Last friday afternoon, the group of young boys were gathered as usual in the inner-city playground next to the estate where they live, white, black and Asian youngsters idling away the summer doing what kids do best – playing. They gather there every summer, as regular as migratory birds, shooting hoops into the desultory basket, or more likely playing out their football fantasies against a dusty background of competing replica shirts.
But last week something was different: the boys were, as usual, playing but their sport of choice was new. They were playing cricket. There must have been 20 of them crowding the outfield and in the centre was a brand new set of bright blue plastic stumps being defended by an excited youngster swinging his shiny new blue bat with determined animation.
A friend who has passed this playground for the past 10 years had never before seen these young boys of summer playing anything but football or basketball. Here was proof if any were needed, in the week in which the England football team, multi-millionaires to a man, were beaten so abjectly in Copenhagen, that cricket is the sporting news this summer.
No Test series has been more eagerly awaited than the present one and none, not even Ian Botham’s Ashes of 1981, has proved more continuously inspiring or produced such intense and enthralling cricket. The Australians arrived in England at the beginning of June acclaimed not only as the greatest team ever to have played the game but as revolutionaries, the team that had re-made Test cricket as a more vigorous, athletic, attacking game for our impatient age.
They had in their ranks three players – Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist – who would be automatic selections for an all-time great cricketing XI, and most of their batsmen averaged more than 50. They had spent the best part of the past decade or so beating teams hollow all over the world, and, with their usual swagger and arrogance, expected to do the same to the Poms.
We knew England were an improving team. We knew that under coach Duncan Fletcher and captain Michael Vaughan the team had remade itself and was winning series in difficult places such as South Africa and Pakistan. We knew that in Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison, Simon Jones, Matthew Hoggard, and Marcus Trescothick, as well as the captain himself, we had young cricketers of character, determination and high ability.
What we didn’t know was just how determined they were to take on the Aussies, and how, through doing so with such gusto and aggression, they would introduce a new generation to the intrigues and complexities of Test cricket, perhaps the greatest of all games.
The tied one-day final at Lord’s in July, the clatter of 17 wickets on the first day of the first Test, England’s thrillingly narrow victory at Edgbaston, then the almost unbearably exciting draw at Old Trafford in the third Test… it is impossible to predict what will happen next in this remarkable summer of cricket. What is certain is that both teams will continue to play hard and to win, but, following Flintoff’s example at Edgbaston, when in the immediate aftermath of England’s victory he thought only of consoling Brett Lee, who had come so close to leading Australia to improbable triumph, they will also play with courtesy, sportsmanship and fellow feeling.
If you contrast the attitude of our cricketers with that of the monosyllabic truculence of the pampered and often preening footballers who represented England in Copenhagen you will understand why those boys in the playground were last week playing a different game.
My only regret is that from next year no cricket will be available on terrestrial television for them to watch and be inspired by.