Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Ashes & Me

Thursday, 2 July 2015
"The aim of English cricket is, in fact, mainly to beat Australia."
Whenever the Ashes rolls around we hear a lot of quotes like these, this one coming from legendary spin bowler Jim Laker. It gives us that sense of the romance and the history of the series, the emphasis put on these contests against Australia. It's the series that captures the public imagination more than any other, the victory savoured the most, and the loss that hurts the hardest. We hear the years of history, the tales of those great series and those great players, again and again. Bradman, Botham, and Warne; Bodyline, 1981, and 2005 being just a few examples. Even in just the last fifteen years, as far back as my memory can go, it's been a rollercoaster ride.

My first memory of watching cricket is the Ashes. It was 2001 and the series was already lost after just three games, being part of those long, long win-less years for England. Tests won were often mere consolations after the prize was already out of sight, Australia living their glory years and being dominant across the world stage. But consolation or not, the fourth was a magnificent test match. A total of 315 chased down thanks to 173* from Mark Butcher, his finest innings for England. We jumped on the sofa in celebration; a win over Australia was a rare event, after all. And for my seven-year-old self, a love of cricket was born.

But I've already had a fair share of Ashes misery. The next series in Australia brought another 4-1 thumping, and both 2006/7 and 2013/4 saw whitewashes. While 2002/3 might have been expected - Australia still at their peak and England having some of the worst possible luck with injuries - the whitewashes certainly weren't. Though England had struggled in the wake of the glory of 2005, it was never supposed to go as badly as it went in 2006, when it took just one ball - that ball from Harmison - and the tone was set. And when the second test at Adelaide saw the turnaround from a first innings score over 500 to a second innings collapse for 129, there was no way out. I didn't think a defeat could hurt more than that one, that it could get any worse, until 2013/4. The tour that became a brutal destruction of a team that won 3-0 just months before. A team with most of the players who had triumphed in 2010/11 and became the best test team in the world. It wasn't just a whitewash, it was a demolition job. Just a year and a half later only the very barest bones remain, and the scars still show.

As much as sport can always pain you, and losing to the fiercest rivals hurts the most, there are those moments that make it all worthwhile. Even if they are just tiny, fleeting moments of glory like that one game in 2001. 2005 was the big one of course, the first win in my lifetime and one that saw cricket, just for a few weeks, capture the imagination of a whole nation. I have so many vivid memories, of each and every test: rushing home from school to catch the first day of the series, only to miss Australia's innings and watch England fall to 21/5; my mum hiding in the other room, unable to watch on the last day at Edgbaston; having the radio with us on the beach as England tried to get that final wicket at Old Trafford; Gary Pratt being elevated to hero status after running out Ponting; running to check the score during break-times at school during the fifth. And that high afterwards: England had finally done it, Australia finally bettered, and the optimism of an eleven year old convinced we would now be the best in the world.

2010/11 was also special, being able to win away from home and being able to do it so well. It was the time when England had reached the top of their game, everyone contributing in some way. There was even that feeling that it might not all be real, with scores like 517/1, three innings victories, and Australia bowled out for under 100 on Boxing Day. It was the shining centrepiece of three Ashes wins in a row: wedged between 2009, the start of something with new heroes like Swann rising and old heroes like Flintoff giving their final show; and 2013, looking like a dominant win on the face of it, but perhaps glossing over the cracks that had started to form.

Yes, there will always be that something special about the Ashes. Sometimes there can be too much emphasis put upon it, and maybe the money makers try to push that even further; but at the end of the day, it will always be prized as the pinnacle. The one people want to win most of all. It's the series that forms legends: Bodyline, the Invincibles, Botham's Ashes, the ball of the century. It has the history, the romance about it, the extra edge and spice. As the hype machine moves to full force as the days draw nearer, I will just lap it all up: every montage, every part of that phoney war before the real action happens. It's time to let the drama unfold.
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. 

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