Just months after the Australian men’s Test cricket team were written off for being too weak and woke, they have begun their Ashes campaign as world champions with something to prove. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Australian Test cricket team silences critics

Three Australian cricketers stand huddled beside one another on the pitch.
Pat Cummins (centre) speaks to teammates on day three of the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston.
Credit: Ryan Pierse / Getty

There’s a baffling silence in sports media about what surely qualifies as the most extraordinary sporting recovery in history: the Australian men’s Test cricket team’s resurgence, in just months, from zombified parasites to internationally competitive human beings.

It was as recently as February, while touring India, that the whole team were diagnosed by pundits as having an aggressive neurological disorder, popularly known as the “woke virus”. Alleged symptoms included physical and moral cowardice, a need for validation, and spectacular batting collapses. The afflicted were also said to suffer from acute noise sensitivity – particularly to the profane rantings of coaches – and mild concern about the warming of the planet.

It was thought captain Pat Cummins, on account of his perfect teeth and failure to share with opposing batters his desire to sleep with their wives, was patient zero. When he announced last year his decision to withdraw as a corporate ambassador for Alinta Energy, the media’s zombie doctors – ever vigilant for signs of the virus – concluded that poor Cummins had succumbed. On Sky News, Cummins was a “climate catastrophist clown” with “far-left” views. Alan Jones, who was once fond of the kid, thought he “should keep his politics to himself”.

The contagion was confirmed after the first two Tests in India this year both ended in dazzling capitulation, and the team members’ entire nervous systems were now declared captive to the zombie disease. What’s more, the disease was threatening the whole damn country. Here’s the grumpy sage and wistful corporate titan Maurice Newman, writing in The Australian after those first two losses: “The cricket team’s embarrassing defeats in India suggest our national sport suffers a deep cultural malady,” he warned. “It looks as though politics has infiltrated leadership, causing fans to wonder if they are witnessing a version of ‘go woke, go broke’.”

Aussie cricket god Allan Border was also appalled by the apparent mental softness. “Play with a harder edge,” he said. “I mean, we’re giving blokes the thumbs up when they’re beating us outside the off stump. What the hell is going on? That is just ridiculous.”

Understandably, the national squad’s transformation into undead ghouls was traumatising for older generations. While eulogising our national valour, they reminisced about the bygone days of homophobic sledges, binge-drinking and bookies.

What really pained pundits was the team’s decision to reject their antidote: former coach Justin Langer, the man who’d heroically led the team to two consecutive series losses to India at home. Former Test batsman and aspiring entrepreneur Damien Martyn pithily declared his solution to the zombie crisis. He simply tweeted: “#justinlanger” after the first loss. Fellow zombie hunter, 2GB journalist Chris O’Keefe was more emotionally expressive: “Good call sacking Justin Langer. What an embarrassment.”

Indeed. Langer was the anti-zombie, a man whose granite constitution was incapable of infection. As well as being a legendarily tough opening batsman, Langer has a black belt in zen do kai and the equivalent in spouting leadership quotes. Had the players not revolted against their awkward, humourless and volcanically temperamental warrior–philosopher, they may have fortified themselves against the virus. But, alas, they rejected him and invited their demise and the country’s humiliation.

There was also, naturally, anguished speculation about the futures of the players’ young children, whose fathers’ brains were now terminally spoilt, and who could presumably no longer change their nappies or help teach them phonetics without mentioning the effects of burning coal.

Thus, it was proposed that Langer establish, and serve as the patron of, an academy for the scarred children of woke cricket dads, where the daily regimen would begin at 5am with readings of The Art of War and The Doug Walters Story.     

But where did this virus originate? In the dark, distant days of February and March this year, several theories were floated. One theory drew upon an allegedly inviolable law of humanity, which is that each successive generation inescapably declines in virtue. Thus, all of history could be presented simply as a series of concentric circles, with each ring representing a generation. The further from the centre – aka the Golden Age – the weaker, more annoying and hapless at playing spin on the subcontinent those folks would be.

That was one theory, but from the sum of the media’s autopsies a consensus villain emerged: it was bloody politics. See, politics had once historically been discrete – reality’s oil to sport’s water – but now the crafty bugger had somehow insinuated itself into the once magically autonomous realm of professional cricket. “Just play cricket lads,” counselled former Brisbane Lion Mal Michael last year. “Leave politics out of sport.”

But it was too late. It remains a great mystery as to how politics had infiltrated a sport that’s defined by British colonialism, and which has experienced Bodyline, underarm, South African apartheid, Zimbabwean expulsion, chronic match-fixing and a rebel league conceived by an Aussie media magnate. But, no: we had always separated the realms of politics and sport, and somehow the latter was now tainted.

But in March, while pundits were still mourning the deaths of Aussie cricket and decency, and decrying the sly intrusion of politics into this once-sacred place, the undead that comprised our national Test squad were staging a remarkable recovery.

After two comprehensive losses to India, they won the third Test. Then they drew the fourth. It ended in a 2-1 series loss – the same result as the previous two series at home, under zombie-slayer Justin Langer, and a respectable outcome given the horrors of those first two matches. It seemed they’d found an antidote – and it wasn’t Langer.

More remarkable is what followed. These men – who only months earlier were the drooling, befuddled captives of a brain-eating virus – went on to smash India in London this month in the World Test Championship. For 11 blokes who’d recently surrendered their integrity, resilience and central nervous systems to beat the world’s supremely ranked Test side by 209 runs was, well, impressive.

Then the latest Test rankings were released, and the world’s top three batsmen were all Australian – an astonishing triumph for these brain-jacked meat statues. The International Cricket Council told us “the last time three batters from the same side occupied the top three positions in the Test rankings was in December 1984”. Those batters were from the then dominant West Indies.

And now, the Ashes. Against the flamboyantly aggressive style of England’s “Bazball”, the convalescents played patiently, skilfully. One might have expected the detachment of a gangrenous limb or two, or for the blood-starved Cummins to have cannibalised England’s Joe Root while deliriously quoting Marx. But, no. Instead, Australia’s calmness served as a competitive, enthralling counterpoint to the Three Lions’ hyperactivity. And led by Woke Pat and Cowardly Khawaja, the Aussies in the first Test made their highest successful run chase in more than a decade. 1-0 Zombies.

Now, either the Australians have heroically learnt to tame their parasitic brain lords or they’ve found a cure. Having studied the limited literature available on the zombie virus, one suspects it’s unmanageable and that the Aussie team have, in fact, discovered a vaccine – and, out of respect to Langer, have remained quiet about it.

Which leaves one last, great mystery: the silence of the team’s critics, who zealously diagnosed their affliction but have somehow missed their dramatic recovery. It’s weird, and we might be concerned for them. Are they now struck by a strange disease – a profound amnesia that affects the most immodestly outraged? A pathogen that inflicts forgetfulness upon our wise, well-meaning custodians of Australian culture? Certainly, after the win in the third Test against India, there was a conspicuous absence of columns that tied the fortunes of our zombie men to the health of our national soul.

“National pride has become synonymous with white supremacy,” Maurice Newman wrote, in pain and in warning, earlier this year. “Australia Day and Anzac Day are now presented as anniversaries of shame rather than celebrations of national success and the triumph of freedom over tyranny. Cricket seems to align with this. What might happen next?”

I’m not sure what happens next, Maurice. Perhaps an annihilating recurrence of the zombie virus, and we’ll all soon be fighting in the streets for a taste of another’s brain. But personally, I hope after this week’s first Test win it’s an Ashes victory – and a dual antidote for your amnesia and cliché-riddled hyperbole.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "Zombie resurrection".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription