Where were you when we were English?

“The aim of English cricket is, in fact, mainly to beat Australia.” Jim Laker

Today is the day that the Ashes start. It’s not the first test, it may not even be the first game for a number of the squad, but it is the start of – what is viewed by many as – the only thing to really get excited about in the cricketing world.

I don’t want this blog to be specifically sports based. There are plenty, no doubt better offerings out there for your specialist needs. However, I do want to mark this occasion, the start of the 66th Ashes Series (the series of cricket matches played between England and Australia), with a few thoughts on why it should mean so much; but now leaves me feeling slightly cold to it all.

The above quote, possibly given at the height of Laker’s Ashes prowess in the ‘50s, suggests that the demand for a victory over Australia has always been with us. Yet there is a nagging inside which makes me think we have lost sight of where this series fits in the wider, international game. Cricket is by no means a global sport, which makes it all the more depressing that it feels as though it is no longer a game played on an equal footing, amongst those countries that love the game.

Of course The Ashes are billed as the big one, but has it always been so far ahead of any other encounter, that we complacently forget what it was like to get excited about all our upcoming series? There are factors as to why this may now be the case. Be it the demise of the West Indies, the advent of Twenty20, the fact that we seem to play an Ashes series every other week – English cricket is now so focussed on 25 days (five days across five tests) of action every two years, that the rest – what made the game so great – is mere fodder to fill the television schedules.

Since 2005, I sense that my passion for the game is going in a different direction to the rest of the nation. There I was, sat in front of the TV after eight consecutive defeats at the hand of the old enemy, watching people hanging out of office windows around Trafalgar Square, feeling completely detached from the scenes of joyous celebration.

What puzzled me was how we went from the Veuve Clicquot sponsored celebrations at The Oval, to the open top bus tour, the MBEs to the excuse for a well known satellite broadcaster to over hype every future Ashes series from that point on. Where had this new level of euphoria come from? Why were people who had previously shown no interest in the game (and would just as quickly lose it) desperately trying to get tickets, take days off and spend hours recounting every ball of that series?

It felt as though history had been eroded. We quickly forget how many times the great Alan Border or Steve Waugh sides had dismantled our hopes from the first ball, on the first day. No longer were we under the Aussie yoke. Now we were the greatest test match side in the world – even if the standings suggested otherwise.

Things quickly came crashing back down to earth when we had to defend our title over in Australia. Vaughan’s injury, Flintoff’s misdemeanours and the opening test selection issues were the first act of a disastrous play (an Australian Tragedy if you will) that saw us home with our batting tail firmly between our legs.

Yet all was once again forgotten thanks to the heroics of “our boys” and their nail biting, last test victory in 2009; which saw the urn of ashes (no behemoth like Stanley Cup for our victors) returned to their rightful place – where technically they very rarely leave; much to the annoyance of the Australians. That 2-1 victory supposedly signalled the end of Australia’s dominance – they are currently in a slump of six straight defeats in all forms of the game.

All of that brings us nicely on to the current Ashes series. To put this series in to context, it is five games between the fourth and fifth best side in the world. The best team, India, are happily twirling away in their series against New Zealand; having beaten Australia last time out and waiting patiently to do the same to England next summer.

Keep that last paragraph in mind as you watch the adverts for Sky’s build up to the “greatest sporting spectacle ever.” Ian Botham wheeled out to look like Oliver Reed, giving his final wine soaked monologue on the set of Gladiator. Shane Warne, now more at home on the poker tables than a cricket field, seen having a Nasser Hussain induced nightmare in first class of a flight simulator. It is hyperbole turned up to 11, and I can’t see it stopping.

The real cricket writers may play the events of this series down to try and detach themselves from the furore around them – but their column two pages in from the back (football will still dominate the back pages), will be lost in amongst the puntastic headlines or scoops from inside the camp. Ask me who my favourite cricketer was, and without hesitation I would say Malcolm Marshall (RIP). If he was alive today, you can be sure a microphone would be thrust under his nose with the question “how much would you have loved to have played in the Ashes” put to him by presenters on top of rolling sports tickers, desperate for a story to fill the endless hours of highlights from the practice grounds.

Marshall was one of the finest exponents of the game, playing in one of the most formidable sides ever; yet in the modern era he would have had to make do with second or third billing in a competitive calendar that has one series, and one series only marked in bold. When cricket was great, really great, it was more than just an endless parade between each Ashes series. There was the West Indies blowing us and others apart. There was Kapil Dev taking Eddie Hemmings over his head and in to the scaffolding of Lord’s – Imran Khan’s Pakistan would give great entertainment, as would Richard Hadlee and his New Zealand side. Their compatriots may no longer be up to those lofty standards, but it doesn’t mean that they no longer exist.

I have been on a losing Ashes tour. I saw an average side win at the MCG – it ranks up there as one of the greatest days I have had watching sport – it meant far more to me than 2005 or 2009 ever did. The Barmy Army were there. The plethora of football flags with small town club names were there; but so was a genuine knowledge, a genuine interest and a genuine camaraderie born from watching years and years of hopeless cricket, played out by an ever changing, underperforming side.

Oh for the days when you could simply turn on the telly, read a newspaper and not have The Ashes presented to you as the be all and end all. Win, lose or draw (yes draw, that strange quirk of a game where you can play for three months and still have no winner) you know that the BBC will have their 2013 Ashes countdown clock primed and ready to go, and that Sky will have their production teams working overtime to produce a “How the Ashes were….” programme they will repeat ad nauseum.

I will stay up and watch the first day’s play. I will read every decent article I can on the game; catch the highlights or listen to the myriad of podcasts published after each day’s play – but I’m not sure how much my heart will really be in it? The Ashes are to cricket what prawn sandwiches are to football. It attracts a new, certain kind of fan (read JCL) that has no interest in the issues plaguing the county game; no idea what it was like to follow the (mis)fortunes of the English side in the ‘90s – happy to sing out the only verse of Jerusalem they know, pay the ever inflating ticket prices and sit with their barmy army t-shirts in their comfortable seats – no longer fearful of the hoi polio on the Western Terrace. The problem is that we need those fans. We need their money and their fleeting interest. All sport, not just cricket, needs the revenue (through ticket sales and TV coverage) their temporary affection can bring.

I hope England win the Ashes, I really do. I just hope that come January, if our “gallant lads” do scoop the “ultimate” prize on Australian shores – that every satellite falls from the sky, and we endure a media blackout until the start of the new county season in April.

Just not until we’ve seen Ricky Ponting resign.

(Jim Laker is 1st and 4th on the all time list for best figures in an innings by a bowler. What is important to know, is that both feats happened in the same match – v Australia at Old Trafford in 1956. Laker took 19 wickets for 90 runs. Tony Lock was the only other English bowler to take a wicket in that match)

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