Welcome to a new idea, which I hope will work. TLG and I will come up with five (could be more, could be less) questions and selected volunteers (and I might try some of the regulars who didn’t) will answer them. It’s a format blatantly copied from the Daily Mail, but with bilious inadequates rather than professional writers and broadcasters. I’m grateful for all volunteers.
I will wait for the first four responses, and it would be great if you could turn any answers around in 48 hours if you are requested (and let me know if you can’t as I have plenty of volunteers).
Let me introduce the panel for the first of these – we have stalwarts Keyser Chris (@keyserchris), our resident Yorkie, metatone, @EoinJPMorgan on Twitter (known as Hillel) and our reasonably infrequent, but very welcome to be here OscardeBosca. We are waiting on one more (our man in Finland) and will add his answers when they arrive. He did warn me of internet problems in advance. UPDATE – I’ve added PaulE’s comments, so all five are now here.
A second set of panel questions will be e-mailed tonight. TLG and I might even answer them ourselves.
As I say, I hope it works.
1. What do the Ashes mean to you?
KC – The Ashes for me started as a legend, specifically Beefy at Headingley. I was only 5 at the time so didn’t experience it, but as I grew up later watching what seemed like endless summers of TMS, Richie on the telly, Viv Richards, Windies bowling & Gatting/Gower/Gooch, it was always there in discussions. But it came alive for me with the Warne ball. I had never seen anything like it, and it was the portent of pain up until 2005. God, ’05 was GOOD! The Ashes is generally expected pain at the hands of a gritty Border or Waugh, with intermittent huge highs, 2010/11 particularly (I was at Adelaide in 2006 and 2010 – yin and yang indeed).
OdB – There is a lot to admire about Australians and their attitude to life and sport. It’s why beating them at cricket is satisfying. I was 9 in 1981 and didn’t really get cricket, 86/87 was when I have vivid memories of my dad telling me we’d won when I was waking up for school. So then fast-forward to 2005 having got into cricket post 87 and I really, really wanted to beat the Aussies and 2004 showed me we had the team to do it. I have loved the past 10 years even though it included two away whitewashes as we have beaten the Aussies at home. For me it should be the epitome of test cricket and it is the one team I want to beat. Hayden epitomises the Australian cricketer i want to beat (and potentially see cry 😀) not enough of the current lot have an element of Hayden about them (Warner excepted) which is unfortunate. I like some of them (such as Harris and Lyon) and I feel dirty saying it.
Metatone – When I was young, the big Test was the West Indies. Greenidge and Haynes, Richards, Marshall, Ambrose and Patterson all stick in my mind. And (biographical alert!) my Dad is Indian, so India and Pakistan loomed large. When you get down to it, the Ashes were just another series at first. There was a mythology about Botham and 1981, but I was only 6 at the time. Then came 1989… The Ashes became a ritual reminder of how low England cricket had sunk. There’s an irony that in some ways I didn’t really notice how good the Aussies were (the new dominant team across the world) because I knew how bad we were. 2005 was a joy not just because of victory, but because we’d turned a corner, we were no longer inept.
Hillel – Like most English fans, my interest in cricket was sparked by the Ashes. Specifically, my epiphany came in 2009 when I wandered off from the physical exertion of tennis camp (don’t ask) to find solace in the wicket-taking antics of Stuart Broad. In fact, I even managed to maintain from 2009 to 2011 that I was a cricket fan who “only followed the Ashes”, before I too was eventually sucked in to the spiralling vortex of hipster cricket, attending county out-ground fixtures and desperately refreshing live scorecards of affiliate T20 games. To me, the Ashes are not simply another Test series but a cultural outpost which England and Australia share. The competition is as old as modern cricket itself, and unrivalled by any perhaps besides that of India/Pakistan. Whilst there remains a certain magic to the country becoming enchanted with the Ashes every couple of years, I am always reminded by the specialness of the contest when chancing upon a random Australian abroad, and without hesitation jumping into an in-depth Ashes discussion as if we’d been buddies for years.
