James Lawton: Cricket is just a fabulous fad

The reality is that only football retains the ability to touch every class and creed
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The Independent Online

Where will the English - and maybe even British - heart beat most strongly over the next few days? Unquestionably at the Oval. Cricket, with England performing so heroically against the ancient foe Australia, has never been lovelier in the public mind than any time since the Fifties, when enchantment came with a calypso celebrating the mesmerising spin bowling and modest demeanours of the West Indians Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine.

Yet the rush of acclaim for England's other national game - and the accompanying rage that, when the drama of Kennington is done and we know if England has won its first Ashes series in 18 years, the game will disappear from terrestrial television screens - should perhaps not provoke too much giddiness in the committee room of the England and Wales Test Cricket Board.

Cricket reigns for the moment, and for the most glorious of reasons, but an intriguing question remains. Has it truly re-established itself as the nation's most compelling sport? Or is it providing passing relief from some darker developments in the real national game, King Football? Is cricket, when set against the universal appeal of the big round ball, really anything more than a fabulous fad?

It is the harsh but maybe inevitable call on a classic of sport. England cricketers have played the world champions Australia - widely considered before the onset of this extraordinary Test series to be one of the toughest, most accomplished teams ever assembled in any branch of world sport - to their very limits.

They have demanded from the Australians in the baggy green caps every scrap of skill and resilience; they have provoked stupendous performances from legendary players like Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, but still the English nerve has held. Andrew "Freddy" Flintoff has become a giant, an authentic rival, to the beloved Ian "Beefy" Botham. The matches have been riveting to an almost excruciating degree. An Englishman sailing down the Grand Canal in Venice called home on his mobile phone and demanded to know the score, and was immediately surrounded by some fellow tourists. Cricket, plainly, has hit a main vein of the nation.

So what is there, then, to cloud the new and exciting vision of the cricket administrators, one of the green fields being re-colonised by a game that had been almost completely abandoned by state schools? It is the fear that, at least to some degree cricket has captured the imagination by default, by the failures and the betrayals of the real national game.

The truth is that cricket is shining so brilliantly this summer because football, which over recent years has crowded the summer game into the smallest pockets of public attention, is seen by so many to have squandered its intense appeal in the most tawdry fashion. Cricket, whose administrators were accused of madness when they scheduled the climax of the Ashes series deep into a new Premiership football campaign, is being seen as a new force of sporting light.

While big Freddie Flintoff commiserated with his beaten opponent Brett Lee in arguably the most uplifting sports cameo of the year at the end of the white-knuckle second Test at Edgbaston, Manchester United's England centre back Rio Ferdinand - a footballer who had been suspended for eight months for failing to take a drugs test -was concluding negotiations for a salary that dwarfed those of his cricket rival - £100,000 a week.

While footballers continue to dive and feign injury, while leading managers turn their eyes away from the most egregious behaviour, the Australian captain, Ricky Ponting - embattled, but also heroic - is fined for a brief burst of invective. Inevitably, comparisons have been made.

If cricket is for the moment the hands-down winner, does its future stretch out untrammelled by doubts about its new prominence and regard? For the men in the egg-and-bacon ties of the Marylebone Cricket Club, it is the prettiest of notions, engagingly promoted by English life-affirming characters like the commentator Henry Blofeld.

There is another reality, however, and it is that ultimately cricket cannot hope, any more than any other team sport, to eclipse the elemental appeal of football. Football may be having an extremely dangerous summer, it may have blurred, in this country at least, the appeal that has carried it triumphantly into every corner of the world and culture, but it retains the ability to touch every class and creed.

Cricket, still bounded by the borders of the old empire, cannot begin to make such a claim. All it can truly say is that for some little while now it has delivered, quite magnificently, the best of itself - and how many millions would football give to be able to say that?