Freddie and friends bowl the nation over as epic Ashes clash reaches its dramatic finale

Cricket? It's the new football for at least another week, as record numbers prepare to watch the fifth and final Test
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Four short weeks ago they couldn't tell their jaffas from their yorkers. Now legions of new fans are happily discussing Shane Warne's flipper.

Britain has gone cricket crazy, and in the next few days much of the nation will suspend its business to watch or listen to the fifth and decisive Test in the Ashes series.

Record numbers are preparing to crowd round television sets and big screens from Thursday onwards, to see if England can wrest the famous urn from Australia for the first time in 16 years.

Big money is changing hands. Tickets for the Oval in London, where the final Test will be played, are now available only on the internet or from touts asking sums of up to £1,200.

One fan has even rented a flat overlooking the Oval - paying £23,000 for five days - in an attempt to see the live action of what could potentially be one of the nation's greatest sporting moments in 40 years.

For the less fortunate, the game will be a five-day television festival. The first match in the five-Test series peaked at 2.6 million. The recent fourth Test reached a whopping 8.4 million, one of Channel 4's highest figures of the year, and the highest in the seven years that C4 has been broadcasting the sport.

We are playing the game once again, too - whether on the 22-yard strip or on the screen. Sales of all things cricket, from bats to balls, DVDs, computer games and replica shirts, have gone through the roof. Gray Nicholls, the cricket equipment specialists, say they have had their best year in their 150 year history. John Lewis, the department store, has reported a rise in cricket ball sales of 80 per cent on last year. The World Cricket Store reports orders for England shirts from British expats in Australia.

For the less energetic, the Brian Lara International Cricket 2005 computer game has been an instant hit. Launched on the first day of the first Test, it sold out its 100,000 copies in two weeks and spent four weeks at No 1 in the chart.

Not bad for a sport that until recently was regarded by most people as a confusing and somewhat dull game for the middle classes.

The only question remaining is whether this boom in all things cricket can be sustained and, crucially, attract more young people away from football.

Only if there is investment in the game's grassroots, according to the Independent's Stephen Brenkley. "It will be impossible to sustain this level of interest, but entirely possible to sustain a level of interest greater than it was before," he said. "What the ECB [England and Wales Cricket Board] has to do is embrace kids and women. Traditionally, cricket has not been followed by women. They have to get the game into schools and invest more at grassroots level, especially with coaching.

"This series has seen record viewing figures, but next year the broadcast rights move to satellite TV. Viewing figures on satellite cannot be as high, so the ECB will be hoist on its own petard. That said, the difference in money from that deal will be £40m a year, and the game could not be sustained without that. The great unknown is whether the ECB can square that circle."

The breweries are big winners, whatever the outcome. Next weekend, cricket fans are expected to drink an extra two million pints of beer (on top of the 28 million we drink a day). The 300,000 Australians in this country will be gripped too - with the Walkabout pub chain preparing for big crowds - but in a decidedly more anxious mood.

'We've never seen anything like this'

Stephen Khan cornered legends of the game for their views at last Friday's Cricket Writers' Dinner

David Lloyd, former England coach

"I have been astonished at how interest has spread right through the country. I was at the golf club the other day and three lady members came up to me and said, 'We've never watched cricket before but now we know exactly what's going on.' We're knocking football off the back pages.

David Shepherd, Test umpire

"Cricket is more popular than ever. I have never seen a summer like this. Hopefully a lot of the people who have been brought over to the sport will stick with it after this wonderful series."

David Frith, former editor of Wisden magazine

"People talk about football being the beautiful game but that's rubbish; this is the beautiful game. We are watching it being played at a supreme level; it's more beautiful than ever. After 16 years of drought, people are flocking back. The nonsense that goes on in other sports will not blight cricket."

Angus Fraser, ex-England player and Independent correspondent

"We don't want cricket to lose the characteristics that make it great. It would be awful if it became tacky. We don't want to go there. Money should be set aside to ensure cricket remains on the list of school games."

England bowling legend, 'Deadly' Derek Underwood

"I don't think there has been such a buzz about cricket in my life. Hopefully this is the spark that inspires a new generation and cements the sport's position as a national game. I'd like to see it adopted more at school level."

Former England captain Tony Greig

"I think it is unlikely Australia can win and we are standing on the brink of a great moment for English cricket. Interest levels are incredible. I was reading that one company's bat sales are up by 40 per cent.

Former England captain Mike Brearley

"We are on the verge of being the best team in the world. That's good news. More money coming in can't be a bad thing. I'm sure there will be an influx with so many new people being brought to the game. I don't see how that can be bad."

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