PE – The Ashes means different things at different times. It means of course, victory and defeat, and gloating rights. It means heroic narratives; Botham and Brearley, Bob Willis and Graham Dilley, David Gower in the sunshine and Allan Border kicking back. But most of all it means 2005 and a nation briefly at peace with itself: positive, comfortable and progressive, it felt like the nation and the cricket team were as one, ready to embrace the future. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be (relatively) young was very heaven! Sadly it wasn’t to last, and England as a nation and a cricket team hasn’t been as likeable since.
2. We all agree (say if you don’t) that three series in two years is overkill, but do you think this is damaging the brand that is the Ashes?
KC – I had no problem with back to back series, the one-off idea really excited me & separating it from the WC is still essentially good. And there is precedent. This series though is the one I don’t like, blatant filler even pre-ICC stitch up. Should stick to its cycle from now on. Not optimistic though…
OdB – the ashes test series should be the epitome of test cricket, but there has been too much if it. It now feels that Eng v SA or Eng v Pakistan is now a more important/interesting series, and that is due to its scarcity. The ECB has milked this goose. I went to Edgbaston to watch the Ashes in 2001 and my ticket was £28 for the Eric Hollies stand. The same ticket for 2015 has cost me £81, now I may be wrong but I don’t remember 9-10% inflation over the past 14 years. The lack of free to air coverage and the rising costs mean that whilst I will continue to go and watch test cricket in England, it will be an older and older audience watching and the younger audiences won’t be interested in the game.
Metatone – It’s not all the scheduling (the ECB has done plenty else to put those “outside cricket” off) but I’m basically bored of playing Australia. I’m much more looking forward to the SA and Pakistan series. Of course, a close series could reignite some enthusiasm. Part of the problem has been that since 2009 things have been rather lop-sided. Still, familiarity has left me jaded and yes, the media hoopla around the Ashes now rings hollow. I don’t think the damage is permanent, if we get back to a proper schedule – but right now it is hard to get excited.
Hillel – People tend to forget the enormous benefit of playing the Ashes with such frequency, inasmuch as it allows a narrative to be constructed. Usually the length of time between one Test series and another is so long that it virtually disconnects the two from each other. The beauty of the Ashes being played every two years is that we can remember the last and the anguish or triumph it brought. All of the vendettas, the rivalries, and the storylines that surround individual players exist because the Ashes are played so often. We would not have witnessed the complete evolution of Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke or Mitchell Johnson if the Ashes were played more sporadically. It is also worth pointing out the majority of the British public only witness the Ashes every four years, for it is only the diehards who are prepared to risk the cycle of poverty initiated by being caught napping at work. Whilst the last few years have brought us more exposure to the Aussies than is recommended in a lifetime, normal service of England’s most popular cricket competition will resume, bringing the Ashes frequently enough to be brilliant, and yet infrequently enough to avoid devaluing the contest.
PE – Not the ‘b’ word again! Yes and no. The real damage was done in 2013 when the venal ECB and it’s draconian coach demanded far too much of the players. All the reports say that the England camp was in a good place until around 2011. The ECB and Andy Flower damaged England’s ‘brand’ more than any Ashes series.
3. Do you think the media are making too much of this sledging issue? Do you see it as a psychological ploy to get under the skin of the Aussies?
KC – I’m not sure. Aussies sledging is not news. England it seems we’re worse than I thought at it, hadn’t realised how bad their rep was. Agnew using the Hughes speech against Clarke was contemptible though. Ultimately it’s mostly boorish, but adds some theatre to a series. Though I reserve the right to poke endless fun at Shane Watson.
OdB – It will backfire. The Aussies don’t give a shit what others think of how they conduct themselves, and Agnew sermonising to Clarke about Hughes is not something I want to hear. I don’t care about sledging, it goes on, it works for some and not for others. What I don’t like to see is the moralising that goes on after, especially regarding the ‘spirit’ of cricket. The ridiculous nonsense regarding whether to walk or not (don’t, the Aussies don’t (when in Rome dear boy)) that became the meme of the last home series, it would appear that until the series start and proper incidents occur, the MSM Ashes preview meme is player behaviour. When you are paid to write you need something to occupy your pen.
