The Peter Corrigan Column: Cricket passes the chivalry test that football fails

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The Independent Online

Football has suffered many disconcerting experiences recently but few would have disturbed its wallowing comfort as much as having to share the first big weekend of its new season with the Third Ashes Test.

Our national game invariably reappears too early in August but this time it is gate-crashing one of the great sporting epics and will not benefit from the intrusion.

In no way are the two games alike but in terms of sports vying for attention it is difficult to avoid making comparisons from which football does not emerge favourably. Apart from the engrossing quality of action the cricketers have been providing for us at a breathtaking rate during the past few weeks, their commitment and conduct under the most intense pressure has been remarkable.

Measure that against the flouncing histrionics that would have dominated the Premiership yesterday and will, no doubt, be on display again today, and the gulf in authentic sporting endeavour and behaviour is huge.

I suspect there has been an unprecedented number of football fans distracted by the goings-on at the other Old Trafford over the past few days and they couldn't have failed to be impressed by the manner in which that ancient battle for the precious Ashes has been joined.

Cricket falls well short of being a game awash with sweetness and light and by no means carries all the gentlemanly characteristics of its past but this oldest of sporting enmities is being fought in a spirit that is as attractive as the relentless ebb and flow of the play.

This degree of historic belligerence between such highly charged and courageous talents can never be called beautiful but it has gathered a surprisingly attractive aura that is all the more welcome because it could hardly have been anticipated.

The build-up to the series contained more than a few snarls of optimistic bravado from the English which, coupled with the arrogant, bullying reputation of the all-conquering Australians, did not promise a summer of tranquil tempers.

There were signs in the early stages of the First Test at Lord's of a mutual irritation that threatened to turn into more serious confrontations but, before our very eyes, the tone of the piece has risen to match its high tempo. The ferocious intensity of the play has produced not only a marvellous contest but also the creation of an atmosphere of genuine respect between the two teams that is a pleasure to behold.

Undoubtedly, the main influence in this transformation has been the surprising surge in England's combative form. The margin of their victory in the Second Test at Edgbaston may have been desperately narrow but it established them as a team capable of winning and, perhaps more importantly, introduced the Aussies to the unfamiliar pain of losing.

That they took it so well almost took the edge off the triumph. They haven't had much practice in showing dignity in defeat but they did it disarmingly.

Not the least of the delights of watching this Test series is the calibre of the men involved.

Shane Warne came into the series under enough shadows to need a torch to find his way to the middle but he has become an irrepressible star of the series. The gaining of his 600th Test wicket on Thursday could not have been more warmly welcomed by a crowd Down Under and, as fiercely adversarial as he remains, he has been at the forefront of the fraternisation.

As for our hero Andrew Flintoff, he is more than a knight in shining armour - he's his own white charger. Yet, for all his exploits with bat and ball, the abiding memory of the action thus far is of Flintoff going down on one knee to console a slumped Brett Lee after his valiant attempt to stave off England's victory at Edgbaston.

It was an act of forgotten chivalry that stirred so many hearts and convinced us that something special was going on. British sporting heroes are rare enough, to have one without a sign of a blemish is extraordinary.

Lee, who has the most engaging smile for a bowler so fearsomely fast, is another who plays the game in the right spirit. And it is gratifying to know that there is one player with the Christian name of Ashley who isn't a pain in the arse.

To be able to act in such a fashion and lose none of the unremitting aggression necessary in modern sport is a considerable achievement.

There's still enough powder in the old keg to explode a tantrum or two - and someone may remind Ricky Ponting's men that they only started losing when they started smiling - but, whatever the outcome, this is an event that revitalises your faith in the sporting ideals.

Sportsmanship is what they used to call it but it is a word that has been evicted from the football vocabulary unless used in a derogatory sense, i.e. as the direct opposite of professionalism before the altar of which has been sacrificed all vestiges of fair play.

The arrival of the football season will reunite us with the petty cheating, the diving and the ugly dissent that the game seems powerless to deal with. Pleas, and threats, have gone out to players and managers that they respect referees more his season. Swearing at referees will collect automatic red cards.

If there's been any swearing at the umpires - many a decision has warranted a curse - we are not aware of it. Warne leads the field in the art of expressing mute disgust at an umpire's decision but, by and large, they accept every decision with a philosophy that can be recommended to the football fraternity.

There has been one infringement of the rules. Simon Jones was fined 20 per cent of his match fee for mockingly indicating the direction of the dressing room to Matthew Hayden. As yet, there are no reported sightings of Jones's legal advisers at the European Court of Human Rights.

Umpire Billy Bowden was the source of some questionable decisions on Friday but survived obvious censure. After the final ball was bowled, Bowden announced: "Close of play, boys."

Boys? If a referee referred to football players like that he'd be sued by their image consultants.

The only hope football has of tidying up its indiscipline is if the FA can take a firmer grip. But, first, someone has to take a firmer grip of the FA and the presentation of Lord Burns' structural review of the game's governing body on Friday was the first step in that direction.

It's an agenda for a long argument but if he can resist the blandishments of the Premiership clubs the streamlined body he recommends would have a good chance of putting the game into the sort of order we've been admiring in cricket.

A real turn-off

Nagging away during Channel 4's excellent coverage of the Ashes is the thought that for prisoners of terrestrial television, of which I am a lifer, this will be the last home Test series we'll be able to watch.

From next year, Test cricket will be available only on satellite TV, to whom the England and Wales Cricket Board have sold out. It is my wish and my belief that, eventually, their money-grabbing act will hurt them more than it hurts us.

However, there is one part of Channel 4's transmissions that drives me up the wall. Almost every advertisement they stick on between overs is for blood-sucking finance companies trying to foist loans on us. I always thought that cricket fans had plenty of money.

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