Is cricket the new football?

It's easy to get carried away with England's success against the Aussies, but the sport can never become the nation's favourite, says a mightily relieved Angus Fraser - himself a former Test player
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But there is no need to. Anybody who has been fortunate enough to follow this remarkable Ashes series, and monitor the performance of Michael Vaughan's vibrant young team, will be aware of how engrossing it has been. After suffering a heavy defeat in the first Test at Lord's, England have recovered magnificently to dominate three consecutive matches against the world champions.

The heroics of Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen, Simon Jones and Vaughan - to name but four - have gripped and aged a nation. They have also taken England into a 2-1 lead in the five-match series, a scoreline which means Vaughan only needs to draw the final Test at The Oval to emulate the feat of Mike Gatting, who led England to their last Ashes success 18 years ago.

In June, nobody would have imagined that a sleepy old game which lasts five days, and is watched by a load of old codgers wearing funny-coloured ties, could provide such entertainment. But it has, and fans eagerly await the fifth Test in nine days.

Cricket, consequently, has been hogging the headlines. The players have become household names and the sport has never been so popular. I witnessed an example of this as I walked across Old Market Square in Nottingham on Saturday evening. Two young girls were chatting as they were making their way to one of the many bars in the city centre when one of them mentioned something about a run out. Much to my amazement the other girl turned to her friend and said: "Yeh, like Ricky Ponting."

Interest in the game has reached such a height that some observers are now calling cricket the new football. For a game that has to compete hard for coverage, all the extra attention is pleasant, but to suggest that cricket will become as popular as football is, well, ridiculous. Anybody with an interest in cricket wants to see it maximise its potential and show people what a fascinating game it is, but cricket will never replace football as Britain's number one sport.

And, if the upshot of what has taken place leads to cricket, and the people involved in cricket, becoming like a large proportion of those in football I hope it does not.

Cricket is a magnificent game, steeped in history and tradition, and the people in it are virtually all honourable and good. Test cricket is a game like no other. It tests the character of players each time they walk on to the field.

The players who represent England are an outstanding group of individuals with a wonderful team ethic, and this makes watching them win an even more pleasurable experience.

There is no sign of it happening, but it would be disastrous if England's top cricketers suddenly started behaving like David Beckham and his £100,000-a-week mates in football. They seem a dreadful lot. Oiks who know the value of everything and the meaning of nothing.

Should England win the Ashes there is a chance that some of the team will be tempted to visit this boutique - it happened to several of England's rugby players after they won the World Cup in 2003 - and Flintoff, following his performances in the last three Test matches, has become one of the most recognisable figures in England.

The crowds love him, the newspapers love him, and rightly so. But it is not just because of the sixes he hits, the wickets he takes and the matches he wins, it is because he is a person we can relate to.

You will find him having a quiet pint, queuing for fish and chips on a Friday evening and pushing a trolley around a supermarket while his wife grabs the groceries. Flintoff does not enjoy the celebrity lifestyle. He feels uncomfortable at glitzy dos and prefers to be among his mates.

On Sunday evening, as Flintoff left a bar in Nottingham after celebrating England's three-wicket victory, he was hassled by half a dozen lads who wanted their picture taken with him. A footballer would probably have had a couple of heavies working for him, who would have ensured the path was clear before he left, and that a taxi was outside the front door waiting. But not Flintoff, he posed for a picture with each of the lads before returning to his hotel.

The past month has been brilliant for cricket in England. It will not always be like this. The challenge is to use what has happened wisely, yet keep the characteristics that make it so special.

