Mark Steel: Here come the Ashes (and we've already won)

The current heroes for English fans are a Sikh and a batsman who dyed his hair blue
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The Independent Online

To be a cricket lover during the last Ashes series was like being a scientist in an old film, one who's spent his life pleading to be taken seriously while everyone considers him mad, but is then unexpectedly proved right. Suddenly it felt everyone was saying: "My word sir, I confess I maintained your proposition that cricket could generate excitement a fallacy of the highest order. But I stand humbly corrected. Indeed my wife very near fainted from palpitations when Giles added the winning runs at Trent Bridge. Please accept my sincere apologies."

Viewing figures for the final days of the matches were far higher than for Big Brother. And any reasonable person would agree the last moments of the Edgbaston Test, which England won by two runs, ranks alongside Muhammad Ali knocking over Foreman as the greatest ever television moment. Sure, the moon landing was interesting in its own way, but was fairly predictable. Whereas if there'd been a sporting element, with a Russian rocket catching up the American one and a commentator gasping: "Oh my goodness, I've never seen anything like this before on the Sea of Tranquility," it would have been genuinely memorable.

In one sense, even before the new Ashes series begins tonight, we've already won. Because cricket was one of the last trenches for Old England. Even 10 years ago the governors of English cricket were almost all ex-public schoolboys, brought up with the doctrine that cricket's purpose was to reinforce the natural order, in which England should rule the world, and ex-public schoolboys should rule England. The radio commentators would twitter that "we all had a splendid afternoon with the Duke of Norfolk and his charming wife at a match between Old Harrovians and a Charterhouse Fags eleven in his delightful grounds on Sunday. And there's a wonderful tradition there that after the game all the peasants swim three circuits of the moat and the loser's set on fire so it's jolly good fun."

And when you first came across the jargon it would be impenetrable, but you'd feel if anyone asked what they were talking about they'd say: "I've got a letter here from a Mr Alf Smith of Lewisham, and he wonders what we mean by 'nip back off the seam'. Well my dear old thing, it sounds like we've got a working person listening in by mistake.

"So we're going to do the rest of this broadcast in Latin, and you, Mr Smith, can get back to smelting or arranging back-street abortions or whatever it is you do."

If you defied this attitude to go to a match you met the wrath of the authorities. There were complaints about "drunken noise" from one stand at Lord's, so the bar was dismantled and the stand concreted over, with an efficiency the Israeli army would be proud of. And when West Indians brought their carnival atmosphere to English cricket, it was derided, they had their hooters and flags confiscated, so they stopped coming. When you heard a tannoy announcement, you worried it would say: "You - yes, YOU - in row 14. Sit up STRAIGHT when Colin Cowdrey's batting."

The result was that as the world changed, cricket appeared to a generation of the English as a weird anomaly, an unfathomable corner of society still in black and white. It attracted fewer players and supporters, and England managed at one point to become officially the worst team in the world.

But over the past few years, changes in British society have been forced, to some degree, onto cricket. Twenty thousand English supporters have travelled to Australia for the Ashes, few of them on the official tours and many of them with the barmy army, who are likely to throw you out if you DON'T make a noise. Apart from Flintoff, the current heroes for English cricket fans are a Sikh and a batsman who dyed his hair blue. And in a perfect nod to diversity, England even selected as opening batsman someone who was clinically depressed, which should ensure they fulfil any relevant quota scheme.

Even the response to the depressed Marcus Trescothick reflects a changing world. Players and officials have been mostly sympathetic, whereas 20 years ago the MCC would have voted unanimously he should be shot for desertion.

But now the cricket authorities are becoming slaves to a new master, replacing snobbery with money. Last year's series could attract millions because it was on Channel 4. The impact was enormous, from sales of tickets to clubs reporting new members and thousands watching huge screens in parks.

So the English Cricket Board have sold the rights to Sky, which can't possibly attract the same numbers, because they offered more money. Maybe if I'm a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here! had offered even more, they'd have sold it to them, and happily watched Geoff Boycott's pitch analysis begin: "Right, look what I've found. Just here, outside the leg stump, this could cause trouble - a swamp full of maggots."

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