By Stuart George
On 10 July 2013, a potential 50 playing days of Test cricket — ten consecutive Test matches of up to five days each — between England and Australia began. Try explaining to an American how two national teams can play each other for 50 days (or even five days). Or how a match can be ended by “ bad light” in a floodlit stadium. As the distinguished cricket and music writer Neville Cardus wrote, “Where the English language is unspoken there can be no real cricket, which is to say that Americans have never excelled at the game”. Cardus was perhaps unaware that the world’s oldest international sporting rivalry is not England against Australia, which began in 1877, but United States against Canada. A match between these two great cricketing nations was played in Manhattan in 1844. Try explaining that to an Englishman.
For the dedicated follower — people who, like me, have travelled 9,000 miles to watch a match or, if they have to remain at home, stay up all night watching or listening to coverage — England vs. Australia is the ultimate sporting rivalry. The Ashes, as Anglo-Australian bilateral cricket series have been called since 1882, appeal strongly to casual sport fans. For many it’s the only cricket they ever watch. The prestige of The Ashes has always partly been its relative infrequency – each team visits the opposition once every four years.
However, after the ten-match run in 2013–14 Australia will be in England again in 2015. Three series and 15 Tests in only 36 months is perhaps taking for granted the goodwill and spending power of the public and the durability of the players. On 30 July 2013 the draw for the 2015 World Cup was made. The co-hosts Australia will be in the same pool group as England; they will play the opening match of the tournament on 14 February at the MCG.
This year and next year — and the year after that — the players might look at the opposition and think to themselves, “oh no, not you again…” Too much of a good thing? Match receipts suggest not. Tickets that could be purchased upon release for less than £100 were being offered by ticket agencies at up to £1,000. Demand is insatiable because sport is entirely unpredictable. Not even the finest cricketers can control the weather or freak injuries.
This Ashes decathlon is not unprecedented but it is uncommon. The last time England and Australia played ten consecutive Tests against each other was in 1974–75, with six Tests in Australia followed by four in England. The inaugural World Cup was a caesura between the two series.
In 1920–21 there were five Tests in Australia and then five in England. Captained by the hardnosed and imposing “big ship” Warwick Armstrong, Australia won 5–0 at home, the first time that England had been whitewashed in a five-match Ashes series and not repeated until 2006–7. Five and five, home and away, was also the basis of two consecutive series in 1901–2.
History suggests that England will struggle Down Under this winter; Australia has always won back-to-back series. An England victory in 2013–14 would be an historic first. But form says that England will prevail.
In 43 Tests from 1989 to 2005 Australia won 28 to England’s seven. It’s not that long ago that some people were suggesting that an Ashes series should be of three matches. The Aussies were bored with winning so easily; the Poms were worn down by constant beatings. India and South Africa provided more of a contest for Aussie cricketers and more of a spectacle for supporters.
The sensational 2005 Ashes, when England regained the urn after losing every series since 1989, changed all that. Since then that little urn has been harder fought for than ever. From 2001 to the 2010–11 series 30 Tests were played with 25 results and only five draws. The Ashes have never been more competitive.
England’s captain Alistair Cook and Australia’s Michael Clarke make a fascinating, diametrical contrast: Cook the country boy and Clarke the city boy; the English accumulator and the Australian stroke player. Cook is a cautious leader, more often seeking to avoid losing than pursuing a win at all costs, a reminder of the dour 1960s. Unlike Clarke he inherited a strong, successful team; his task is business as usual. Clarke’s job is to reinvigorate Australian cricket, as Allan Border did in the late ’80s. But some commentators have questioned his aptitude and appetite for the job. In recent years his own playing form has been majestic but the team has continued to struggle.
Cricket is constantly evolving. “Nothing is so fleeting as sporting achievement, and nothing so lasting as the recollection of it,” wrote the historian Greg Dening. England dominates now. In 20 years it might be Australia again. So it goes.
Stuart George is a freelance writer in London. He was UK Young Wine Writer of the Year in 2003 and reviews cricket books for the Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of the forthcoming Sports Biographies in Oxford Reference.
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