Who invited football to the Ashes party?

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The Independent Online

To switch metaphors, with a remarkable Ashes series getting more fascinating with every ball that is bowled, football seems like a clumsy interloper, a drunken gatecrasher at an otherwise wonderful summer party. If only football could be gently but firmly shown the door, and told to come back later when the party is over. Instead it will stay, loudly and brashly, and the best we can hope for is that it doesn't puke over the poached salmon.

That the third Test match is unfolding at Old Trafford, of all arenas, somehow makes the overlap with football seem even more pronounced. Never mind that Manchester United are away at Everton, on the first day of a Premiership season you expect the name Old Trafford to evoke the big round ball, not the small round one. Not this time.

Moreover, even at the beginning of a football season which will culminate in a World Cup, it is not Wayne Rooney from whom England currently expects, but Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff. And invidious though it is to compare Flintoff with England's last talismanic all-rounder, I can think of just one other barnstorming cricketer in the past 25 years who has acquired the cultural status otherwise enjoyed only by footballers, which is the situation in which Flintoff finds himself.

Indeed, on Test Match Special during the Edgbaston Test, I heard Henry Blofeld take the comparison a shade too far: "McGrath, running in now to Botham," he said. A cough from the back of the box alerted him to the mistake, otherwise I think he would have carried on, perhaps even turning Glenn McGrath into Terry Alderman.

As for the television coverage of the Ashes, that too offers a dispiriting contrast with football. But then cricket is made for a production team's ingenuity in a way that football is not. One of the best aspects of Channel 4's generally excellent effort is Simon Hughes' sporadic technical analyses from what looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. When ITV tried something similar with football, putting poor Andy Townsend in a van with lots of levers and buttons, he looked like someone who'd been handed a chocolate teapot and told to demonstrate its effectiveness.

Of course, it could be argued that football is such a beautifully simple game that it doesn't need the appliance of science. Cricket, on the other hand, thrives on it, to such a degree that I can hardly believe I was engrossed by the BBC's coverage of Test matches in the days when there was a camera at only one end of the ground, as opposed to now, when there are cameras in the batsman's nostrils and strapped to the umpire's forehead.

On Thursday I watched the morning session with my 10-year-old son, one of those many youngsters who previously only had eyes for football but has had his interest in cricket kindled by the thrills at Edgbaston. He loved the computer graphic which shows the direction and elevation of each ball in an over, and then projects them all at once, which may not be how 10-year-olds became interested in cricket in the days when Geoffrey Boycott and John Edrich were opening the batting for England, but to use a sporting cliché, it's not how you get 'em, but how many of 'em you get. What a time for terrestrial telly to be losing Test cricket; increasingly it looks, just to bring football back into the equation, like a truly disastrous own goal.

I wonder, incidentally, how many proper own goals there will be today? Doubtless there will be a spread bet available somewhere. But statistics in football are fripperies whereas in cricket they are part of the fabric of the game.

I was reminded of this when Michael Vaughan reached his marvellous century on Thursday, and up popped the essentially pointless yet pointlessly essential information that in the all-time list of batsmen converting Test 50s into 100s, England's captain stood third behind Don Bradman of Australia and George Headley of the West Indies. Football has no equivalent to these marvellous statistical nuggets, which were once affectionately lampooned on TMS by the late John Arlott.

"What I really want to know, Bill," came the glorious Hampshire growl, "is if England bowl their overs at the same rate as Australia did, and Brearley and Boycott survive the opening spell, and that the number of no-balls is limited to 10 in the innings, and assuming my car does 33.8 miles per gallon and my home is 67.3 miles from the ground, what times does my wife have to put the casserole in?"

Football has never had anyone to equal Arlott. But nor, in fairness, has cricket.