James Lawton: This auction will devalue the priceless charm of Lord's
The Ashes at Lord's is of an order that only a fool, or a group of them, would dispute
Friday 31 July 2009
Andrew Flintoff came from Lord's as the hero of the land but here he was diminished, by a day of waiting and frustration and the refusal of the Australian openers Simon Katich and Shane Watson to treat him as a confirmed demigod.
But then what he seemed to be missing most was his theatre at Lord's, where last week he grew to huge proportions.
It was, in its way, a strange dwindling because before the first ball was delivered yesterday English cricket was facing the astounding possibility that the place of Lord's as the pre-eminent Ashes battleground might be in some danger.
It wasn't so much a newsflash as an assault on the senses.
Some things are automatic, as inevitable as the sunrise. Maria Callas had to be seen and heard at La Scala. There must be an Ashes Test at Lord's.
You cannot miss out Lord's. It would be crass. It would say that what has gone on down the years in the greatest arena of the English game has meant little or nothing. It is just old trade. Profitable commerce, no doubt, but nothing like sacred.
The Ashes at Lord's is of a natural order that only a fool, or a group of them, would dispute, but in theory at least the England and Wales Cricket Board and its venue-fixing ancillary the Major Match Group have said that in modern cricket everything is for sale and tender, including the ground in St John's Wood that long ago became a storehouse of the nation's most unforgettable cricket memories.
This was something not so comfortably absorbed here yesterday as venomous clouds kept pushing back the start of play in one of the most fervently anticipated collisions between England and Australia – and the ECB issued a list of Tests and venues stretching deep into the next decade.
Missing and diminished, as the Louvre would be without the Mona Lisa, was the certainty of a match for Lord's in the 2013 Ashes series.
There is one scheduled for the bonny lads of Durham, who were so exercised when Cardiff was able to throw taxpayers' money from the Welsh Assembly into the bid that landed the first match of the current series, and there will be the traditional climax at the Oval.
The other three venues – and, according to the rules, Lord's has to operate as just another contender – are to be fought over as though they are motorway extension contracts or some catchpenny season of culture. Never mind the tradition, the ECB principle is saying, what about the ante?
The ECB has committed many follies in recent years, including the salivating reception at Lord's for Sir Allen Stanford, currently a guest of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but in letting slip the possibility that Lord's is no longer an immovable fixture on the Ashes rota it opens itself to a charge of quite depressing contempt.
It's that the ECB is, in the matter of those things that it is most charged with protecting, Philistines. It knows the marketing price of everything without, it seems, much of a clue about what it is selling.
This, with the greatest of respect to places like Durham and Cardiff, is something money cannot and should not be able to buy.
It is those memories whose meanings ensured here yesterday that thousands of fans sat waiting patiently for the resumption of the Ashes action. You did not have to be ancient to reach out for some of the best of this legacy from within a lifetime.
You could remember the time Colin Cowdrey, who with Peter May was the classic hope of a new generation of England cricketers, came to the wicket with a broken arm – with his team just one wicket away from defeat imposed by the withering pace of Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith – and how England survived without the need of Cowdrey to face a ball. The important point was that he would have done had it been necessary.
Brian Close, that ultimately obdurate Yorkshireman, had faced a shoal of balls from Hall and Griffith, 198 of them in three hours 50 minutes. Many of them hit him on the body. He would grimace for a moment, then giggle. He scored 70 and was the reason why it was felt necessary that Cowdrey was willing to face a challenge that at the time represented one of the most hazardous in sport. Hall and Griffith were ferocious, Hall coming in long and loping and Griffith, off a shorter run, as menacing as the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
Later, someone took a picture of Close in the dressing room, his shirt off. His chest and shoulders were covered in bruises. Close was asked if it was the greatest ordeal of his career. He said it was an ordeal, it was cricket, another day's work, but maybe it would be remembered better for happening at Lord's.
There was, a decade earlier, Willie Watson and Trevor Bailey defying the Australians for the draw which was so pivotal to the regaining of the Ashes. Lord's was so still, so rapt, you could have heard a muffled cough on the Edgware Road.
In 1975 and the first World Cup final the West Indies captain Clive Lloyd hit a century of monstrous power. He made Lord's seem such a small and fragile place. It wasn't enough that the West Indians had assembled a pace attack of fierce intimidation. They had a hitter of mature splendour and another who batted, and fielded, like a god.
All that lustre was still playing through the mind as Graeme Swann, another hero of Lord's, struck England's first blow by dismissing an extremely menacing Katich. Edgbaston, naturally and typically, became a place of fierce partisanship. As we saw here four years ago, it knows how to house a stupendous contest. But it isn't Lord's. Where is?
Perhaps the ECB has some kind of clue. Maybe the moon is composed of Gruyère cheese.
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