John Howard’s Great Moments in Sport 2003

The crowning achievement of self-styled sports fanatic and Australian Prime Minister John Howard in 2003 came at the final of the Rugby World Cup in November. After the Wallabies lost an exhilarating game on an extra-time field goal, JH looked like he was going to burst into tears as he handed out the winners’ medals to a seemingly endless line of England players and staff.

A surly-faced JH put on an extraordinary display for a worldwide TV audience as he grumpily hurled medals over English players’ heads, occasionally remembering that he should shake hands. He even spoke to one or two of them towards the end. And then he handed the Webb Ellis Trophy to England captain Martin Johnson as hurriedly as possible, disappearing into the background as his pre-ordained photo moment with Wallabies captain George Gregan became a wasted dream.

All this from a Prime Minister who chose to usurp the ceremonial roles normally performed by the Governor-General. JH did the official opening of the Rugby World Cup in October, and became the first non-head of state to hand over the Webb Ellis Trophy at the conclusion since 1987. Queen Elizabeth II was head of state of England (RWC 1991) and Wales (1999), Nelson Mandela of South Africa (1995). Major-General (Retd) Michael Jeffrey would surely have handled the prize-giving duties with more grace and cheer than JH.

While yet another of John Howard’s great moments in sport in 2003 happened to involve a Governor-General (JH was at the Sydney Cricket Ground watching a rugby league game with Russell Crowe while Jeffrey’s predecessor, Archbishop Peter Hollingworth, was announcing his resignation), most of the best incidents involved, as usual, cricket.

JH’s cricketing 2003 began with the spectre of Zimbabwe looming over the Cricket World Cup. England were well advanced down the tortuous path to boycotting their World Cup fixture in Zimbabwe, and all the major political parties in Australia were telling the ACB not to send their team there.

Howard, who was a chair of a committee dealing with Zimbabwe’s status as a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, made a fabulous “follow me” pronouncement in an interview on ABC radio while attending the Sydney Test against England. JH said the Australia should not send its team to Zimbabwe “as long as everyone else did the same”.

And of course, that didn’t happen. The ICC and the World Cup organising body put their hefty financial contracts first and retained the matches in Harare and Bulawayo, but it was the apathy of the other participating nations that turned England’s boycott into a unilateral exercise that gave the perception of patronising colonialism. India turned up for their game, so did Pakistan, so did Mugabe’s closest ally Namibia, so did Holland. And so did Australia.

Yes, John Howard’s hard line on Mugabe and Zimbabwe softened so that Australia wouldn’t jeopardise its chances of winning the World Cup.

JH said sorry to aborigines in March. Sorry that the Prime Minister could not attend the annual game between the Prime Minister’s XI and the ATSIC Chairman’s XI in Adelaide for the Johnny Mullagh Trophy. Australia, you see, had just invaded its near neighbour Iraq with the help of its good friends in the Coalition of the Willing, thereby ridding the world of those Weapons of Mass Destruction that would be deployed in 45 minutes but which no one had ever actually seen (and still haven’t).

Too busy, sorry, but here’s an able replacement to present the trophy. And when the PM’s XI defeated the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team by eight wickets, the Johnny Mullagh Trophy was handed over to PM XI captain Justin Langer by Chris Gallus. She’s the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and her electorate almost, but not quite, includes Adelaide Oval.

JH ignored hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians in 2000 marching for reconciliation with aborigines, and he ignored even more Australians in February 2003 who marched in opposition to war with Iraq. Maybe he’ll do something decent and ask the Governor-General to go to the Johnny Mullagh game next year.

In May, there was the sledging episode in the Fourth Test in Antigua between Glenn McGrath and Ramnaresh Sarwan. The West Indian batsman had said something to McGrath about his wife, Jane, who is currently fighting cancer. McGrath was seen on television to become quite aggressive, pointing his finger at Sarwan, and then storming off to umpire David Shepherd to complain.

JH, speaking during an interview on Melbourne radio station 3AW a few hours later, said that McGrath had done “a very natural Australian thing” in defending his wife.

The complete dialogue between McGrath and Sarwan went, however, something like this, as it was about to be widely reported in the media:

GM: What’s Lara like in bed, mate?
RS: Why don’t you ask your wife.
GM: [waves finger aggressively] If you ever fucking mention my wife again, I will fucking rip your fucking throat out. [charges away towards umpire]

McGrath had done “a very natural Australian thing”, and sports pages in the following day’s papers around the world carried the headline “PM defends McGrath outburst”. Sarwan went on to score a match-winning 105, and McGrath took no further wickets in the Test to finish with 1/50.

August saw the cricket event that wasn’t for JH. Darwin played host to the Bangladesh team for one Test match and a one-day international. Howard was busy overseas while the Test was on, but he dropped into Darwin on August 4 – two days before the ODI – to attend the annual running of the Darwin Cup horserace, and then headed off again the following day. Yes, it wasn’t England, or South Africa, or New Zealand, or even the West Indies. Bradman never batted against Bangladesh, nor did Bob Menzies watch them play. They can’t be too important then.

And there was another non-event, in October, which capped off JH’s great moments in cricket for 2003. GW Bush was in the country, at JH’s request. Unfortunately they couldn’t squeeze a visit to a Rugby World Cup game into Dubya’s tight schedule. (The former Yale rugby player was probably bemused because Georgia had a team in the tournament, but Texas didn’t.) The next best thing was a barbie at The Lodge – you know, the official Prime Ministerial residence in Canberra that JH refuses to live in.

A guest list predominantly consisting of male white anglo-saxon conservatives, a microcosm of JH’s dream world, had lunch over the barbeque with the Prime Minister and the President, but someone was missing. The occupant of the position the PM has often claimed is just as important as his own, that of Australian Test captain.

Steve Waugh was invited to the presidential barbeque, but he had another function on the same day, in the shape of the official launch of the Cricket New South Wales state season, being held at Bradman Oval, Bowral, less than two hours drive from Canberra.

Waugh chose to be with his state team-mates over Bush and Howard.

It was Mark Taylor (the only past or present cricketer to turn up to the Bush barbie) who dubbed JH several years ago with the description “cricket tragic”. No one can really be sure what the term means, but Howard has dined out on it ever since, and no doubt it got a few laughs over the snags with GWB. We can be sure, however, that JH’s contributions to the world of cricket are lesser than many other Prime Ministers.

Unlike Edmund Barton (PM 1901-03), JH has never been a first-class umpire. Unlike George Reid (1904-05), he was never a leading cricket administrator (president of the New South Wales Cricket Association). Unlike Bob Hawke (1983-91), he wasn’t a talented club cricketer who played for Oxford University whilst studying on a Rhodes Scholarship. Unlike Ben Chifley (1945-49), he didn’t get to oversight the knighting of the game’s greatest player – though if Australia still had knighthoods, I am sure JH would have arranged a few. Unlike the late Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley, he hasn’t written a scholarly history of the sport, and don’t hold you breath waiting for one when he eventually retires.

Tragic indeed.

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