A few years ago Mark Waugh, the cricketer, had a problem. It's a problem many, if not all, batsmen go through at some time in their career: he kept getting out. He simply couldn't put together a reasonable score. His bad run lasted a few months and it was my fault.
I had not been watching.
I got too busy. I was working on a film and didn't have time to tune in to the cricket for most of the summer. Mark's batting suffered but I couldn't do anything about it.
I'd noticed over the previous seasons that there was an immediate and powerful relationship between my television viewing habits and Mark's performance. He could be zooming along, flaying the bowlers with his stylish strokemaking, reaching the mid-forties in a chanceless innings, but if I walked away from the set for even a short spell, when I came back he would be out.
Or if I didn't manage to catch the beginning of his stand at the crease he would be scratching around, poking at balls outside the off stump, hanging his bat at inswingers, lucky to survive even the most feeble bowling.
Mark Waugh became my responsibility. If I could make sure I was there on my couch for every ball he faced he would be assured of a good score. If I couldn't he wouldn't. Simple as that.
You can measure my viewing against his scorecard. I did very well in 1991. When Mark made his long-awaited test debut in the fourth test against England in Adelaide I was watching. Coming in at number 6 he scored 138. In April against the West Indies in St Johns he saved the match with 139 not out. He averaged 54.45 for the season and was Wisden's Cricketer of the Year.
But in 1992 I had a shocker. He failed against India in Sydney and Adelaide then had the famous run of outs in Sri Lanka, including four ducks in a row! My excuse: I had been working so hard I got sick. My personal life was in disarray. I was all over the place and so was Mark. Not until November was I able, briefly, to get back to the box and M. Waugh came good against the West Indies again.
In the end I was as much relieved as disappointed when Mark retired in 2002. I have rarely enjoyed watching any cricketer play as much as the younger Waugh brother. But it's a fearful burden to carry. I was, to tell the truth, exhausted. And wracked with a peculiar guilt. If only I'd managed to watch more cricket imagine what his final average could have been!
I am not particularly superstitious. I consider myself rational. There is no way that me watching a sporting event can influence the result. And yet…
It happened again with Carlton Football Club. When I lived in Melbourne I watched Carlton during its glory years. I was at the MCG to see them defeat Collingwood in 1979 and again in 1981, went regularly to Princess Park to stand in the outer, never missed a televised game. Then I moved to Sydney, the John Elliot era at Carlton sucked the life out of the club, the AFL became ever more corporate minded, and I stopped watching (in fact, in those pre-Foxtel days, it was near impossible to watch AFL games in Sydney or to see on television anything about the sport – unless, of course, Sydney FC was playing.)
Carlton went down the tubes but, apart from feeling a non-specific pain, an inexplicable absence in my life, I hardly seemed to notice.
Then, the year I moved back to Melbourne, decided to subscribe to Pay TV, and even to attend a few games in person, Carlton acquired Chris Judd who began to mould his team of talented young players (Bryce Gibbs, Mark Murphy, Matthew Kruger, Mitch Robinson, Aaron Joseph,) to meld with the core of Brendan Fevola, Brad Thornton, Nick Stevens, Kade Simpson, Waite, Walker, the brilliant Eddie Betts, and the mad Irishmen O'Hailpin and Houlihan, into a team of promise. And once again, as long as I was watching they played very well. But if I missed they were punished.
And listening on the radio is not enough. I was in Adelaide for my brother's wedding in May and sat in a rented car with my wife, staring blankly at the sea, while The Crows thrashed The Blues and the partisan local commentators howled with delight.
Sometimes, even if I go to the game they lose. I haven't figured that one out yet, unless it has to do with who I go with, or where I sit.
Now to my secret. I was born and grew up in England. So even though I've lived in Australia for forty years I cannot, in all decency, support Australia against England in the cricket. This fact has made life difficult for me, especially in the company of some of my one-eyed cricket-loving friends, and even more especially given the dominance of the Australian Cricket Team for the past twenty years, but it's just the way it is.
And this year I noticed the old solipsist problem surfacing in this previously neutral zone. In 2009 I missed the first test in Cardiff (result: a draw) but watched every session of the second test (at Lords): when England won by a hundred runs. I missed the first day and a half of the third test. Consequence: England collapse, totally crushed. The only session I was able to see was the morning of the third day: Chris Broad and G Swann made a lively stand of 100 plus, frustrating the hitherto all-conquering Australian bowlers.
I got tired, went to bed; and they got out and lost the match.
I know it's nothing to do with me. I know it. Any sane person would know it. But that doesn't make it any easier.
For the final and deciding test match I decided to absolve myself in advance of any responsibility for what might happen: I left town for the week, went to stay in a friend's house in the Monaro, on the edge of the Snowy Mountains. There was no phone, no TV, no radio, no internet, no possible way for me to watch any cricket.
Result: England win back the Ashes.
So it's clear. If I want my favourites to succeed I either have to be paying attention, preferably on TV, or else to be in a place where I cannot possibly be paying attention. I'm not, as I said, superstitious. It's hard to understand the mysterious bond between my attention and the performance of a team or individual. But it's hard to understand quantum physics as well. And until we understood that the gravity of the moon makes the tides move on earth, as well as the blood in our veins, astrology seemed to have absolutely no foundation at all. There's a reason for everything. I just have to get used to the fact that you can't always work out what it is.