In exactly a week's time, the first ball might be sent down in one of the most anticipated Test series of the year -- The Ashes. And given the manner in which the subcontinent is quite shamelessly offering a dull view of Test cricket in recent times with flat wickets by the matches, The Ashes could well, I hope, dish out what it has always been about -- Test cricket at a level typified by its rich intensity, unrivaled passion and unmatched dynamism. The Ashes of 2010 comes at a time when cricket is in dire need of a folklore to talk about, a cricketer whose achievements could capture a nation's imagination, with cricket being his tool of expression -- someone not quite dissimilar to the Freddie "Jesus" Flintoff of Lord's fame. And that's where I believe the Ashes is an important cricketing series.
Add history, and it gives the contest a sense of context, a past that went on to define the game through its complex yet contrasting narratives. The dominant theme of this year's Ashes could well be the larger future of the game in the respective countries -- an apparent Australian decline or what could well be the dawn of a new quest towards ascendancy for the English, not quite a domination of sorts, but springboarding a generation towards what was a lost sport in the country, till about 2005.
Of course, the smaller sub-plots within the Test series could well play out on the 22 yards, but even the smallest of outcome, that one ball, as Steve Harmison discovered in 2006/07 (the famous wide-ball), could make top headlines back home. This is exactly why I feel the Ashes is perhaps the biggest series in Test cricket, and as an old hatted and suited MCC Member told me during last year's Ashes at Lord's, "We're usually a nation of non-believers in sports, but during these twenty-five days, we turn into believers."
England, I think have a lot more at stake here, possibly because of the nation they're representing -- a nation often ridiculed for it's culture or the lack of it, which eventually trickles down to the man on the street, and creates somewhat of a mentality, where the lad is all about a few pints and a few shots. This, popularly known as "booze culture" has been acknowledged as a baby-step towards a sportsman writing his own epitaph, not only as a performer on the field, but sadly, at a time when England as a country is desperately seeking a popular hero, in the eyes of its very people.
And somewhere, that is an emerging incentive for Andrew Strauss' men -- to give the public a richly deserved break from the tabloid sagas involving private life of footballers like Wayne Rooney, John Terry and Ashley Cole. Equally, Strauss and his men have an opportunity to veer away from the uglier side of modern day "English values" discourse (loosely translated as booze, bird, bash and cash), and represent what the Ashes subliminally did - a construction of the English identity through a sport they invented i.e. cricket.
It's not as if the cricketers haven't been ugly enough, of course, there have been regular transgressions, their own love-hate relationship with the bottle, and possibly an infatuation with greed, only normal given the direction cricket has chosen for itself. Yet, interestingly enough, The Ashes aren't about the splash or the cash, and if England emerge successful, there might well be eleven heroes landing up at Heathrow, quietly applauded and endeared by a public reinforced to not witnessing regular conquests of this magnitude in sport.
Yet, they have their tasks well and truly cut out. Firstly, perhaps for the first time in my lifetime, England have landed in Australia as popular favourites to retain the Ashes, a tag they might well not be used to, and knowing Andrew Strauss, may not prefer to tie themselves with. Yes, they not so surprisingly have the team to beat Australia this time, with a rare combine of batsmen with qualities that typifies English character (not values) -- the valour, the ugly, the free, the reckless and the reserved, with a bowling attack that first and foremost would back themselves to pick 20 Aussie wickets through its sheer variety with a hope of the much vaunted discipline in order.
But, in Andrew Strauss, they have a leader (not just a captain), tactically astute Jardine-Brearley like concoction, a realist who prefers mature diplomatese, than emotional spin-offs, and most importantly, a fine fine batsman, who is perhaps in the form of his life. Having said that, as promptly accentuated by the football team, tall, talented men do not always produce desired results, and this is exactly where someone as Strauss comes in, who with his apparent sense of sobriety could keep this ship together, with the supporting cast, namely the 10 others, doing their business in a quiet yet expressive way. And in keeping with the theme of the Ashes, it's very essence, England might need to invoke their inner Jardine, who once famously said, "I've not travelled 6,000 miles to make friends. I'm here to win the Ashes."
The Aussies on the other hand have an interesting dilemma to confront -- a battle for the urn blends itself seamlessly under the battle within themselves, a battle to arrest the apparent decline and in doing so, reassure the tired Australian cricket-watching public that they're not just here to stay, but given a new generation, could spearhead the foundations of another empire, which sadly, has changed guard. Yes, the halo or the "aura", around the Australian team has disappeared into the Tasman Sea, they're not a bunch of feared individuals anymore but they embody the very essence of Australianism -- a national identity which uses sport to establish itself, and unsurprisingly, sport is at the heart of national pride for the Aussies, outranking other cultural achievements in art and science etc. Perhaps, this is where Ricky Ponting and his leadership comes in, oft compared to former US President George W Bush (for his looks) in his last years -- not in control, unpopular among his own people and not himself.
All of a sudden, with a poor bowling arsenal at his disposal, Ponting has begun looking like an ordinary captain, tactically fragile, and clueless at most times in the recent past like an old general whose fought many a war and isn't ready for his last, which is probably why I believe this series could well be decided by Ponting and not Strauss' approach towards his cricket. If he's scoring runs and does eventually lead Australia to snatching away the Ashes, he could well be loved and avowed by the Australian public again. Anything short of that, and his future is almost certainly in the hands of the selectors.
Aside of Ponting, my personal feeling is that the Aussies look unsettled, not so much in the literal sense of the word, but there are players in that eleven, battling to hold on to their spots, where even a single failure could result in a changed XI in the next game. To put it simply, under pressure. But, as is oft said, Australia will be different animals in their own backyard, but sadly, for them they need to engage England at a far higher level in their quest to regain the Ashes.
In sum, England and Australia have an excellent opportunity to relay the essence of Test cricket starting next week. Today, cricket needs an epic to remember for a while, something cricket fans could wake up to ten years down the line, discuss, debate and trash all the same. Equally today, the English nation needs popular folk-heroes they could embrace, worship and celebrate. Eleven of them have the opportunity to do so. Australia, on the other hand, might want to define their cricketing future with an Ashes win, and in a sense send a strict message to its detractors about its much-doubted relevance. England needs it more than Australia. The opportunity begins next week at the Woolloongabba, Brisbane.