Burning Ambitions

There’s a generally accepted view across swathes of North America that cricket is a game played by upper class Englishmen only concerned with imbibing tea and warm beer at every opportunity. Let’s dispel that opinion by repeating the infamous on-field dialogue between grouchy Australian fast bowler Merv ‘The Swerve’ Hughes and English all-rounder and bon vivant Ian Botham during a game in the late 1980s.

Hughes: “Why are you so fucking fat?”

Botham: “Because every time I fucked your mother she gave me a biscuit.”

In certain parts of the world, India and Pakistan in particular, cricket remains the number one sport. But still the bi-annual battles between England and Australia define both the game and the sporting fortunes of both nations. Which makes The Ashes, the metaphorical trophy they fight for, much more than five gentle games of cricket.

You can find detailed explanations of the rules of cricket elsewhere on the web, but for the uninitiated, here’s what you need to know.

Test Match cricket is the pinnacle of the game. Like all cricket it’s played between two teams of eleven men (women’s cricket enjoys limited popularity). Unlike other forms of cricket a Test is scheduled for five days, each consisting of three sessions divided by a breaks for lunch and what is still genteelly known as tea. Despite a game lasting upwards of thirty hours there’s still a large chance, if the weather delays proceedings and one team failed to get the other ‘out’ (think baseball and you’re nearly there) that neither team loses. In that case, the game is declared a draw. To an American public used to even the most trivial regular season encounter enduring any number of extra innings or overtimes to find a winner and loser, it’s a tough concept to grasp. But that’s what it is. Even a five-game Ashes series might not have an outright winner. If the series finishes level, the team holding The Ashes keeps it for another two years. This isn’t Vince Lombardi’s world. Winning isn’t the only thing.

Cricket also has its own mindset. With games stretching over hours and days, it’s not a stream of non-stop excitement. Like baseball, it’s a game thats thrills come in the anticipation of what’s around the corner. The next ball could be the one that changes the game, even though it can get mired down in lengthy periods of stalemate.

Which leads us back to The Ashes. A long way back. In 1882 Australia, led by legendary fast bowler ‘Demon’ Fred Spofforth, won a dramatic Test Match at The Oval in South London, their first victory over the motherland on their its turf. The next week London’s Sporting Times, the Victorian age’s Sports Illustrated if you will, published a spoof obituary for English cricket. “In affectionate remembrance of English Cricket, which died at The Oval on 29th August 1882…The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. The Ashes had been born.

Since then the rivalry between England and the upstart colonials has grown to new heights. The 1932/33 series in Australia remains the most famous in cricket history. Bodyline, as it soon became known, was a tactic developed by England’s captain Douglas Jardine to stop Australia’s brilliant batsman Don Bradman (statistically, the most dominant sportsman of all time). Put simply, it involved hurling the rock hard cricket ball at the body and head of the Australians at around 90 miles per hour. These were the days before helmets and Anglo-Australian relations have never been worse.

In the inevitable end of millennium round ups, British sports fans voted the England-Australia Test Match at Leeds in 1981 as the second greatest sporting moment of the century (just after England’s World Cup victory in 1966). The odds of an England victory were a thousand to one when our aforementioned motherfucker Ian Botham led them to a miraculous come-from-behind triumph. If I look out of bathroom window I can see the street sign alongside my apartment block. It’s Botham Close.

England won The Ashes once again in 1987 but after that, Australia became the dominant force in world cricket, battering England on a biannual basis. Cricket’s popularity in its country of origin plummeted. TV Test coverage, a time consuming, ratings-disaster interruption of a day’s schedule, bumped back and forth between the BBC, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports satellite network and terrestrial broadcaster Channel 4.

All this changed however, in the summer of 2005. With Australia and England ranked as the two best teams in the world they combined for an Ashes series that changed the way the sport was viewed.

This was sporting drama of the nerve-shredding variety. Australia took the First Test easily, but it was the Second Test, when England withstood a ferocious Australian comeback to win by just two runs, that alerted an English public accustomed to apathy towards the game. Something special was happening.

The Third Test produced another nerve-shredding narrow victory for the English. And the Fourth and Fifth Tests, by now producing record viewing figures for Channel 4, who had wisely acquired the broadcast rights, were through the roof. Both ended in nail-biting draws. The final afternoon of the final Test at The Oval, the nation’s phones were silent and business ground to a halt. Everyone was watching the game. England won the series 2-1 (you ignore drawn games) and for the first time in eighteen year, they had won The Ashes.

The reaction in the British media was spectacular. The triumph, glorious as it was, was treated like the finest result since World War Two. Never mind that England had narrowly beaten a country with a fraction of its population at the first time in nine tries, this was a result against all the odds. The obligatory open top bus parade followed, stopping at Downing Street naturally (a heavy-handed attempt by Tony Blair to bask in some reflected glory). Within days you could buy DVDs and books, all commemorating “The Greatest Test Series in history”. The entire squad were granted M.B.E.s (Members of the British Empire – only a four steps down from a knighthood) by the Queen. They weren’t the only honours bestowed their way. They dominated the voting in the BBC’s prestigious Sports Personality of the Year Awards, star player Andrew Flintoff taking the title in a landslide.

With the plaudits still ringing in their ears, England flew out to Australia this past November looking to retain The Ashes. All they needed to do was draw the series (remember, like the Ryder Cup, you actually have to win it back from the holder) and they could fly home to another rapturous welcome, celebrity guaranteed for life. Huge numbers of England followers, known as The Barmy Army, flew over for the tests. Sky Sports, not wanting to miss out again, bought the rights to show every ball live. Fully conscious that the UK-Australia time difference means that every game would start between midnight or two am in the UK, they cleared much of their daytime schedule for repeated showings of three-hour long highlights packages. They were hoping for 2005 Part Two. What they got was a slaughter.

