Offside, 26 August

Is Ashes fever a flash in the pan?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

This week, as the most competitive Ashes series for years reaches its denouement, I have been measuring the nation’s sporting temperature through one of my occasional surveys. What is Ashes fever all about? Is it the rekindling of a beautiful friendship with our national summer sport or a shortlived craze that will quickly fizzle out? In order to find out I emailed questionnaires to various friends and workmates and received 42 responses, nearly a third of which were from women.

To what extent has Ashes fever really taken hold? Three out of four respondents, men and women alike, admitted they were gripped by the current series. When asked why, the most common reasons given were the historic sporting rivalry with Australia and the real possibility of England avenging 16 years of Ashes hurt. Significantly, it was mostly men who expressed any antipathy towards the Aussies. ‘It is great that we are competing more convincingly with the convict scum than we have been able to for most of my lifetime’, explained one normally mild-mannered charity worker. ‘I hate all those crowing Aussies’, declared another respondent more bluntly. The nailbiting drama of the closely fought second and third Tests has also played a part. ‘There have been moments when it’s got so exciting I’ve almost been spewing’, admitted one giddy respondent.

There has been much talk of new converts to the game, including many women, who caught the cricket bug during England’s dramatic win at Edgbaston. I’m sure there are some cricketing debutantes out there but my admittedly limited sample didn’t unearth any. All those who were gripped by Ashes fever also said that their interest in the game predated the current series, though many had not been actively following cricket for some time.

Interestingly, most women also reported a longstanding interest having been introduced to the game by cricket-loving fathers or brothers. It was notable that many people were only interested in Test matches, one-day internationals and, to a lesser extent, Twenty20 matches. Popular interest in the longer format of the game in this country, therefore, is almost entirely dependent on the fortunes of the English national team, which were on the wane throughout most of the 1990s. It is evident that this Ashes series has not so much created a brand new audience as reawakened a national interest in Test cricket that has lain dormant for well over a decade. ‘I still remember the glory days of the 80s’, said one nostalgic respondent. ‘Bring back Beefy!’

The leg before wicket (lbw) rule is cricket’s equivalent of the offside rule. If you don’t understand it you can’t be a real fan. So how many of those afflicted by Ashes fever comprehend cricket’s most iconic rule? The majority of respondents claimed that they did understand the lbw rule though some admitted that they were unsure about its nuances – for example, where the ball has to pitch, what happens if no stroke is offered, and so on. A few courageous respondents did try to explain the rule, though not always accurately. ‘If it hits the players on the legs ya have to do a lot of shouting and pointing – if ya shout loud enough, he’s usually out’, suggested one person. As with football’s offside rule, cricket fans may all like to think they understand the lbw rule but many would struggle to explain it properly.

What exactly is it about cricket that appeals to our born-again fans? While the thrilling, furiously paced Test matches at Edgbaston and Headingley have undoubtedly caught the public imagination, the most common reason given for enjoying cricket was the leisurely tempo of the game. ‘I like the fact that it lasts for days, that you immerse yourself in it, and it becomes genuinely intriguing and dramatic’, said one. Another said he ‘liked the fact that it takes five days when we’re all supposed to have the attention span of a goldfish’.

People often gave a number of reasons including the complexity, the skill, the protracted drama, the psychological battles, the radio commentary, and the arcane rituals and terminology. ‘I like the fact that they break for tea. Very civilised’, remarked one woman. Another female respondent admitted she liked the ‘trainspotterish proliferation of statistics for every aspect of the game’.

Female respondents in particular enjoyed the social aspects of watching cricket. ‘I like the banter, the boys, the sunshine, beers. It’s relaxing and sometimes exciting’, said one woman. ‘I must admit from a girl’s point of view, one of the main attractions is to find a nice spot on the boundary, set down a rug, open a bottle of wine and soak up the sun while keeping one eye on the game’, said another. Even those who disliked the game could appreciate this part of the match-day experience. One cricket-averse male respondent admitted that he could ‘enjoy a day at Lords on the beers’.

A spokesman for the England and Wales Cricket Board (EWCB) recently declared that ‘cricket is sexy’. But are professional cricketers themselves sexy? Most female respondents questioned said that some players – though not all – were sexy. Freddie Flintoff topped the heart-throb league while Simon Jones, Kevin Pieterson, Michael Vaughan, Darren Gough and Steven Harmison all had female admirers. Glenn McGrath was the only Aussie who had any admirers (one to be precise).

And while Shane Warne’s bedroom antics have become a regular feature in the tabloid gossip columns, I’m sad to report that no women had the hots for the peroxide-haired leg-spinner. What particular attributes did women find attractive in cricketers? One female respondent said that Pieterson, Flintoff, and Gough were ‘much more manly (and therefore sexy) than pretty-boy, overpaid, thick footballers’. Flannels seem to do it for some ladies. ‘My girlfriend thinks that cricketers are much more sexy in their “whites” than footballers and rugby players in their shorts’, said one male respondent, while a female respondent revealed that she ‘used to think Mike Brearley had an aristocratic grace and always looked gorgeous in whites’.

The current Ashes series has witnessed a cultural sea change in English cricket, with spectators behaving more like football fans. But is getting pissed, singing yourself hoarse, and abusing the opposition appropriate behaviour at a cricket match, or should spectators politely applaud both sides equally?

A quarter of respondents favoured the carnivalesque style of the Barmy Army. ‘There is nothing like dressing up as a nun, having a few beers and sitting in the scorching sun’, enthused one male respondent. However, the overwhelming majority preferred a mixture of both the old and new cricket cultures. ‘Cricket should strive to maintain its higher level of etiquette than football, but there is definitely room for “reasonable” sledging and abuse from the crowd’, suggested one person. Many English cricket fans see no contradiction in interrupting their repertoire of anti-convict songs to applaud a great spell of bowling from Shane Warne. Several people said it depended on the context: abusing the opposition would be acceptable against the Aussies but more problematic against Bangladesh or India.

It is not unusual for cricket spectators to nod off during the game. However, a whole generation of English cricket fans seems to have nodded off for well over a decade. The current Ashes campaign, though, has roused many cricket enthusiasts from their metaphorical slumber. My survey shows that there are plenty of people out there who are knowledgeable about the game (though some are a bit rusty on the intricacies of lbw) and perfectly capable of appreciating the gradually unfolding drama of a five-day Test match. But how long will our renewed enthusiasm for cricket last?

Although three-quarters of respondents said they would continue to follow cricket after the Ashes series ends, I suspect that much depends on the continuing good form of the England team. We are a nation of fairweather cricket fans which makes the outlook for English cricket difficult to predict.

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