Off Piste: Rising from the Ashes

Nigel Berkeley doesn't like cricket, he loves it, particularly the enduring rivalry between England and Australia. He fondly remembers 2005 and relishes what's in store this summer...

July 2, 2009

Growing up in Scunthorpe, I spent many a sleepless night in the cold, dark depths of the bleak midwinter listening to crackling radio broadcasts of Test matches from the other side of the world. Back then, I started to dream: I dreamt of travelling to Australia to see an Ashes Test, but not just any game - I wanted to attend the famous Boxing Day Test at the awe-inspiring, cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground.

In 1977, I first saw England play Australia, in the Headingley Test marked by Geoff Boycott's 100th first-class century, and have been lucky enough to see further encounters at the Oval, Edgbaston, Trent Bridge and Lord's. Nevertheless, a gaping hole in my cricketing experience remained. An Ashes Test at Lord's is a special occasion, but from a very early age I was far more intrigued and excited when the Ashes were played Down Under.

During the past decade I have witnessed a number of memorable and historic moments in international cricket: Steve Waugh scoring his 10,000th Test run in Sydney in 2003; England's triumph in the same Test; Brian Lara scoring a world-record 400 not out against England in Antigua in 2004; Matthew Hoggard's hat-trick against the West Indies in Barbados earlier in the series; three legends of the Australian team (Justin Langer, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath) retiring from the game in Sydney in 2007; and England playing India in Mumbai in front of 40,000 fiercely passionate home supporters in 2006. But none of them matched the 2002 Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, when I took my seat in the famous ground for the first time.

The experience of seeing the English and Australian teams emerge on to the field in front of 90,000 spectators under the blazing hot sun, and the tension generated as England's opening bowler, Andrew Caddick, ran in to bowl the first ball, will live with me for ever.

I was fulfilling a dream and was not disappointed: not even when I remembered that England had already surrendered the Ashes by falling 3-0 down in the series with two Tests to go; not even when Australia were 356 for 3 at the close of play, the highest first-day score by any side in a Melbourne Test.

The barrage of misfortune buffeting Nasser Hussain's bedraggled tourists continued. England were well and truly beaten for most of the game. However, in true underdog fashion, England's Barmy Army, some 15,000 strong, stuck with the team through thin and even thinner.

After a Michael Vaughan-inspired fightback, Australia needed 107 to win. The Barmy Army urged the players to take the ten wickets that would have sealed a near- impossible victory on day five. Sadly, this was not a Hollywood movie, nor Headingley 1981: England came up short, although the momentum they gained would see them win the Fifth Test in Sydney, the final game of the series, by 225 runs.

I was privileged to be part of a group of England supporters who, over the Test, seemed to make up half the Sydney audience - incredible, given the distance and cost involved. But these were the Ashes, and we were the Barmy Army!

The victory celebrations in Sydney were incredible, as if England had won the Ashes, not lost them 4-1. But the victory did not taste any less sweet for being a solitary one. After all, it was an away win against the "Old Enemy", a bit like the England football team prevailing in Germany. For the Barmy Army, it was a rare reason to celebrate after ten painful weeks on the road to ruin.

The Barmy Army has become the unofficial England supporters' club, providing the team with fanatical football-style support, which, while not always appreciated by the purists, is warmly welcomed by the players themselves.

The Australian press coined the "Barmy Army" moniker as it watched with bemusement the antics of a small band of England fans who continued to cheer on Michael Atherton's England team in Australia in 1994-95, despite having almost nothing to celebrate.

On the 2006-07 Ashes tour, England were completely outplayed in the Melbourne Test, yet still enjoyed a rousing reception from the Barmy Army. As I remarked to a friend at the time, this would not happen in football. The team would have been roundly booed and chants of "sack the board" would ring loud. But that isn't the Barmy Army's way: its members are passionate about the England team, but they also know it is wrong to get too despondent when on holiday in a beautiful country with a great climate.

The Barmy Army's aim is to make watching cricket more fun, and in doing so it has done its bit to popularise the sport by helping to attract thousands of fans to the game.

This summer marks the 65th staging of the Ashes. The 2009 series is eagerly anticipated, not least because the last time this epic battle took place in our green and pleasant land, England triumphed 2-1 in what was widely considered to be one of the most entertaining and exhilarating sporting contests ever witnessed on these shores.

2005 had it all: close, competitive matches, outstanding individual performances, coupled with fantastic sportsmanship - witness Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff commiserating with Brett Lee after the nail-biting Edgbaston Test, a two-run triumph that undoubtedly turned things England's way. From start to finish, the series was tension-packed, mesmerising.