Metatone – Yes, it’s typical media froth. It’s not against the Laws of the game, so the Aussies will continue the way they always do. (I lived for a while in Perth, WA – and if you think they’ll do anything other than play up to the very limit of the laws, you’re a fool.) If it is an ECB ploy, it’s an inept one. (Tautology alert?) If anything it helps build the AU siege mentality. Worth noting that their fast bowlers will be looking to hurt the batsmen – and I’m sure there will be plenty of verbals. The way to respond is to get ahead on the scoreboard. The verbals always start to look silly then.
Hillel – It is generally impossible to understand the workings of the British media, and this case is no exception. The tour of an exceptionally pleasant New Zealand team have left the media banging a ridiculous drum of worthless stupidity requesting that the Australians replicate the behaviour of their neighbours, naturally forgetting that such a cause makes no sense whatsoever. Whilst New Zealand are simply an international team with no cause for us to hate, the Ashes brings genuine competition between England and Australia. When an Aussie sledges an Englishman (or South African for that matter), it represents the wider rivalry between the two nations. In my mind, one hasn’t understood the purpose of the Ashes if they don’t want to throttle an Aussie by the time it’s all over. If this is a psychological ploy to irk our Australian cousins, it is a horrifically awful one. Rather than splashing our complaints all over the back pages, we should think about sledging the Aussies back: Meet fire with fire.
PE – Yes, and yes. We know how the ECB and their lapdogs in the mainstream media operate. File under cant and hypocrisy, next to smear and Operation Pietersen. Vic Marks did a wonderful job of lampooning his fellow scribes, Darren Lehmann, proved himself a wily operator today. No-one’s fooled by media spin anymore, are they? (Don’t feel the need to answer).
4. I’m not a fan of Sky’s coverage of cricket, but I’m a notorious curmudgeon. What do you think of it?
KC – Technically, Sky’s coverage is superb, near-flawless. Most of the commentators are really good value (Holding, Nasser & Atherton especially) bar the likes of Knight & Strauss. It’s nowhere near as sycophantic as Channel 9, but you do have to listen with a pinch of salt at times (Botham…). Declaration speculation in particular is crap – play the time left in the game, not the weather. Sorry, bit of a personal bugbear that!
OdB – Channel 4 went to racing regularly and unless you had satellite or cable you missed cricket. The BBC were similar. Sky’s coverage is at very least committed to covering it properly. The problem is the commentary team is hit or miss, for every Atherton there is nick Knight (anodyne),Botham (awful) and Warne (best taken in small doses). However the smugness of Lovejoy and ficjam (Ed ‘fucking’ Smith) make TMS unlistenable at times (although I do like Boycott, Alison Mitchell, and Charlie Dagnall).
Metatone -Commentary teams are a matter of taste, I don’t mind most of Sky’s collection overall, but it rarely thrills me. Some of that is the passage of time – we lost Ritchie Benaud and it makes a big difference. Technically, it’s good camera work – but you can look at the highlights from 2005 and it’s obvious that it’s not actually that much better than the Channel 4 coverage. (I’ll note as a former professional with sport photography that some of the recent NZ series camerawork was below par.) Sky’s defenders always invoke BBC coverage from days gone by (we had some good youtube of 1971 Boycott in a comment thread, you can see the very big technical limitations there) but compared with Channel 4 of 10 years ago, the improvements aren’t large. Key point, I don’t think the technical advances remotely make up for the fact that I now have to go to the gym or the pub to watch coverage.
Hillel – With the exception of Nick Night, Shane Warne complete with endless anecdotes about strip clubs and golf courses (kill me now if the word mulligan is mentioned once during this Ashes), and just about all of their pundits, Sky actually do a rather decent job. They employ some rather excellent voices of reason, Mike Atherton chief among them, and whilst we take it for granted in the modern game, the picture quality and coverage is actually incredibly good. With the exception of the odd silly gimmick (what’s the point of the rev counter if every spinner from Xavier Doherty to Muttiah Muralitharan is going to be in the orange zone), the analytical supplications they provide are genuinely quite insightful. Although I do begrudge the concept of handing over the rights of all English cricket to such an expensive TV package such as Sky, that is no-one’s fault but the ECB, and Sky themselves must be commended on excellent coverage.
