Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is the Ashes still the pinnacle of cricket?

We’re in a pub in Leeds, watching the cricket. The Aussies seem to be bossing proceedings. My friend Tim – a life-long football fan – slurps on his pint, then pauses quizzically as he studies the TV.

‘So let’s see if I’ve got this right,’ he says. ‘This guy – what’s his name…Collingwood? He’s on 73 runs and he’s been in for, what….six hours?’

I nod earnestly. ‘Yep. Great, isn’t it?’

And it is, really. Call it want you want – gritty, stubborn, defiant…even boring – but on that day Collingwood succeeded in doing what he had to do: when England were in a hole, Collingwood’s sole responsibility was saving the game by whatever means possible. Naturally, if Collingwood’s run-rate in a Twenty20 match had been identical to that when he’d rescued England at Cardiff, the England all-rounder would have been booed from the stadium amidst volleys of half-filled plastic pint glasses and a chorus of jeers and heckles.

But Test cricket is a different animal. It requires both physical and mental stamina. And the Ashes? Well, the Ashes is the biggest, most formidable animal there is, and God help anyone that gets in its way.

Five days of sporting drama is tough on the nerves. Just ask any Test cricketer. Just ask the fans. Those supporters who normally thrive on pressure have chomped fingernails down to the core just watching the Ashes; and all because England are locked in combat with The Old Enemy for possession of a six inch terracotta urn. Who wants a glitzy, ribbon-decorated trophy, anyway, when you’re playing for over 115 years of history? In terms of winning, it doesn’t get more momentous than that.

The story of the Ashes is crammed with controversy, gamesmanship and legend. Cricket fans are under no illusion that no other sporting event is as keenly contested. For controversy, what better example is there than the notorious Bodyline series in the early 1930’s? Talk about a real-life battle scenario! Deliberate bowling hostility towards the batsmen in a blatant display of masculine intimidation. Biff! Take that, Aussies!

Gamesmanship? In one word – sledging. Quite within the rules (or at least the umpires let it be so), and the Aussies revel in it. Newcomers to the crease have wobbled under a barrage of close to the bone remarks and vicious banter. Legendary Australian Steve Waugh called it ‘mental disintegration.’ He should know – he was the master at it.

And legend. How many of the Ashes stories we hear are true? Did Shane Warne really say that to Andrew Strauss in 2006? Did Freddie Flintoff actually do what was reported when he met Tony Blair after the Ashes celebrations in 2005? And did David Boon – “Boony” or “The Keg on Legs” to his mates – really consume 52 beers on the flight from Sydney to London before the 1989 Ashes series? Maybe only they know. Perhaps it’s best if we, the public, don’t know.

That the Ashes is legendary simply as a sporting contest is not in question. Even non-cricketers – who think of cricket bats as “sticks” – respect the relationship us cricket-loving Pommies have with the Ashes. Maybe – just maybe – the only sporting contest between England and another nation that can come close to the Ashes is England versus Germany at football. But even then a football match is over in ninety minutes and lacks the “plays within plays” that give Test cricket its theatre-like appeal.

What the Ashes essentially boils down to is relatively simple: years of unbridled competition between two proud nations of unquestionably contrasting styles; the straight-faced, slightly bashful Pommies laced with a few dark horses in their flock, against the Baggy Greens – mightily confident, apologetically brash, and blessed with flair. As the oldest rivalry in international sport, the Ashes simply has it all.

So is the Ashes still the pinnacle of cricket? To answer a question like that we have to consider if it was previously. It’s fair to say most people would agree that, in terms of quality, frenzied expectation and the sheer sporting occasion of it all, the Ashes is cricket’s unparalleled zenith, and the trend shows no sign of wavering.

For the players, well, the Aussies pride themselves on raising their game in an Ashes series – particularly when their sweaty backs are against the wall. They tend to play their best game when we have them on the rack. In no other international series do our Antipodean foes want to prove themselves to their captain, their selectors, the fans and their country. For the English, what better than beating Australia? We can praise our players who perform well on a tour to the sub continent, or when we win in the West Indies. But to beat Australia – even if we haven’t played particularly that well – is really as good as it gets.

One-day internationals and Twenty20 cricket have a place in the sporting calendar, for sure. For both the booze-guzzling crowds as well as for the scorebook-laden purists, these two genres look set in stone. They are essentially cut from the same cloth as Test cricket, but tapered and embroidered to ensure a comfy fit. But for the whole package – from the high-jinked jamborees on Headingley’s Western Terrace to the more sedated members lounging under the Pavilion at Lord’s – England versus Australia remains the very best there is; the cherry on the cricket tea cake…cricket’s very own Golden Fleece.

Tim goes to bar to get another round in. When he returns, he plonks on the table two pints of fizzy lager.

‘I’ve been thinking,’ he says.

‘About what?’

‘The friendly footie match on Saturday.’

‘What about it?’

A peculiar grin dances across his face. ‘I was thinking – I might just watch the cricket instead.’

by Guest Writer Lager.

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