The UK basked in the glory. "All of England goes barmy as cricketers pass ultimate test", The Daily Telegraph's headline proclaimed. The piece added that "people who three months ago did not know what the Ashes were, were hugging each other and chanting, one by one, the names of their new heroes". In the aftermath, the England team enjoyed an open-top bus parade to a jubilant reception in Trafalgar Square and a drunken trip to 10 Downing Street; books and DVDs chronicling the series were quickly released to cash in.

The Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, the sport's bible published annually since 1864, dubbed it the "greatest Test series of all". Even the Queen called it "truly memorable".

In retrospect, it all seems a bit over the top, but in a country where sport holds such an integral place in the fabric of society, it was a big deal. Let's also put England's success into context. Prior to 2005, the Ashes as a contest was petering out and desperately needed the spark of competition. Australia had held the urn since their 4-0 victory over here in 1989 (the zero flattered England), and in the intervening period had won 24 Ashes Tests to 7 in seven largely one-sided series.

But England's success rekindled interest in the contest in both countries and gave the profile of cricket and the Ashes contest a massive boost globally. When I was in Mumbai in 2006, Indian cricket fans were more keen to talk about the 2005 series than the one we were watching.

The extent of the hysteria should also be considered in the context of national sporting success generally. Besides the 2003 Rugby World Cup victory in Australia, the English public has had little to shout about since 1966 and all that.

Since 2005, the cricket team's fortunes have plummeted (although our women cricketers have gone from strength to strength). England held the Ashes for a grand total of 18 months before being whitewashed Down Under in 2006-07. Between September 2005 and April 2009, the team tumbled down the world rankings, falling from second to sixth. They won 13 Tests and lost 16, and were beaten in seven series out of 14, with just one tour ending in triumph. Of the 13 wins, nine were against either the West Indies or New Zealand, teams propping up the table.

But it is precisely because of this mediocrity, especially when playing Australia - and let's face it, in the eyes of the English media, beating the Aussies is the only thing that counts - that the cult of the Barmy Army was born.

For me, there are specific pleasures watching England play overseas. You get to tour fantastic countries with good weather, and it is far cheaper to watch the team abroad than it is at home - I saw ten days of Test cricket in New Zealand in 2008 for the price of one day's play here. Besides all that, there is something special about being the away team, particularly in India, Australia and South Africa, where England are not expected to win.

Such underdog status makes winning more exciting and losing more bearable. There is also a special bond between the supporters and the team, facilitated by the Barmy Army, which makes the experience even better.

This summer, I won't be attending an Ashes game. Since I first saw a Test abroad, in Barbados in 1998, I have watched 60 days of Test cricket overseas, compared with just ten in Blighty. It is virtually impossible to get a ticket for an Ashes game in the UK, and even then they are grotesquely overpriced. With the England and Wales Cricket Board taking full advantage of the ridiculously small stadiums in this country, demand will always exceed supply in an Ashes summer.

However, it should still be a fantastic summer of cricket, with two evenly matched teams going head to head.

Australia have lost a galaxy of stars since 2005, but still beat South Africa away recently (the second-ranked team in the world), although they were beaten at home by the same team and hammered in India. They have very good young players, some of whom our perfidious county teams generously played for the past two months to help them acclimatise to English conditions.

England, on the other hand, are hitting form at the right time after a disappointing winter series in the West Indies, and home conditions will favour our strong bowling attack. It is anyone's series, so I will sit on the fence and predict a 2-2 draw.

Controversially, and in contrast with 2005, the series will not be broadcast on terrestrial television, thus denying millions of fans the opportunity to follow it.

The argument about whether domestic Ashes Tests should be included on the "protected" list of sporting events earmarked for terrestrial television has been fought long and hard, and in an ideal world the whole country would have access to this major sporting occasion, as it does to Wimbledon.

One of the reasons the 2005 team enjoyed so much esteem was because Channel 4's excellent coverage showcased the event for the masses, but the economics no longer stack up. The ECB could not turn down the massive amount of cash offered by Sky for exclusive rights to England Tests, as it means so much financially for the sport.

All that aside, if the series is half as good as the last one played in England, it will be a classic, but even a series win and the return of the urn would represent a job only half done. For this group of England players and the indefatigable Barmy Army, coming on top Down Under 18 months from now is the ultimate prize. With any luck, I'll be there to cheer them on, through good times and bad.

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