ANDREW FLINTOFF

* NICKNAME: Freddie (as in Flintstone)

* IMAGE: Flintoff signs autographs after cricket matches, but the flood of fans approaching him is not on the scale of David Beckham

* EARNINGS: Approx £1m per year. Has made £341,250 on the pitch in 2005, including Ashes bonus

* ENDORSEMENTS: Woodworm cricket equipment, Barclays Capital, Red Bull, Volkswagen and The Sun; worth a total of £650,000

* BODYGUARDS: At 6ft 6in, Flintoff is built like a rugby player and has no need for security staff

* CAREER BREAK: Signed by David Lloyd for Lancashire at the age of 16. Test debut aged 20

* FAMILY: Married to Rachael, a marketing executive from Brighton. Their daughter Holly was born in September 2004

* SCANDALS: None

* LIKES: Elvis, dogs, cars

* LIVES: Over Tabley, Cheshire

* DRIVES: V10 Volkswagen Touareg

* RECENT HOLIDAYS: Devon, France

* OTHER: Played football with the England player Phil Neville at Lancaster to under-15 level. Tipped to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2005

DAVID BECKHAM

* NICKNAME: Becks

* IMAGE: Brand Beckham has world recognition. Beckham spends more time with fans than most world-class footballers, often spending 45 minutes after matches signing autographs

* EARNINGS: Approx £18m per year. Made £4.5m on the pitch in 2005, plus performance-related bonuses

* ENDORSEMENTS: Gillette, Vodafone, Adidas, Diesel, Pepsi and others; worth a total of £13.5m

* BODYGUARDS: Beckham sacked one bodyguard, but still has a minder and security staff at home to protect his children

* CAREER BREAK: Signed a YTS contract with Manchester United in 1991. League debut aged 19 in 1995

* FAMILY: Married to Victoria, former Spice Girl and pop star. Three sons: Brooklyn, 6; Romeo, 2; Cruz, 6 months

* SCANDALS: From Rebecca Loos to the beautician and nanny's revelations

* LIKES: RnB, fashion, shopping

* LIVES: Hertfordshire and Madrid

* DRIVES: Mercedes and Bentleys

* RECENT HOLIDAYS: Morocco, Dubai

* OTHER: Had he not been a footballer, Beckham says he might have enjoyed being a cricketer

Remember then?

England last won the Ashes on 28 December 1986, a year when ...

* Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and gave permission for US bombers to take off from Britain to bomb Libya after a series of Libyan-inspired terrorist attacks

* A pint of beer cost £1.03; a loaf of bread cost 33p

* The Independent was only two months old

* Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise, and Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee were the box office hits of the year

* The first disposable camera was launched by Fuji. Casio also launched the first home sampling keyboard

* Jackie Wilson had the Christmas No 1 with "Reet Petite". The year also saw "The Chicken Song", a spin-off from the satirical puppet TV series Spitting Image, and "The Sun Always Shines On TV", by Norwegian band A-Ha, top the charts

* A first-class stamp cost 18p; a second-class stamp cost 13p

* Gary Lineker won the golden boot award at the World Cup. That year he was transferred from Everton to Barcelona for £1.1m

* Everton were about to win the football league. Aston Villa were relegated at the end of the season

* Prince Andrew had just married Sarah Ferguson

* The BBC and ITV had a combined audience of 20.5 million

* Kylie and Jason married on Australian soap Neighbours, helping launch the young stars

* Panini football stickers were found in playgrounds across the country

* Samantha Fox left Page 3 and became a television presenter and singer

And nine ways to spend the next nine days while you're waiting for the final test ...

* Write a television screenplay called Cricketers' Wives featuring the antics of a group of players enjoying tea in the pavilion

* Join a wine appreciation course and spend nine days comparing New Zealand's grapes with Australia's. At the end, don't forget to say how much better the New Zealand vintage is

* Take a course in Australian heritage - then find something else to do with the other eight days

* Book into a hotel in Earl's Court, west London, and enjoy the unusually subdued atmosphere

* Read Cricket Australia's 'the players' spirit of Australian cricket'. Learn the first rule: "We play our cricket hard but fair and accept all umpiring decisions as a mark of respect for our opponents, the umpires, ourselves and the game."

* Familiarise yourself with bizarrely named fielding positions to avoid giggling every time you hear names such as silly mid-off and leg gully. Remember, these are technical terms

* Count how many of your Scottish friends suddenly tell you they admire the way the English cricket team has performed against the Australians

* Knit your own baggy green (cap) so you have something to hang the champagne corks on after England win the Ashes

* Find out where your nearest county cricket ground is located in case the sport's renaissance turns out to be more than a passing fad

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