The First Test, in Brisbane, was over from the first ball (bowled by England’s Steve Harmison it sailed hopelessly wide – the cricketing equivalent of having Curt Schilling sending the first pitch of a World Series fifteen feet over the catcher’s head). Australia racked up a huge score and squeezed the life out of England over four, long painful days. But England lost the First Test the last time. The situation could be remedied.

A week later, at the Second Test in Adelaide, things looked brighter. Brilliant batting by England’s Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pieterson put England into what appeared to be an unassailable position. Fearful of running out of time to claim the victory (remember, a Test match can end in a draw) England declared with 551 runs on the board – denying themselves the opportunity to build a bigger lead. Australia, after a shaky start, replied well. And with the game seemingly heading towards a boring draw, and with one, presumably tedious, night’s play to endure, the vast majority of England fans went to bed confident that their team were back in the series.

When they woke up the unthinkable had happened. England had totally collapsed – posting a feeble total of 129 runs, handing Australia a famous victory.

Two weeks later, in Perth, the inevitable happened as England surrendered The Ashes in three straight Tests. It wasn’t even close.

Unlike a baseball series, The Ashes are played to the bitter end. And Sky was left with the unenviable task of hyping up lost cause Test Matches in Melbourne and Sydney with the only prize available to England being the avoidance of total humiliation. In the end, they couldn’t even do that. England lost the final two Tests with barely a whimper, falling to the first 5-0 series sweep since 1921. The overriding image of the Final Test was Australian great Shane Warne turning round to repeatedly berate England’s Collingwood, audibly asking him how it felt to earn an MBE for his tiny role in their previous triumph.

England never stopped trying but after the fiasco in Adelaide, they knew they were a psychologically beaten team. Even when the series had been won, Australia never stopped twisting the knife.

It turned out that that had been the plan all along. Eighteen months earlier, the Australian team sat in their dressing room as the cheers rang round The Oval and made a pledge. It would never happen again. The next time The Ashes came round, not only would Australia regain the trophy, they’d destroy England in the process. Retirements were postponed and Australia, already enjoying over a decade as the number one cricket team in the world, refocused their attention on improving every aspect of their play for this one series.

In the meantime, England, ignoring the opportunity to debrief on exactly what had led to this narrow let glorious triumph, spent the days after The Oval basking in their self-created glow. The abiding image of the post-victory celebrations wasn’t the team soaking up the cheers in Trafalgar Square. It was Andrew Flintoff, eyes glazed and grin plastered across his face, staggering out of a line of official functions, displaying all the tell tale signs of the man who hasn’t been to bed for 24 hours and is too drunk to worry about it.

We laughed at the time, but it turns out the joke was on us. It’s the natural English character. When something goes wrong heads roll. When something goes right, we go to the pub. Never mind the opportunity to consolidate on what went well, there’s back-patting to be done and pints to be downed.

In Australia it’s different. Victory is more than a means to an end; it’s something to be built on and nurtured. It’s how they’ve become the dominant sporting nation on earth: world-class at cricket, swimming, tennis, cycling, two codes of rugby, competitive at soccer and with enough latent talent to put high profile players in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. You lose, you learn from your mistakes. You win, you learn from what went right. During the 2007 Ashes series every day the Australia team packed their own bags, walked to the hotel car park, figured out which member of the team’s turn it was to drive the minibus and headed to the stadium. Team spirit is everything. Creature comforts like a state of the art touring coach were left to England.

Back in the UK, the wasted euphoria of 2005 wasn’t matched by despondency of equal intensity. Rather, after the fiasco in Adelaide, a quiet wave of acceptance swept of over the country’s sports fans. This was the England team we had all grown up with, any brief period of fight inevitably followed by hours of abject submission. It was, in a way, reassuring. We had struggled to come to terms with victory in 2005, throwing plaudits at the players in the hope that it would make us all feel like world-beaters. News reports that summer outdid themselves in attempts to find new angles, chasing down kids playing cricket in the street and prizing quotes from them about how much they preferred the game to the eternally popular football. Cricket, for a few short weeks, became fashionable. It didn’t sit comfortably.

Far more therapeutic to the English mindset is the role of the downtrodden, the defeated. When England reigned supreme we were incapable of smiling and noting our good fortune – in particular the injury problems that had blighted Australia’s campaign. This time around it was easy to pinpoint the reasons behind England’s demise. They were underprepared. Two key players were absent (captain Matthew Vaughn was injured, batsman Marcus Trethscothick left the team suffering from nervous exhaustion days before the First Test). They tried hard but just weren’t a match for the opposition’s superior firepower. Australia’s beer was still cold when the inquests began. After a 5-0 drubbing, there’s a lot of blame to be dished out.

The winners were Australia, who played brilliantly and shoved the poms’ 18 months of gloating firmly down our throats. They played the game hard and fair. Their public, celebrating in 100,000-seat arenas like Melbourne’s MCG, can hold them up as heroes, proving just how sweet sporting revenge tastes.

The losers were the England cricket team, Sky Sports, whose highlight of the winter schedule turned into an unwatchable whitewash, and cricket in England itself. Andrew Flintoff’s pre-commissioned book on the series will never be written and England, for two years at least, can no longer compete with the best. Therefore it can return to its safe home, marginalized in the media and resigned to preaching to the converted. Hopefully it’ll take England less than another 18 years to regain The Ashes. But you wouldn’t bet on it.

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Many thanks to Simon Lister, without whose cricket-induced insomnia this article might not have been possible.