Winging out of a mythical past

ENGLAND was certainly the most improved Test side of 2004. In April, England won its first Test series in the West Indies, since 1968, winning three out of the four Tests.

ENGLAND was certainly the most improved Test side of 2004. In April, England won its first Test series in the West Indies, since 1968, winning three out of the four Tests. In December, it was time to wipe out bitter memories of the 1995-96 and 1999-2000 tours to South Africa — the two previous instances that England had toured the country following its readmission to international cricket in 1991 — by winning the first Test in Port Elizabeth and then, in Durban, coming up with the best Test comeback this side of Kolkata 2001. Unfortunately, bad light in Durban put paid to England's hopes of completing a memorable win when it was left with the simple task of dismissing Makhaya Ntini and young Dale Steyn, playing only his second Test. Sandwiched between the exploits away from home was the glorious summer in which Michael Vaughan's men whitewashed New Zealand 3-0 and the West Indies 4-0 and followed it up by beating Australia in the semifinal of the ICC Champions Trophy.

When Nasser Hussain's men were about to take on the Australians at home in the summer of 2001 following series victories in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, a leading broadsheet brought out an Ashes supplement. Captain Nasser Hussain, when asked whether the exploits of Ian Botham and Bob Willis in Headingley twenty summers ago would inspire the home team, had this to say: "Of course, Headingley will always be an inspiration for us. But, it is also time to move forward. We cannot have an incident that happened 20 years ago to inspire us all the while. We have had very little success after people like Willis, Botham and Gower retired. It is only recently that we have started winning. It is important for us to give the younger generation another reference point closer to their times." An anonymous cricket lover echoed his national captain in a BBC programme broadcast on the eve of the Headingley Test of 2001 (England had already lost the Ashes by then). "Headingley 1981 has become another Wembley 1966," he said. "A mythical event to remind us of a distant past when other nations have moved ahead of us."

The run of victories in 2004 by Michael Vaughan's brilliant side, especially the amazing comeback of the team in Durban after trailing the home team by almost 200 runs in the first innings, might well be the beginning of sporting England driven by contemporary reference points, which, in turn, will fire the popular imagination of a young, multicultural nation much more than a mythical past. And, if the balance of power in Test cricket shifts from Australia to England in the summer of 2005, it will help cricket to surge ahead of rugby as the second most popular sport in the country. The victory of Clive Woodward's brilliant team in the Rugby World Cup final in Melbourne against Australia in 2003 had put rugby and Jonny Wilkinson above cricket and Andrew Flintoff in the national consciousness.

If Vaughan and his men continue the winning habit over the next few years, cricket in England will only benefit even if live action from the home summer is not going to be on terrestrial TV from 2006. Unlike in the Subcontinent, where national TV has spawned a mass culture of consuming cricket, in England ordinary people relate to cricket and the nation more through their own local environments — playing the game, spectatorship, local media and radio.

The challenge before cricket administrators in England is to get the white working class, lost to football and now rugby, to play the game. The projection of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison in the broadsheets and tabloids as England's successful northern working class heroes will help in achieving this objective as much as the Twenty20 competition, which has redefined cricket's relationship with leisure and physical activity. Similarly, all mention of the Cornish working class background of Marcus Trescothick, the Welsh working class background of Simon Jones's father Jeff Jones, who represented England in the West Indies in 1968, and the origins of Harmison in Northumberland near the Scotland border will further extend the cultural frontiers of cricket in Britain. So will the continuation of the Racial Equality Policy of the ECB at the grassroot level to open up windows of opportunities to young British Asians and Blacks in the first-class structure. The paradigm of racial inclusion opened up by Nasser Hussain's stint as captain and Mark Butcher's role as a key player will be taken a step forward by the new generation.

Thirty years from now, chances are that cricket will be a popular sport in the country of its birth, rather than an esoteric white middle class sport, and the achievements of the team of 2004 would have played a major role in effecting the paradigm change.