Let them play.
Let them play.

Lost series bigger than the Ashes

THERE is cricket in Australia, and there is Ashes cricket. It has its own history and tradition, specifications and tonnage. England may not provide our best opposition, but there is no doubt that it is our favourite.

As much as has changed about Australian summers in the last decade, the primacy of the Ashes has again this summer proven immutable.

The 867,000 clicks on the turnstiles were the second most ever, and the biggest post-war. Daily television ratings have been between three and five million. Social content ratings into the hundreds of thousands of interactions made it more than twice as popular as any other sport.

Funnily enough, the series also set records for slowness of scoring, England essentially trying to run the siege that it was under.

If you like Steve Smith, it was like tuning in to one of those pop-up pay-TV channels for Star Trek marathons - on and on he went, boldly going as no batsman since Bradman had gone before as a hardcore audience watched transfixed.

Interestingly, crowds in the new juggernaut, the T20 Big Bash League, have come off their peaks by about a tenth this summer, having shown signs in preceding years of cannibalising international crowds.

They may pick up now the series is over, but there is a limit to the number of games of cricket a family can attend in the course of summer, as commendably straightforward and cheap as attendance has been made.


Spare a thought for the visitors who have come a long way, as some of them would say, for nowt.

Since the Barmy Army struck its colours, England have won one series in Australia out of seven, and this summer did not even have a favourable exchange rate, 58p to the dollar being a far cry from the halcyon days of 2002-03 celebrated in song ('We're fat, we're round, three dollars to the pound').

England's three overseas victories since Trevor Bayliss became coach in May 2015 must by now be testing a few tourism budgets. The England Cricket Board might be throwing everything at white ball cricket, but that's a crummy sport to follow on the road.

And make no mistake, England this summer were never very good and often quite poor - with their all-right-on-the-night selections and hang-on-by-the-fingernails strategies, they resembled at times not so much an England team as an England team tribute band, an inferior copy, with, as they say in these parts, all of the gear but no idea.

In his Pietersen on Cricket book, Kevin Pietersen averred: "For an England player there's no more intimidating place than Australia". This team made it seem all that and more.

India and Pakistan squared off in Adelaide, 2015.
India and Pakistan squared off in Adelaide, 2015.

Yet perhaps that's one of the reasons Australians go on thinking that too much Ashes cricket is not enough - the sense of personal connectedness to their team is strongest when they are pitted against England.

Cricket Australia's #BeatEngland hashtag may have scaled the north face of peak stupid, but what was notable was that #BeatIndia, #BeatNewZealand, #BeatZimbabwe or whatever would have made no sense at all.

There, indeed, is the rub. The Ashes has been so successful vis-a-vis the rest of Test cricket, it has grown like a cornerstone very nearly as large as the building.

This success is a mixed blessing, for it shows up the paucity of other significant bilateral rivalries, even as we approach a system that from next year will decide the majority of these rivalries over the distance of two Tests.

The International Cricket Council's mooted Test Championship is based on the idea of bringing context from outside. Yet the lesson of the Ashes is that the most valuable, enriching and irreplaceable context is generated from within: it lifts cricket above the quality of the spectacle.

Never mind that these five Ashes Tests were rarely exhilarating, sometimes austere, occasionally quite dull. They drew an authenticity from antiquity, a quality from continuity.

Virat Kohli has a unique skill for sparking fresh rivalries.
Virat Kohli has a unique skill for sparking fresh rivalries.

Another quest should be for finding meaning in the cricket we already play - and if the ICC had its wits about it, it could go a long way to reviving Test cricket at a single stroke.

Last month marked a decade since the last time India and Pakistan met in a Test match, at Bengaluru. The rivalry at the time was red hot - India's victory over Pakistan in the World T20 final had touched off the revolution in the short game whose fullest expression is the Indian Premier League.

Since then, apart from their occasional encounters in ICC events, they have met in only one bilateral one-day series, the deterioration in their nation's relationship beginning with the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks on the city of Mumbai in November 2008 and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi attacks on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore in March 2009, further aggravated by the rise of Hindu chauvinism.

There was talk of the restoration of ties around the time of the Big Three carve-up of world cricket, but it went by the board - or, to be more precise, boards, of India and Pakistan, who are now in the early stages of legal action.

The result is foreordained: Lawyers 1, Cricket 0.

Sometimes it is thought that given the thrall of the Ashes, it might be expedient to play it more often: thus the experiment, entirely idiotic, of 10 consecutive Ashes Tests in 2013-14.

Test cricket does not need any more Ashes. But it could do with more of Ashes-like "feeling". Even at a neutral venue, an absorbing, well-tempered Test series between India and Pakistan would be unbelievable box office. It might even put Ashes cricket in the shade. And that would be entirely a good thing.

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