Mark Butcher: We don't just like cricket - we love it

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The Independent Online

The scenes the day after the Ashes came home were incredible. You would not see the like of it inside a big stadium rock concert. Just about everybody presumed that there would be a few people there to mark England's win, and a quarter of a million turned up.

If ever there was a time for the Government not to underestimate the effect that sport in general, and cricket in particular, can have, those scenes were it. I have never been convinced that cricket is a sport in decline, as some pundits have insisted.

There has always been a latent love of the game. Millions of people still want to read about it, as evidenced by the coverage in the serious papers and the websites that are devoted to the sport. People have maybe been slightly diffident about showing it, but they needed something like this to come out of their closet and shout it from the rooftops: "We love cricket!"

The stock of the game has been rising inexorably, and has been doing so ever since we drew the series here against South Africa in 2003. The only blip on the graph since then was in Sri Lanka, when even then the side showed great character as the bowling attack was carried by Andrew Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard, with Ashley Giles as the spinner.

Since then the team have added a run-scoring wicketkeeper, a No 5 who is a one-off and the opener Andrew Strauss, who has been an unsung hero - but two hundreds in an Ashes series is something of which he can be extremely proud.

I always felt that we could beat Australia. What was surprising was the way that we kept them under the cosh, dominating long periods of play. It has been irritating me no end that people have been suggesting the Australians were a side in decline. Well, they weren't saying that six weeks ago.

England, make no mistake, have beaten the world champions, and not only beaten them but kept on top of them. They were always capable of playing fantastic cricket, as they (we, as it was then!) showed in South Africa last winter. But the difference is that in this series, Lord's apart, the team have done it for four and five days at a time. Perhaps it is because the stakes are so high in an Ashes series.

On the last day, of course, the innings of the series, the innings of many a series, was played by Kevin Pietersen. As I said, he is a one-off. He has nothing of the English air about him, a kind of self-effacement which typifies our nationality. The South African-raised player had not had a great series by any means, but he went out there when it mattered and seized the moment in an amazing way. Everything about him suggested he would. What a maiden Test hundred.

He offered chances and Australia spurned them. There was an element here of the tourists failing to grasp their chance, as England have been guilty of in the past. But the Pietersen factor cannot be ruled out, rather like the Adam Gilchrist factor. When Gilchrist walked to the wicket there was always the feeling that if he gave a chance you'd better take it or he could do untold damage. Pietersen may have a similar effect.

Next stop Pakistan, and a decision has to be made over what the balance is going to be. It is possible that Hoggy will not have too much work to do there and they will try the other three fast bowlers and two spinners. The identity of the second spinner is a mystery. Gareth Batty is in the frame, so is Graeme Swann, and Alex Loudon, the Warwickshire all-rounder, keeps getting mentioned. He bowled me last week with a doosra that I was not exactly looking for. There is something there.

England can improve, no doubt about it. You always can. Both sides dropped too many catches, but then it is the Ashes. You might want to relax, but it is not easy.

And after the result and the party, the unbelievable sanctimony. After six weeks of monumental effort, our gallant lads let their hair down. It took two days for Sky and the tabloids to start running polls on whether they had gone too far and had let England down.

It was extraordinary, although maybe I should not have been surprised by what certain sections of the media can do. I just shook my head in bewilderment: here was a team who had brought jubilation to the nation, had a party and some people were asking if they went too far.

Surrey play to avoid relegation this week. It is a tall order, but we have to believe we can do it.