Our rose-coloured glasses on the past skews our view of the world today

Sep 12, 2019
Rod compares UK prime ministers Boris Johnson and Winston Churchill. Source: Getty Images

In the past decade Boris Johnson has evolved from the clown of the 2012 London Olympics, with his beanies and high-wire tricks, to the prime minister of the United Kingdom. That’s an odd form of progression, especially in a country so respectful of tradition, but it may be explained by any of the old political clichés, such as there being no accounting for taste, or there are horses for courses.

What really intrigues me is that he has become prime minister despite being one of the worst public speakers I have ever heard. He so mangles his words and so scrambles his sentences that the proverbial Man from Mars might wonder that if Boris is setting a new standard for articulate international leaders, might Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard be a serious candidate for elevation to the top post to clean up the UK’s Brexit mess?

It’s hard to imagine that bumbling Boris is occupying the same high office that old smoothies like Winston Churchill once graced; and it’s hard to compare “We shall fight them on the beaches” with “When I say, er, that no, er, means, er, no”. But it would also be unfair to single out Boris for particular criticism when none of the world’s leaders — from Donald Trump down to our own Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten — have any of the soaring presence that John F Kennedy, for example, was able to inject into his speeches in our own lifetime.

Perhaps it has nothing to do with the limitations of the leaders themselves but more with the miserable messages they are expected to convey, in this cheese-paring age, that makes so many of them such awful Uriah Heaps. Surely, we’d all wish them to be Shakespearean Marc Antonys: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him and certainly not to increase the Roman deficit caused by his wasteful campaign in Gaul.” See what I mean!

I think it’s also unfair to single out politicians to bear the brunt of changes that have rendered so much we were once familiar with quite unintelligible in today’s world. In this regard, evidence can be found in YouTube, which is a fascinating resource in comparing the present with what we take for granted when reimagining the past.

With the World Rugby Cup upon us, a revisiting of old matches on YouTube reveals the game we played as youngsters bears no relation to what we are witnessing on the box today. In the pre-maul era, with its clear separation of roles between backs and forwards, and with backlines fanning out at 45-degrees behind the gain-line, you then had huge, lumbering forwards and slick, slight backs, keeping as far from each other as possible. Watch a game today and see 30 equally powerful transformers pounding each other into the ground and you realise that the question, say, of who was the greatest player (name any position) becomes unanswerable.

In sport, or certainly Australian sport, the most commonly asked question when juxtaposing the present against the past, is: Who is the next Don Bradman? The latest cricketer who is expected to carry the burden of Bradmanism is, naturally, Steve Smith. His exploits, in this year’s Ashes series in England, when he overcame the odium of suspension and then concussion, to almost single-handedly defeat the Auld Enemy, has only intensified the questions.

Here’s my two-bob’s worth: How good is he when measured against the acknowledged master? I’ve looked at both Smith and The Don and tried to find some common ground for comparison, but I find it cuts both ways.

On The Don’s side is that compared with Smith’s handful of double centuries, Bradman was a prodigious compiler of mammoth scores. Further, he played in an era of uncovered wickets so he often batted on glue-pots whose tricks and treats would be unfathomable to modern cricketers trained on true pitches. The regular whinges of Australian teams about the dust-bowls they encounter in India — with inevitable results — might bear this out.

On the other hand, Smith’s supporters could point to the fact that throughout his career, Bradman generally faced medium to fast-medium bowlers, and nothing like the barrage that the modern game has adjusted to since the West Indies unleashed their Barbadian bombardiers in the late-1970s. Bradman faced one 90 mile per hour bowler in Harold Larwood, in 1932, when he returned a very human series average of 57; while every fast bowler that Smith faces is up in the Larwood range, with some like Jofra Archer hurling them down at 95-plus. And with a few — Thommo, Shoab Akhtar, Binga Lee and Mitchell Starc — sometimes passing the tonne.

It’s really like comparing chalk with cheese. Go back to YouTube or dig out your old New South Wales Cricket Association coaching manual Calling All Cricketers, and you find that most of the shots played by all greats of former days no longer exist. When you face a Jofra Archer bullet rearing up at you at 96mph, you’re not going to ‘dance’ down the pitch to drive; and you’re certainly not going to try a pull shot on the front foot if you have any respect for the teeth in your mouth.

Inevitably, you will do what every modern batsman does: glide, deflect, nudge, let the velocity of the ball do the work for you; even a forward defensive shot becomes a ‘drive’ in this high-powered environment. In short, what we have is an entirely different game from the artistry of Bradman’s era. That was a game more attuned to a world of swashbuckling cavaliers, like Keith Miller, than our own, whose astringent analogy is that of the dour roundhead.

The question is not one of whether Steve Smith is the new Bradman but one, if you want to pursue the issue, of whether Smith could have flourished against the wiles of Maurice Tate and Alec Bedser. Conversely, whether The Don would have piled up his record if he had to face the brute force of Archer and Malcolm Marshall. Over after over.

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