The Christmas treat that nobody wants: a trip to the last two Ashes Tests
They had hoped to spend Christmas soaking up some winter sun while watching the climax of a finely balanced Ashes series. Instead devotees of English cricket - the last of them departing for Australia this weekend - will have flown halfway round the world to witness one of the longer wakes in the history of the game.
The Ashes trophy was snatched away from Andrew Flintoff's team early yesterday when the Australians completed a hat-trick of wins in the Perth Test in an act of supreme vengeance for their defeat in England 15 months ago.
For the visitors what remains is a lengthy post-mortem, plus trying to salvage pride in the remaining matches in Melbourne, starting on Boxing Day, and Sydney. "We have learnt in the past to lose well, then we learnt to win last year. Now we've got to learn to lose again," said Paul Winslow, an England fan whose stoicism was forged on two previous Ashes defeats Down Under.
He echoed the views of many commentators that English cricket's future remains bright in the hands of young players such as the spin bowler Monty Panesar and the batsman Alistair Cook, who is tipped as a future captain.
Mr Winslow, 31, who will spend £2,500 on the trip, could be forgiven for being irritable when he boards a plane to Australia on Friday as he has slept little while following the series on television. He added: "I have been used to sampling defeat in Australia but the difference was this year, for the first time I can remember, there was a reasonable expectation of getting a good result."
The emphatic nature of defeat has led bookies to cut the odds on a 5-0 whitewash, but the travel industry insisted yesterday it had had little effect on takings.
An estimated 40,000 Britons will have travelled Down Under for the cricket, including around 5,000 members of the Barmy Army, the notorious supporters group that was formed in the adversity of Ashes defeat eight years ago. The tour operator Sport Abroad has sold 500 packages, including 280 to cricket fans heading out for Christmas. Prices ranged from £2,495 for tickets, travel and hotel for the Perth Test to £3,795 for a similar deal for the final two tests.
A Sport Abroad spokeswoman said: "We don't expect the defeat to have had much of an immediate impact because people have booked well in advance. Sales for the [2007 West Indies] World Cup are also strong because the one-day game attracts a different crowd. There may be a downturn in demand for the next overseas Test series though."
A few packages remain for the final two Tests and tickets for the MelbourneTest are available online at less than cost, but this can be explained by the huge capacity - 100,000 - of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the main arena for this year's Commonwealth Games.
Another agency, Sports Events Travel, said many cricket-loving tourists would find solace in the ample winter sun and beach culture. But the agency's business development manager, Dave Archer, said the niche sports travel industry had potentially missed out on the windfall it enjoyed when England reached the final of the rugby World Cup against hosts Australia in 2003. He said: "Sports travel is a massive business and what you saw then was a lot of people heading out for the final at the last minute. You won't see that for the Ashes."
Andrew Flintoff, the defeated England captain, urged the team's followers to keep faith. He said: "We want to win a Test match and we want to put smiles on people's faces. Stick with us because we're trying and we'll continue to do so."
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