Cricket: The grudge match to beat them all

On Thursday hostilities will be renewed in cricket's oldest rivalry. For many English spectators and pundits the Ashes series brings with it a greater sense of anticipation than any other. And for the players too, as Derek Pringle, the Independent's Cricket Correspondent, relates from first-hand experience
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The Independent Online
For cricket lovers, the Ashes is undoubtedly the greatest sporting occasion regularly held between two countries. It is certainly one of the oldest. For those who follow from the sidelines, it is glorious combat and childhood fantasy rolled into one. For those who have played, it is simply the oldest grudge match on Earth: an intense visceral struggle that appears out of all proportion to the prize - a small eggcup-sized urn thought to contain the ashes of a bail burnt in 1883.

It is that past, saturated with the sweat and deeds of the game's supernovas such as Bradman, Hammond, Lillee, Larwood and Botham, that gives the Ashes its unique pungency and beauty. In no other contest can you catch the whiff of history, or be judged by it, quite so readily. The stakes are high and the wealth of stories priceless. But while mistakes and miscalculations may never truly be pardoned, an Ashes hero will remain for as long as cricket is played.

I must confess that I came to Ashes hagiography late. It wasn't that my teenage dreams were filled with the precursors of the Spice Girls and Reebok trainers, like those trapped in today's commercially aggressive and image-bound cultural matrix. No, I blame geography for my lack of idol worship.

As a neo-colonial from Kenya, where real nature dominated technology, it was the environment that tended to hold sway over people and objects. Which is why any England versus Australia clashes were totally reliant upon my father - the serious cricketer in the family - successfully decoding the relevant information from a seemingly impenetrable wall of hiss and static that was the BBC World Service.

It was not until we came to England on long leave in 1972 that the Ashes sprung into frightening reality on my aunt's colour TV. Colour television was unknown in Kenya so my first glimpse of modern Test cricket is as gaudily fixed as spray-can graffiti on a railway bridge.

We had not exactly been starved of good cricket in Kenya, but no one hurtled in on the jute and coir matting as Dennis Lillee did in that final Test at The Oval. Nor did anyone appear as heroic as Alan Knott had done in trying to defy him.

Lillee took 10 wickets in that match which England lost. But instead of mourning the loss and the fact that the series had been drawn, England celebrated. The Ashes, it seemed, had been retained and that was all that mattered. It was this bit of skewed logic that probably got me hooked and I became blissfully entranced until reality impinged a decade later and I played against Australia for the first time.

There are two types of Ashes clash: those played in England and those that are not. My first experience was of the latter, though I had played against the Aussies in a one-day match at Worcester for an England Under-25 side a few years earlier.

Nothing can prepare you for your first Test on Aussie soil. Mine was in Perth, where the flies are so macho they lick the insect repellent off your face with something akin to masochistic glee. Sweat does not last long either, as the dry hundred degree heat singes your eyebrows.

And yet distractions like those as well as the verbal and occasional physical abuse that occurs in certain areas of the ground rarely distract for long. Once, Ian Gould, fielding as England's 12th man at the MCG, had a meat pie dumped on his head by a spectator from the ground's notorious Bay 13. But although his newly streaked "barnet" was unflatteringly damped down with a greasy coating of mince and tomato sauce, Gould, a reserve keeper, fielded like a Trojan. He even held a crucial catch at cover to dismiss Greg Chappell.

Like many hurdles in life, the build-up can be more excruciating than the moment of reckoning itself. Clive Lloyd, the West Indies captain and not a man for overstatement, once said that he never breakfasted easily if he knew he would be facing Lillee and Jeff Thomson later that morning. During an Ashes series, however, every day is an uneasy breakfast day, as tension on toast and scrambled suspense replace the more traditional fuel for the day's skirmish.

For the likes of Botham, these supercharged occasions merely heighten an already well-developed competitive streak. Who, for instance, cannot recall that Elysian summer of 1981 when, after resigning the captaincy, he and Bob Willis turned the series around with deeds that defied those famous 500-1 Headingley odds taken by Lillee and Rod Marsh. In an era when sport is increasingly packaged and sanitised by television, Botham's summer will pass into English folklore just as surely as Bodyline and 1966 did before it.

Other players, particularly when made captain, can change out of all recognition. Allan Border, a big mate of Gower's and Botham's during previous encounters, refused to socialise with either during the 1989 series in England - at least until Australia had won it. Border, who had been severely criticised when England, under Mike Gatting, had retained the Ashes in Australia two years earlier, returned to ticker tape receptions.

Bob Willis, my captain on the 1982-83 Ashes tour, increasingly became an ascetic, locking himself away in his room after play. He knew that whatever else he had achieved in his career, the ultimate judgment would be made on his captaincy against Australia. We lost that series 2-1, and it still irks him when people ask why he put the Aussies into bat on an Adelaide shirtfront - a match we ended up losing by eight wickets. It was Ashes losses that also saw off Gower and Gooch as England captains, a fate that may yet befall the current Australian captain Mark Taylor.

On the other hand, winning an Ashes match, as anyone fortunate enough to have done so will tell you, is one of Test cricket's most rewarding experiences. Mike Brearley knew as much and he even grew a beard to show the Aussie public that he meant business.

Mind you, winning is not something that has happened - at least not as far as England players are concerned - with a great deal of frequency over the last decade. My sole experience of such a moment came in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne in 1982, and even that was close. We won by just three runs as Botham's golden arm prevailed once more to pick up the final wicket - an edged slash that Chris Tavare played hot potato with before palming it to Geoff Miller at first slip, who made the catch.

With both sides never out of the game, it was an emotionally sapping experience, played out in front of crowds nearing the 90,000-a-day mark. At times the racket was so deafening that it felt as if you were choking and that noise, not air, was infiltrating your lungs.

It was also the first time a giant TV screen had been used for replays. In honour of that, the Melbourne Age ran a cartoon of Willis slumped in a deckchair beneath a waxing moon, waving his can of beer at a rather irate operative who was saying: "You want me to replay the whole flaming match again?"

Inevitably such intense competition can also bring out the worst in people. Off the park, players like Lillee, Rod Marsh and David Hookes were as friendly as a trio of Jehovah's Witnesses. During play, though, they could be transformed into rabid mongrels, snarling and sledging any opposition batsmen they felt might buckle under the invective. One of these was Derek Randall, whose brilliant 174 in the 1977 Centenary Test automatically made him a target.

Sledging never bothered me and I do not think it much bothered Randall either, who was always looking for an excuse to work off his nervous energy by chatting to someone in the middle.

What Randall objected to was the insistence - which came from certain senior team members - that he should observe the custom of having a drink in the opposition's dressing room after the day's play. "You must be bloody joking, Gorilla," he'd say when Botham tried to drag him across. "That bloody Thommo's just been trying to knock me block off me bloody shoulders. I'm buggered if I'm going to have a beer with 'im."

For his part, Thommo gave good copy on or off the pitch. When he wasn't chipping bits off Pommie batsmen, he was waxing lyrical. "To tell you the truth, I couldn't wait to have a crack at them," he said, remembering his sensational debut against England at The Gabba in 1974-75, when he took six second-innings wickets. "I thought: `Stuff that stiff upper lip bit. Let's see how stiff it is when it's split.'"

Occasionally, however, strong words have given way to even stronger fists, as Ian Chappell, the man generally accredited with hauling sledging into the gutter, found to his cost after baiting Ian Botham in a Melbourne bar. As on other occasions with Botham, something snapped and Chappell found himself suddenly up-ended and nursing a bloody lip.

But it is not only the players that respond differently to an Ashes occasion. The umpires also feel the pressure, a situation most cleverly exploited by Terry Alderman in 1989, when he won a hatful of lbws, not all of them plumb.

Even the normally unflappable Dickie Bird, usually the stoniest of umpires when pads are rapped, cracked under the pressure at The Oval. I know, because it was my hopeful appeal against Merv Hughes that he upheld.

Generally, however, the Ashes is an enmity to rejoice in. Providing England can take their fine showing in the Texacos with them into the Test series, and Australia take their time in settling, this summer has all the hallmarks of another classic encounter.

"Ashes coming home, they're coming..."