English Paper Round August 16, 2005

Cricket is the new football

Ricky Ponting - praised by the papers © Getty Images

After yet another thrilling Ashes contest, cricket continued to keep football off the back pages and command space on the front as England's newspapers revelled in the first close Ashes series for 16 years - and reflected a nation's new-found interest in the game.

The Times summed up the sudden attractiveness of cricket in its editorial: "Interest in the game, which for much of the past decade has been as unfashionable as John Major, is starting to eclipse even that of football." The Sun's Steven Howard added: "Even people who thought they didn't like cricket are suddenly talking about googlies, sliders and reverse swing."

Even the Financial Times splashed the match all over its front page - pictures and all - plus a headline "Test proves a big draw, as Ashes catches fire". The Mirror summed up England's frustrations at not taking that last extra wicket. "Fred Up!", ran one headline, "Rick as a parrot" another: this headline was also favoured by The Sun, who devoted five sports pages to the final day at Old Trafford.

All talked about Ricky Ponting, with The Sun acclaiming "the greatest innings of Ponting's career". Mike Selvey wrote in The Guardian that "this was indeed a true captain's innings, but with added piquancy, a leader batting not just for the esteem of his side, reduced at times during this Test to a shadow of the great team they once were, but for his own. For four days he had watched things fragment around him, unable to offer inspiration, a man apart it seemed, losing touch with his charges. So he did what great competitors do and led the way out of the wilderness."

Steven Howard added that it was fitting that Brett Lee should help to save Australia, after taking them so close at Edgbaston. "How appropriate that Lee should be there at the end ... Just eight days earlier he had been left undefeated on 43 as England scraped victory by two runs. If the big guy's heart was ever to be broken, it was then. Yesterday, though, he got his reward."

Simon Barnes, in The Times lamented the part the Mancunian weather played in the match. "The only thing that went wrong for England was Saturday, and most of what went on that day was rain. Without that they would certainly have won." But he also conceded the rain wasn't everything. "Without Shane Warne's resistance and a couple of missed chances that day, they would have won that day as well. Great matches, great series are decided by the tiniest of things."

Many papers highlighted how relentlessly gripping this series has been, by using the line that this was the most thrilling Test since ... Edgbaston. All reported the Wimbledon-style queues outside Old Trafford, which had started the night before, with estimates of up to 20,000 sent away. They talked to those who had been left disappointed: a trip back to Huddersfield beckoned for some, an early train from London proved pointless. Ticketless fans peering gloomily through the gates were depicted in The Sun. Their correspondent John Etheridge added: "If you saw two Supermen, three nuns and a Fred Flintstone in Manchester yesterday you knew they were among the unlucky ones."

Other papers commented on record viewing figures for Channel 4 - 7.7 million - and The Times's TV critic, Giles Smith, reported it had been a testing Monday for the television viewer, who would have endured "a long, hard, stress-inducing day in the armchair" rather than the relaxation of watching Home and Away on Channel 5. Smith praised Richie Benaud's composure: "He only seems to grow more dry and more poised as events destabilise around him and spin off towards hysteria."

As each team seeks to obtain an advantage by any means possible in this evenly poised series, the paper wondered if England's special clothing could give them an edge. They reviewed Armourfit, the tight white undershirt favoured by Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen, and explained it is "a state-of-the-art garment designed to regulate body temperature and reduce the build-up of lactic acid." Ooh-er.

More prosaically, The Times reported that England cricket shirts are outselling football strips across the country, and even reported on a 20% upsurge in sales of cucumber, scones and tea: "all staple ingredients for a good afternoon tea at the cricket, suggesting newcomers to the sport enjoy all aspects associated with watching it".

The Australian papers were full of the cricket, too, unsurprisingly. Peter Roebuck noted in the Sydney Morning Herald that "after 16 years without the Ashes, England was ready for a celebration. Underneath its sophisticated exterior, this is a proud and sports-mad country." And he conceded "England have [not] actually won the Ashes, but the tide of affairs is with them."

The Melbourne Age revelled in the thrillingness of a draw. "Not often does a draw please both sides, but then this was no ordinary draw." "It is still 1-1" breathed the headline.

Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo