Extraordinary summer of Ashes


David Shepherd... voted as the man who has done the most to promote the game by the Cricket Writers' Club.-V.V. KRISHNAN

AUGUST 29. You are the most successful bowler in history with 610 victims in your pocket and the respect — not to say envy — of your peers. You have money in the bank, fame around the globe, a home in Melbourne, plans for a second home in Southampton near your work place and yet it is the little successes you want the world to comprehend.

That is why the sturdy blond figure stands outside his hotel in Nottingham on a bright, sunny August morning and bellows into his mobile phone: "Mate, it's unbelievable. I win 25 dollars on the Lotto this week-end."

August 30. Ah, a phone call, and it's not from a friend I miss in the last 20 years and it's not a relative who knows I will want to repay a debt going back to my childhood and it's not a pal of a pal hoping I know where he can get a ticket because he has always wanted to go to the Oval Test/see an Ashes match/but never got round to it. Aren't England doing well, they say. I mean we think very little of them and rather pity you, Ted having to drag around the world watching them lose everywhere when you ought to be staying at home reporting the football or something nice and cosy. It doesn't have to be anything special and if you can't get a complimentary I'll understand although aren't they a bit of the expensive side. Still I guess you will be able to find something. Remember that night . . . and so it goes on from guys I meet once, ladies whose husband's cousin's wife I see at a party with years ago, guys from my days reporting the snooker and who forget all about me for 20 years. And just about every Tom, Dick and Harry whoever reads anything I write going back to my days as an apprentice earning seven shillings a day, living in lodgings and never, I promise, never asking anyone to get me a ticket for anything. "Tickets!" says one lady as soon as I am introduced a few years ago. Tickets are the bane of every sports writer's life. I once acquire two for a father and son when I work on the Daily Mirror and he threatens to report me to the editor because he thinks I get them on the black market. Am I happy when his trip to a Gillette Cup final gets ruined by a storm? Yes, I am. I get two for a copy typist who refuses to hand over the money because he "knows" I don't have to pay for tickets. And, finally, I get two for the lawyer on a Sunday paper at 24 hours' notice and stand outside Headingley for more than an hour in the rain waiting for him. He does not turn up to this day but he explains to my sports editor that in the end he does not fancy England's chances. So, in the extraordinary atmosphere created by the Ashes this summer I am always glad to hear from friends, from my son the golfer, my daughter the runner, or my cousin the Baptist minister, a regular visitor to Edgbaston and old enough to buy his own way past the turnstile. But tickets! The word must be inscribed on my heart.

August 31. Michael Vaughan's benefit match is different. First, instead of being at a village in the middle of nowhere, in front of 2,000 spectators, this one is at Headingley and 14,000 buy tickets. It is intended to bring in a lot of money — more than 100,000 pounds after the costs have been paid — but, uniquely, it is not all for Vaughan.

This nice guy is ready to donate a third to the hospital in Sheffield where his daughter Tallulah is born 15 months ago — remember him leaving the field during a Test to support his wife at the birth and signing autographs on the way to his car — and a third to the Yorkshire Academy for young cricketers. He copies the idea from Niall Quinn, a Republic of Ireland footballer, who plays for Sunderland and who gives away half the money from his testimonial match to charity. The best-laid plans are apt to go astray of course and a storm means there is no play and therefore no benefit cash because the spectators get all their money back. Nice idea, Michael, shame about the weather. Andrew Flintoff has a benefit next summer. It will be interesting to see if he follows Vaughan's lead.

September 1. As this long summer draws to an end — apart from the C&G final, the fifth Test and a three-day Twenty20 tournament in Leicester — there is still more news of the biggest show in town. Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen punch out so many runs this season that the company making the bats they use — called Woodworm — produce one in every ten of the bats on sale in Britain. Normally sales go down as the autumn approaches but this year "sales have gone mad" according to John Sillett, their managing director. It's a tiny firm, with only six employees and gets all its bats, clothing and equipment from India.

Watch out for two events: a new bat endorsed by Flintoff — the Wand — and an expansion plan following interest from those shadowy figures, the venture capitalists. Talking of Flintoff — and everyone from Melbourne to Manchester talks of little else these days — on the day Michael Owen moves from Real Madrid to Newcastle, Mrs. Rachael Flintoff says she's glad her husband is not a footballer — "because half the people in the country hate those footballers who play for other clubs. Cricket is just not like that." But listen, Rachael, think of the money your husband earns in a year — half a million pounds sterling including the quarter of a million from his deal with Woodworm — and the cash flowing into the capacious pocket of Owen about the same amount every month.

September 2. It's our annual bash, the Cricket Writers' Club dinner at a posh hotel in Park Lane where we laugh at Tony Greig's amusing speech, make Alistair Cook our young cricketer of the year and vote in David Shepherd as the man who has done most to promote the game. We all know what Shep — one of my favourites — has accomplished: umpired in the finest traditions, been firm and fair and never lost his dignity, contrived to be respected by every team in the world, and borne the teasing that inevitably came for a man who has a large circumference. Shep retires this summer already; but there is no need to mourn his departure; luckily there are plenty of young men to take his place. Cook suffers no reaction from his night out. He hits a double hundred off the Australians the next day which hints that in the not very far distant future he will play for England. How do you fancy this as a batting order: Trescothick, Cook (a right hander), Vaughan, Strauss, Bell or Pietersen, Flintoff, a wicket-keeper and four bowlers. Looks good to me.

September 3. It is not just the summer that is coming to an end. Richie Benaud makes it clear that he is not going to commentate in this country again and, a month before his 75th birthday, and when the Lord's scoreboard offers him a farewell the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy final crowd stand to congratulate him. There is talk of a huge contract with Sky but that he prefers to go quietly to retirement, to spend part of his time in his house in France, part of his year in Sydney and sometimes return to London where he and his wife Daphne still keep a home and have first call on a hotel room Mrs. Daphne Benaud is allowed to design. Tributes pour in for this great television commentator, the best cricket has ever known, but I suspect his style is better suited to my country than to some others. He believes in economy of words, that he does not want to speak "unless I add something to the picture." In a more vociferous age, among people who demand more excitement brevity may not be the soul of wit. But, for England over the last 35 years, the Benaud comments have been the gold standard, and he is the master of the box.

September 4. The phone rings in the Australian dressing room. "Mate," the team hears the 12th man say, "he just gone in to bat. You can hang on if you like."