simon clinched the honours for England. Their prizes were two pieces of ‘art’ – a hand-stitched deer and a drawing of a wolf – which will surely bring untold light and colour to the basements they end up in …

Overall, the social atmosphere (as well as the amazing food and drink on offer) meant that the Balkan Ashes was more than just a cricket match. A huge amount of credit should go to Glenn Morrison and Andy Richardson for their monumental efforts in organising the event. I’m sure we all look forward to eating, drinking and (I guess) playing cricket when the Balkan Ashes comes around again in 2018.

And as for nationalism? It’s still totally stupid, but it never seems quite so bad when you end up on the winning side …

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