PE – Don’t get to see a great deal of it here in Finland, but, from what little I’ve seen it does seem to have embarked on a road marked ‘despair’. The cricket itself is good, the adverts and commentary less so. I’m more disappointed by TMS to be honest. It was a lifeline for many years, charming, eccentric but vaguely inclusive and often very funny indeed. I find it excruciating now, patronising, craven and humourless. Thank goodness for Geoffrey, one of the few credible voices in the game.
5. The question on all lips it seems is the transfer of the ODI attitude over to the test team? Is it important, and if yes, do you think it will happen?
KC – If they can transfer it, yes, it could be very important. But Cook is the skipper, and I trust him with the team’s attitude even less than I would with a spinner, so it in short, no it won’t happen.
OdB – Yes, the ODI series in 2005 was important as the attitude shown then was crucial and it carried forward to the test series, however the test and ODI squads were very similar then. Unfortunately I think it will be lost in translation. Cook hasn’t the capacity to play in that fashion, and whilst he should be the perfect rock for the more attacking players to perform around (and I hope he plays like he did against NZ as he appeared back to his unhurried best, it may be slow, there may only be 3/4 scoring shots, but it is mightily effective). My issue is that he is a reactive defensive captain. He makes poor decisions on the field which appears to permeate into the team and then as more things go wrong the worse things get. Our fielding during the ODI series was average (which is a vast improvement on the test side who’s fielding has been mediocre at best (Jordan apart)). Is this the fault of poor captaincy and poor decisions leading to lower morale, more frustration, and ultimately sledging the opposition? Einstein once said that madness was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Since India away, England have been in control of a lot of games in winning positions and thrown them away, day 4 at headingley (pick a year either 2014 or 2015 will do). Cook appears incapable of learning from his mistakes and I genuinely think his captaincy will be the difference between the two sides. Their bowlers are good but these are our home conditions, and I think both batting lineups are potentially brittle. As with most 5 match series there will be a number of key points, if Cook has an ordinary day we might win some, if he regresses to the mean we will lose those and subsequently the Ashes.
Metatone – Of course it is important. Vaughan said it before 2005 and he proved it on the field (as indeed other teams have) – Australia are out of their comfort zone when the opposition don’t back down. Test cricket is not just about skill, it’s a mental game too. Will it happen? Probably not. Cook is by nature a grinder. We have some batsmen who can do it differently (Root, Buttler, Stokes) but our bowling doesn’t look set up to attack.
Hillel – It wasn’t too long ago the media proclaimed the same should be applied in reverse, and that England should carry forward their momentum from the Test series victory against India to ODI’s, and onward to the World Cup. We all know how that turned out. Not only is it not important to carry over the ODI attitude to the Test team, it is vitally imperative not to. There is no intrinsic flaw in the conservative methods employed by our Test team, and the media banging on about how Cook must be as aggressive as the ODI team will put undue, unnecessary pressure on him. The problems which the English Test squad encounter are those of poor tactical decisions during the game (such as field settings) and inconsistent performances of batsmen and bowlers, not the attitude to Test cricket itself. Whilst some will point to the radical development of how Tests are played, as exhibited by New Zealand, it is worth remembering that England did win that Test series. The sooner international teams are able to divorce the longer and shorter formats from each other, the better they will perform in both.
PE – I’m delighted by the transformation undergone by the ODI team. Demonstrable evidence that those criticising the decisions of the last couple of years are right. It just goes to show what can be achieved by a group of players with the right captain and the right coach. It’s all about mentality. I’d be very surprised if the form is transferred: to paraphrase Bill Clinton ‘it’s the captain, stupid.’
So – there you have it. A number of voices, with some great points (they rate Sky a lot higher than me). Chew on it and think along. Because you might be next…..