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NOTES BY THE EDITOR
There they were in Trafalgar Square, the boys of summer, the men of the moment. Under the noonday sun, they were wearing their blazers, dark glasses to hide their bloodshot eyes, and the broadest of grins.
Thousands and thousands of people gazed up at them and hung on every syllable they spoke, however inane. Many of those present were so young they would be hard-put to say whether Mike Brearley came before or after the stegosaurus.
Questioned about the seven and a bit exhilarating weeks that had just concluded, the players revved up their favourite clichés and let them all rip. It had been a “nightmare” (really?); an “emotional rollercoaster” (whatever that might be); and, again and again, “fantastic”. And it really did appear to be a fantasy.
This was the England cricket team, for heaven’s sake, being greeted on the streets of London as though they were pioneering astronauts getting a tickertape reception through New York. They were lauded on the front page of every newspaper. At one stage, they were simultaneously on BBC1, ITV and Channel 4, which definitely won’t happen in 2006. Alongside them were their counterparts, the England women’s team who, by happy coincidence, had just won their own version of the Ashes. Stuffy old cricket suddenly looked inclusive: a game for everyone.
Around the country, kids who had never picked up cricket bats were suddenly pretending to be Freddie or Vaughany or Harmy or KP. And though autumn finally came, and jumper-goalposts inevitably replaced dustbinwickets, there was evidence that the craze did not subside with the England team’s sore heads, and that cricket had truly recaptured a slice of the nation’s heart. For anyone who had lived through the dark years, it felt like a kind of liberation.
Journalists still tended to write that we had witnessed Probably The Greatest Test (Edgbaston), Probably The Greatest Series, and Probably The Greatest Crowd To Greet A Victorious England Team. There is no need for the nervous adverb. This was The Greatest. The 2005 Ashes surpassed every previous series in cricket history on just about any indicator you choose. There had been close contests before, and turnarounds, and tension (1894-95, 1936-37, 1956, 1960-61 Australia v West Indies, 1981…), but never had cricket been so taut for so long. And certainly, previous players had never enjoyed adulation like this.
In the summer of 1953, when England regained the Ashes after 19 years rather than a mere 16, there were indeed huge crowds on the streets. But they were there for the Queen, in her coronation year. Nowadays she could never match these kind of numbers. Len Hutton, the victorious Ashes captain 52 years earlier, had to be content with a reception at the Albert Hall. No, not the Albert Hall – the Albert Hall, Pudsey. There was, apparently, quite a throng in the marketplace to greet the local hero.
Hutton’s generation had lived through a world war or two, and was able to put sport in some kind of perspective. These days the ease and triviality
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of most people’s lives, including those of the players, can combine with the incessant drumbeat of media frenzy to elevate sport above its proper place. Hence the national fervour. But we mustn’t underrate sport either. And the main purpose of Wisden 2006 is to savour what happened in the summer of 2005, and then try to pickle its essence, because one day we will be hungry for it again.
England’s years of failure and ultimate victory were crucial to this glorious story. Had they held the Ashes a series or two back, there wouldn’t have been the pent-up emotion and resentment that made the release so wonderful. Had their victory been obvious, there wouldn’t have been the build-up of tension that drew in so many of the uncommitted. Had England failed, it would have been melodrama rather than drama; anticlimax not climax; repression not catharsis. The patriotism was essential to the plot.
But in the final analysis, this was not primarily a victory for England. It was a victory for Australia too. It was – and this cliché is for once the simple truth – a victory for cricket. This was the old game routing its enemies, including those inside the walls. The 2005 Ashes constituted cricket in its purest form. There was no artificial colouring, no artificial flavouring, no added sugar. Nothing had to be sexed up or dumbed down. Everything was already there.
The matches didn’t need supersubs or powerplays; they didn’t need to be so short that they didn’t actually feel much like cricket. Cricket didn’t have to talk down to its audience (“here’s something we don’t enjoy much ourselves but you lot might like it”). Exhilarating contests just unfolded before our eyes. For 22 days of play one hardly dared fetch a beer, have a pee, or sometimes even blink, because the situation could turn on its head in that instant.
It was a triumph for the real thing: five five-day Test matches between two gifted, well-matched teams playing fantastic cricket at high velocity and high pressure with the perfect mix of chivalry and venom. Here was the best game in the world, at its best. And now millions more people know about it.
A game for heroes The guiding myth of cricket is that it is a team game. The ethos is always that the individual must subordinate himself to the collective: celebrate a victory even if he has contributed nothing and faces the chop, or pretend that his own century is meaningless if it failed to secure the team’s objective. That applies on the village green just as it does in a Test match.
But this misrepresents cricket’s appeal, both to the player and the spectator. It’s a game of character and personality – individuals operating within the team framework, like wheels within wheels. The Ashes provided the classic example of this. It would have been half the contest but for two amazing men: Andrew Flintoff and Shane Warne.
These two extraordinary physical specimens brought to the summer all the qualities associated with the medieval joust: heroic endeavour laced with
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