| Flintoff’s here
London, Aug. 16: Britain is in the grip of cricket fever after a strong performance by Michael Vaughan’s yeoman England side against Ricky Ponting’s normally invincible Australians.
In homes, offices and even in pubs, where normally football reigns supreme, the “Poms” ' Australian slang for the British ' have been glued to their TV sets.
The Channel 4 commentator, Mark Nicholas, who cannot always find adequate words to match his emotions, summed up the action with breathless comments such as: “This is edge of the seat stuff.”
David Beckham has been forgotten and Andrew (“Freddie”) Flintoff is being hailed as “the new (Ian) Botham”.
The “Ashes series has caught fire” is the expression most used to describe the current England-Australia contest, now poised tantalisingly at 1-1, with two matches to go, at Trent Bridge in Nottingham and the Oval in London.
Yesterday, for the last day of the drawn Test at the Old Trafford ground in Manchester, ticket prices were reduced to '10 for adults and '5 for children.
Normally, this ground only heaves with humanity when India meets Pakistan.
However, in anticipation of an England victory, people started queuing from 7 am, three and a half hours before start of play. By the time the first ball was bowled, all 23,000 seats inside the ground had been taken.
The number of those who could not get in was estimated at between 10,000 (Lancashire ground staff) and 20,000 (Richie Benaud). Police asked British Rail staff at various stations to make public announcements advising fans, “Don’t bother ' the gates have been closed”.
Another expression has evolved to describe the position of the Australians ' “will they escape from jail'”
They did ' just ' yesterday, thanks principally to a captain’s knock of 156 from Ponting.
Even the Financial Times put cricket on page one ' “it was the best story in the country and brought a bit of cheer after a month of bombs,” commented a source on the paper.
Even before the series began, the “Ashes” were hyped in television and newspaper coverage. For once, the games have more than lived up to the advance billing.
On the Australian side, the leg spinner Shane Warne, who got his 600th Test wicket in the Old Trafford game, has been the focus of attention. He bowls and bats with almost the passion he exhibits when pursuing barmaids. The papers were full of how his wife finally had enough and dumped him after his latest fling. But in the last few days, even the English commentators expressed sorrow he was out 10 short of what would have been his first Test century.
| Move over Beckham
The current enthusiasm for cricket has been fuelled by success, of course. “Is this the best Test ever'” commentators were asking, after England’s two-run victory in the second Test at Edgbaston in Birmingham (an enterprising entrepreneur has even come out with a DVD of the game).
The mood in England is similar to that in India in 2001 after Australia’s unexpected defeat at Eden Gardens.
What is said to be the difference between the England and Australian sides at present is “reverse swing” ' the English bowlers, Steve Harmison, “big-hearted Freddie” Flintoff and Simon Jones are better at it.
“The king of reverse swing was Waqar Younis,” the commentators have recalled in a tribute to the former Pakistan fast bowler.
But when Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis used their art to beat their opponents 2-1 in the controversial Pakistan tour of England in 1992, reverse swing was called something else in those days by the English establishment ' “cheating”.
Now that the England bowlers have mastered the skill, reverse swing has won both acceptability and respectability.
There is as much rivalry between England and Australia as there is between India and Pakistan ' and probably just as much friendship between the opposing players. When England won the second Test by two runs, Flintoff’s first reaction was to console the vanquished batsman, Michael Kasprowicz, who had gloved Harmison to the wicketkeeper.
The next morning, The Daily Telegraph’s leader, “Now, that’s cricket”, noted approvingly: “The second Test at Edgbaston, which ended so spectacularly, will be remembered for many individual triumphs. But two simple gestures explain why cricket maintains its appeal around the world. On Saturday, after clean bowling England’s Andrew Flintoff for a superb 73, Shane Warne flashed him a discreet little thumbs-up. Australia’s legendary spin bowler was conveying appreciation of a superb innings by England’s great all-rounder. And yesterday, when England clinched the closest-ever Ashes victory, Flintoff ducked away from the m'e of jubilant England players to congratulate and console the two batsmen who had carried Australia to the very brink of an unlikely victory. Neither team will be offering any quarter when hostilities resume at Old Trafford. But it is heartening that there is still room for sportsmanship and mutual respect, even in the closest and most enthralling cricketing encounter of recent years.”
Today’s page one story in the Financial Times, “Test proves a big draw as Ashes catch fire”, says: “England was consumed by cricket fever as Australia narrowly averted defeat in a knife-edge third Ashes Test match, presenting the game and its backers with a golden opportunity to cash in on the revival in the sport’s popularity.”
In the first four days of the Test, gate income had exceeded '2million, and another '100,000 was taken on Monday. As the last overs were bowled, 5.1 million viewers switched to Channel 4.
From next season, live coverage of domestic Tests moves to Rupert Murdoch’s Sky television as part of a controversial media deal that should earn the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) '220m over four years, the Financial Times pointed out.