With one match left, the current Ashes Test series has already been decided as England has thrashed Australia 3-1. All four matches played so far have been blowouts and yet the series continues to hold interest for many cricket fans, including me. Even now, I exchange daily e-mails with four other fans: two in Pune, one in California and one in New Jersey. Previously, we used to make our predictions about the upcoming test and who should have been selected/ dropped. Now, our e-mails are more about what went wrong with Australia and what the future holds for the Baggy Green.
Why such interest in a Test series where none of us has any rooting interest, between two sides whom we do not particularly like ? It is a question I’ve been thinking about recently. While I cannot speak for my e-mail buddies, I think I know the reasons in my case.
The main reason is that Ashes tests usually end in a result. There are comparatively few draws because the pitches and, in England, the weather conditions make for a more even contest between ball and bat. In England, the vagaries of wind and rain combine for a damp atmosphere that favors swing bowlers; in Australia, the super fast pitches are a fast bowlers dream. The team that masters these conditions can pile up big totals but they have to be earned. Even when there are draws, they often occur with one team hanging on for dear life. Compared to other series, you have few matches in which mammoth totals are rung up and it is obvious halfway through the match that it is going to end in a draw.
What I also like about the Ashes is that they usually feature top class fast bowling with both sides often having packs of genuine quicks, not just one. It is thrilling to watch a fast bowler thundering in and hurling 90+ mph ( 145+ kph) thunderbolts at a batsman while seven or eight close in fielders wait to pounce on any chance of a catch. There are moments of rare beauty when a slip fielder launches himself sideways and grabs the ball as it streaks by him. These caught behind dismissals usually occur off fast bowlers and are treasured by cricket fans. Who can forget Ben Stokes marvelous catch to dismiss Adam Voges in the fourth Test? Or Stephen Smith’s blinder that sent Moen Ali back to the pavilion? The aesthetics, as well as the intimidation factor and hostility in pace bowling, the clatter of the wickets when a paceman breaks through a batsman’s defenses are a treat to watch. No less enthralling are those occasions when a batsman stands tall and survives the early overs before launching his own assault and driving the ball to all corners of the ground.
There is not nearly the same charm in watching spinners in action, skilled though they may be. I suppose , in all of us, there is an innate attraction to raw power no matter what the sport. That is why I prefer the serve and volley tennis matches at Wimbledon to the interminable rallies on the clay courts of Roland Garros. That is why, in baseball, home run hitters make more money than high percentage contact hitters. That is why boxing fans are so fixated on heavyweights even though the best boxers, in terms of skill , are in the lower weight divisions. Power and strength above all.
Definitely, the newspaper coverage of the Ashes adds to their appeal for me. British sportswriters are among the best and the cricket coverage in the Manchester Guardian is outstanding. Such a pleasure to read: in-depth, thoughtful , well-informed with touches of playful humor. The Aussie papers are pretty good too. In other countries, the coverage may be competent and informative but it is not as much fun to read. I find it too dry and humorless, too fixated on results and on the nitty gritty of the action.
My final reason is that Ashes cricket is, or at least it gives the impression that it is, a sport, not a business. As much as the matches are hard-fought. as much as the teams may dislike each other I get the feeling that , at the end of the day, they will meet at the pub to quaff a couple of beers together. Well. maybe not after this series. And definitely, Joe Root and David Warner together is not a good idea! It is very different in other series, particularly those played on the subcontinent, where one is all too conscious of the money aspect of the game and the attendant sleaze.
I need not mention the history and tradition attached to Ashes cricket. As cricket fans, we are all well aware of the stories and the personalities that are part of this close fought rivalry. It is also amazing that even with one or the other side having been dominant for periods, the series overall is dead even at 32-32, with 5 series drawn. Test cricket elsewhere may be in the doldrums but the Ashes continue to delight. May it continue to be so.