The battle is hotting up

Whether the Aussies are the best team in the world or not, the on-going Ashes series is an absorbing and enjoyable contest.


AUGUST 8. From this moment this diary will be full of references to the Ashes and I make no apology for that. It is the most absorbing contest and after the second match of the series there is no indication of the series result. The scenes at the end of the Test are as enjoyable as the cricket: Andrew Flintoff leaving the mob huddle by his own players to commiserate with Brett Lee who top scores as he tries to win the match for Australia; Geraint Jones making sure the Australians in the crowd who give him such a hard time, know who takes the winning catch; Michael Kasprowicz who clearly thinks his gloved nudge down the legside is about to win the game, who finds he is given out when a TV replay umpire will see that his hand is off the handle of the bat, and says: "I will replay that ball for the rest of my life." Glenn McGrath still walking round the hotel, now without his crutches except for long trips, Ricky Ponting wandering around the breakfast room, still wearing a baseball cap that is too big for him, and the team bus driver saying: "The Aussies, still the best side in the world." I wonder, especially when we hear Brett Lee is in hospital after a scratch on his knee swells. Perhaps it is the best place for him to rest.

August 9. Never mind the battle for the Ashes. What about the television ratings. Sensible people acknowledge that Channel 4 cricket, produced by Sunset and Vine, an independent production company, put together fine commentaries but for some reason not understood by the reasonable the England and Wales Cricket Board gave the contract for 2006-09 to Sky TV. I have friends in both camps but I believe Channel 4 to be better in every way. Sky have the smaller audiences — at the moment although their subscription base is on course for eight million receivers at the end of this year — and the number of viewers who watch their cricket is said to be very small. But they had the bigger money and so, rather than dividing the cricket between the satellite station Sky and Channel 4, which is free-to-air, ECB have seen it fit to go with Sky. The point is driven home when Channel 4 announce they have 15 per cent of the national audience for the last two hours of Saturday from Edgbaston and 45 per cent on the critical Sunday morning. "I bet Sky will never get an audience of that size," says my disgruntled mole in the Channel 4 office. My own money is on a switch back to a terrestrial channel — either BBC or Channel 4 — when the next contract is thrashed out in 2009. By that time, of course, cricket may be big news in this country if England continue to climb.

August 10. It's not just the men who compete for the Ashes; in this politically-correct world the women get their chance too, even if the lady scorer in the Press Box begins all her announcements with the word "Gentlemen!" ignoring the presence of several women journalists. Just as much drama in the women's game too so that only a few hours before the first Ashes Test at Hove, Holly Colvin, more than a month short of her 16th birthday, gets a call-up. Not a big journey because she lives in Brighton, the twin town with Hove and plays for Sussex when they win the 2005 women's county championship. She is the youngest player to represent England — in either a man's or a woman's side — and gets her chance when it is clear there will be turn in the pitch. The result is a draw but young Holly takes three wickets and grows up very quickly.

August 11. Once you are a member of the Australian party, you get all the support, all the privileges. So when their bus driver Geoff Goodwin mentions that he is chairman of Altrincham FC, a local football team near Manchester who are playing against Bangor in a friendly all the squad leap out of their comfortable hotel and nip off to give him and his players a cheer, just as they did when Australia's favourite tennis star Lleyton Hewitt plays at Wimbledon. There are handshakes all round at the end because Geoff's heroes win 5-0. Geoff, a genial chap, has a treasure in his garage. It is the coach that takes Aston Villa to the FA Cup final in 1960 and tonight he uses it to convey the Aussies right into his own ground at Altrincham. "Lovely lads," he says. "Still the best in the world." Round the back of the pavilion Mike Gatting takes on a machine which can replicate the "ball of the century" with which Shane Warne bowls him at Old Trafford in 1993. Gatt is now 46 but he clearly improves. This time he bats two balls before he edges a catch to second slip.

August 12. Derek Randall is an Ashes hero 25 years ago and to be perfectly frank about it is a little eccentric; but you may think he ought to settle down by the age of 54. Recently he sets off from his home near Nottingham and drives 200 miles to Goring-by-the-Sea in Sussex to play in a charity game. He cannot find the ground so he rings the organiser and discovers that he ought to be at Goring in Oxfordshire. Randall turns the car round and goes 78 miles to the right venue, smashes 46 runs and gives the spectators a laugh when he blames his satellite navigation device for the error. Then he drives 100 miles back home without missing a turning. He's travelled nearly 400 miles instead of less than 200. If I know Randall that will not disturb his night's sleep on little bit.

August 13. Jack Russell, artistic wicket-keeper turned full-time artist, is at Old Trafford to paint the local scene but may end up with his head in his hands as his prot�g� Geraint Jones ditches a couple of important chances of Shane Warne. The case against Jones grows stronger by the day. He plays in 18 Tests and takes 53 catches but he also spills ten catches and misses three stumpings. On top of that he allows 189 byes — oh dear! I can't find Russell to ask what he thinks but I know he is mortified at the end of the West Indies tour a few years ago when he misses three chances — all difficult — in five Tests. Jones is a manufactured wicket-keeper and with the help of Russell he turns into a good one. But his lack of natural ability means that he feels under pressure all the time and as a result he tenses at the very time he ought to be relaxed; that is when he catches the ball. There is also concern about the way Chris Read loses his place to Jones. Coach Duncan Fletcher and Michael Vaughan, the captain, decide that Read does not score enough runs and leave him out of the final Test without informing the rest of the selectors. Rod Marsh, former Australian wicket-keeper and a man who may know what he is talking about, describes Read in glowing terms and objects to the way he loses his place. He later quits as a selector and head of the England Academy and goes home. Those decisions may come about because of the England selections but all the signs are that however many errors Read makes he will stay. Fletcher does not seem to care that he has an inadequate wicket-keeper. "If you pick a batsman to keep wicket, what do you expect?" he asks. Mistakes, and what Steve Waugh will call the dropping of the Ashes, that is what you expect.

August 14. In Heathrow airport there's a strike among the catering staff, who get sympathy from other unions, which causes a shut down in the place and hordes of travellers stranded. The figures vary from 20,000 to 200,000 but who is counting? Among them a tall figure wearing a large moustache hoping to return to Perth after an exhausting trip to England to perform various duties around the Ashes series, combined with side journeys to see old friends in the country where he is still a hero even if he does create terror whenever he bowls. As you may imagine, the delay does nothing to upset Dennis Lillee and his wife Helen, who go to join another friend for a couple of days and watch the rain and the strife among their team before heading back Down Under.