Year-End Special: From the ashes
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Les pêcheurs de perles, The Pearl Fishers, is a three-act Georges Bizet opera set in ancient Ceylon. In September 2005, it was performed in Mumbai. My partner and I made plans to go, with yours truly somehow forgetting that it would clash with the final day of the Ashes series in England. Or maybe, like most fans who expected Australia to cruise home, I had also become complacent.
There were no streaming apps then, no detailed ball-by-ball commentary on the phone either. Instead, as the love triangle played out on stage, this philistine constantly punched the keypad of his old Nokia phone to get updates from various friends who had not made the mistake of abandoning their couches that evening.
When Kevin Pietersen, playing his debut series with what seemed like a skunk placed on his head, started hitting out at The Oval, it became apparent that Australia’s 16-year hold on one of sport’s oldest and most cherished trophies was loosening. By the time we left the theatre, the draw that gave England a first Ashes victory in 18 years had been confirmed.
I walked out on to the street with unexpected tears stinging my eyes. It didn’t have anything to do with the result. I’ve always preferred Australia to England, maybe because the first series I watched between the two featured charismatic Boy’s Own heroes like Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. But as a cricket writer, I would be the first to admit that the English team of 2005 vintage richly deserved its triumph.
No, the tears were much more personal. In my teenage years, the Ashes series invariably meant listening to the BBC or ABC commentary with an older cousin, the same one who introduced me to tobacco, Old Monk, 1970s’ Playboy calendars and Leonard Cohen. Years later, when I shared a dingy commentary box with Jim Maxwell, for so long the voice of ABC, my cousin was the first one I thought of.
A Peter Pan who substituted various drug addictions with alcohol in his early 40s, he died in the summer of 2003. Australia handing over the Ashes marked the end of an era in more ways than one. For me, it was one more link snapped in the chain that connected me to the fast-receding days of adolescence.
The fact that we tuned in to the commentary when we had no skin in the game tells you just how iconic the Ashes is. I remember a tour of South Africa in 2006-07 which overlapped with the series in Australia. It was the last (Test) hurrah for Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, two of the game’s legends, and it was routine for the Indian and South African players to ask for the close-of-play score after they had finished their practice sessions.
For Test cricket fans, these series become part of the fabric of our lives, two-yearly signposts on a winding journey. Daniel Harris, a journalist at The Guardian, wrote a story for The Nightwatchman magazine on that 2005 Ashes and how it had coincided with the disintegration of his marriage. “So, series beautifully poised, me beautifully boxed, I return to end things,” he writes. “Clearly, hanging around is out of the question, so I’m straight with the Rabbis; I explain that I need this to be over quickly, because Harris’ Ashes are in the balance. They’re amused, but not convinced.”
Some measure their lives in coffee spoons. Others, like Harris, remember time altogether differently. “Then, a quick chuckle and glance when they announce that she’s mutar lechol adam, permitted to all men, then it’s done, I’m out, I’m outside, I’ve taken a wrong turning, of course I have, I’m stuck in traffic, of course I am, I’m missing Pietersen smash it all over, Pietersen’s smashing it all over, it’s over. Sixteen years are over, it’s over.”
We keep being told that this is the Twenty20 age, that people no longer have the time or patience to appreciate Test cricket’s more unhurried rhythms. TV executives and cricket administrators talk of a form of the game that is endangered. But if the ongoing Ashes, already clinched by Australia in three matches, tell us anything, it’s that tradition and old-world charm are still a massive part of people’s lives.
These days, the centrepiece of the Australian cricket summer is the Big Bash League (BBL), the Twenty20 competition that is the Indian Premier League’s (IPL’s) only rival in terms of the quality of cricket and the fan following. In 2016-17, the BBL attracted 1,053,997 fans, an average of 30,114 per match. This year’s first Ashes Test at Gabba in Brisbane attracted 1,30,665 spectators. Adelaide, which hosted the second Test, posted a record aggregate of 1,99,147. And at the WACA (Western Australian Cricket Association ground) in Perth, which was hosting its final big-ticket match (the brand-new Perth Stadium will host all marquee clashes in future) and can accommodate only 24,500, a total of 91,955 made it through the turnstiles. And despite the fate of the little urn having been decided, more than 88,172 thronged to the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch the opening exchanges of the Boxing Day Test.
And as ever, memories will be forged that will never be forgotten. “Just as I remember my life by football seasons rather than years, so recalling an Ashes series paints a wider picture,” says Rob Smyth, one of the authors of Danish Dynamite, the story of football’s greatest cult team. “In 1989, I was an awkward teenager trying to work it all out. In 1994-95, I was still an awkward teenager trying to work it all out. 1998-99 was the Civil Service Ashes, when I would spend the commute trying to piece together another England collapse after a quick glance at Teletext on the way out. 2002-03 was my salad Ashes; 2013 is associated with mental illness. For each series, I could tell you where I lived, what my social life involved, even what haircut I had.”
Catherine Hanley, a historian and writer, is an Australian who has lived in England most of her life. She speaks of how easily the greatest sporting occasions sit alongside the mundane moments of our lives. “I was moving house in July 2001 and, surrounded by boxes and with lots to do, I ignored it all, unpacked the TV and watched Adam Gilchrist wallop 152 with (and I can still remember this without looking it up!) 20 fours and 5 sixes, as Australia piled up 576 to win by an innings.
“Later that same summer, I was at a friend’s house for the day—it was my birthday and they had gone to a lot of effort to cook a nice meal, but I’m afraid I kept sneaking away to the TV to watch Steve Waugh, my all-time cricket hero, making 157 not out at The Oval on one leg.
“Lest I be accused of gloating (and I was in 2001), it all went wrong in 2005. Edgbaston Test. I had tickets. McGrath rolled his ankle. And I never got there because my son (2 at the time) managed to accidentally break my nose that same morning, and I wasn’t in any fit state to go out. Probably just as well, really, as I missed the defeat.”
None of these experiences is out of the ordinary. Generations of cricket lovers, even if they’re not English or Australian, have their own Ashes anecdotes. My grandfather, who passed on his love for the game, was a college student in Chennai during the Bodyline series of 1932-33. But even more than Sir Donald Bradman, the Australian cricketer he grew up in awe of was Victor Trumper, the tragic hero from a generation earlier—he died of Bright’s Disease at 37—who remains an iconic figure even for those who have not seen more than a century-old photograph of him batting.
I wouldn’t be writing this but for an essay my grandfather made me read in my early teens. Jack Fingleton broke many batting records for Australia before becoming a journalist, and his Never Another Like Victor remains one of the definitive portraits of the turn-of-the-century hero.
Twenty20 has been wonderful for cricket, in terms of attracting an entirely new demographic. Many of those who first went to a cricket stadium to watch the IPL nearly a decade ago are now fans of Test cricket as well. Fandom doesn’t need to be an either-or scenario. Those who watch the Ashes can also head to see one or more BBL matches. And that’s how it should be. Cricket, like all sports, needs to embrace the times. But as with football derbies and the annual horse races that are hundreds of years old, it desires rivalries like the Ashes at its core. We all need anchors.