The gentleman's game

Observations on the Ashes

Not since Ian Botham inspired England to a remarkable Ashes series victory in 1981 has there been a cricketing summer to compare with the one through which we are lucky enough to be passing. Cricket is once more part of the national conversation, and children everywhere must be dreaming of smashing sixes in the swashbuckling style of Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff or Kevin Pietersen.

The present Australians are perhaps the greatest group of cricketers ever to have played the game. They arrived here at the beginning of June, though the Test series - the Ashes - did not start until the end of July. First they toured the country playing one-day cricket. The signs even then were good: England, in those early games, looked ready for a fight and as weary as the rest of us with continuous defeat over 15 years. Defeat against Australia, that is, because elsewhere, in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Caribbean and South Africa, as well as at home, England have been remaking themselves in recent times as a team worth getting excited about, a winning team.

But how would they go against the Aussies, the champions of world cricket, at both the long and short forms of the game? The first morning of the first Test match at Lord's, when, bowling fast and accurately, they dismissed Australia for 190, provided a partial answer: they'd go very well. But Australia, inspired by their great bowlers Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, fought back and went on to win easily.

The circus moved on to Edgbaston for the second Test, with England being buffeted by all the old criticism. And their response? To attack. On the first day England flayed the Australian bowlers, on their way to a remarkable total of 407. They batted with exuberance and daring. It was like watching an exhibition game. England then set about the Aussies in the field with equal gusto, dismissing them for 308 - a lead of 99. On the third day, the Aussies, led inevitably by Warne, dragged themselves back into the game as England batsmen came and went in dismal procession. With the lead at little more than 200, Flintoff counter-attacked, smashing the Australia fast bowlers into the stands and even on to the roof. When he was out, England had a lead of 281 - surely enough on a deteriorating fourth-innings pitch.

Throughout that long Saturday afternoon and into the early evening the England bowlers were once again dominant; by the close of play Australia still required 107 to win, with only two tail-end batsmen left. The game was ours.

No one could have expected what happened next. The following morning, Australia batted with courage and character. Brett Lee, in particular, was assaulted by the hostile Flintoff. He was not intimidated and, even when Warne was out, and with 62 still required to win, Lee pushed on towards improbable victory. By the time the last Australia batsman was fin-ally out, two runs short of triumph, England supporters everywhere had been exhausted by the intensity of the drama.

And the best moment of all? As the last wicket fell and the England fielders began their celebrations, Flintoff crouched alongside Lee, put his arm around him and spoke only words of encouragement and consolation. Here was sportsmanship at its finest. Play hard, play to win, but play with courtesy, respect and fellow feeling. There is more to come.