Brian Viner: Boxing clever to fit Freddie in with dessert

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

When the chap next to you at a Test match asks you which US state shares no letters with the name George W Bush, and you counter by challenging him to name the English Football League club which shares no letters with the word mackerel, it is fair to assume that the cricket is not exactly pulsating with excitement.

Thus it was in Sophia Gardens, Cardiff, towards the end of the afternoon on Thursday, when it was beginning to look as though nothing short of earth-moving equipment would get rid of Ricky Ponting and Simon Katich.

But that's the beauty of cricket, even Ashes cricket. The crack of bat on ball is matched by the craic in the crowd, and when there's a lull in the sporting action, social interaction takes over. The trick is in knowing when to move from one to the other, a feat not wholly mastered by one of the waitresses in the hospitality box in which I was lucky enough to spend the day. With Andrew Flintoff all but pawing the ground as he prepared to steam in at the Aussie opener Phillip Hughes, she materialised from the room behind us and sweetly said, in a lovely Welsh lilt, "Your desserts are on the table, gentlemen".

Nobody strayed from their seats, I'm happy to say. But all too often for those who partake of corporate hospitality, the lemon and raspberry cheesecake takes preference over Flintoff, or Roger Federer, or Manchester United. I know a captain of industry whose strict and honourable rule is never to accept invitations to sporting events if he's not interested in the sport, yet few of his peers are so discerning. I remember being at an indoor tennis tournament some years ago, at which not even a volley of abuse directed at a line judge by a raging John McEnroe could drown out the hubbub from the corporate boxes. For them, medallions of venison was the only game in town.

All that said, for a Lancashire lad for whom the height of indulgence was unwrapping one of his mum's cheese-and-pickle sandwiches as Barry Wood and Frank Hayes carted the Yorkshire bowling all round the ground, the odd glug of corporate hospitality is good for the soul. And it was nice to see another son of Lancashire, though adopted by Yorkshire, enjoying himself in the adjacent box on Thursday. I chatted to him for a while, asking if he found it odd sitting there with a glass of sauvignon in his hand while Flintoff thundered in against the Aussies? "Not really," said the just-retired Michael Vaughan. "I've always enjoyed watching cricket. And I don't miss the ball whistling past my ears." He conceded, though, that he was watching from a captain's perspective. And early in the stand between Katich and Ponting he leant over to me and said darkly, "something's building here".

Something was. And something was also building in Cardiff, a palpable feeling that it had done the Ashes proud. A friend compared Cardiff's inaugural Test match with the Super Bowl sometimes being staged in small cities such as Jacksonville, Florida, as it was in 2005, on a swell of civic pride and excitement that is never felt in the huge American conurbations. And all the giants of Welsh society are duly there. It has been strangely heartwarming to see the TV cameras alighting on Gareth Edwards one moment, and Gerald Davies the next. I haven't spotted Max Boyce or Dame Shirley Bassey yet, but it can only be that the cameras haven't yet found them.

At tea on Thursday, reluctantly eschewing the scones, jam and clotted cream up in the box, I took a stroll round the ground, which is another of the myriad pleasures of Test cricket. The proprietor of the Nuts About Coffee franchise told me with wide eyes that there were 400 people in one of his queues, and I asked him how he got such a lucrative gig? He smiled. "What you don't see," he said, "is that we're also here serving four men and a dog when Glamorgan are playing, taking £15 in a day."

For that reason, and many others, nobody can continue to begrudge Cardiff this prestigious Test match. Off the field it's been wonderful, whether you're with a few mates, or the Barmy Army, or indeed the corporate army. And on the field it's rarely been less than compelling, except for a period on Thursday afternoon. Indiana and Swindon Town, by the way, if you're still wondering.

Try a Saturday story for a taste of yesterday's Ashes battles

Not even the most pugnacious Welshman sees the point of booing Englishmen during the current Test match in Cardiff, but regional identity played a strong part in the 1970-71 Ashes, when it was Perth's turn to become the newest home of Test cricket, and the first three wickets claimed by England were lustily cheered by the home crowd, on the basis that all the batsmen were Victorians.

That is just one of many fascinating recollections of an extraordinary tour contained in a TV series called The Saturday Story, which begins today on Sky Sports. And if you want to hear Raymond Illingworth being likened by Richie Benaud to a "prima donna captain of a South American football team," tune in.

The Saturday Story is on Sky Sports during the lunch break each Saturday of the Ashes series