Cricket, celebrity and charred egos
I currently feel like a kid at Christmas time. A kid on Boxing Day, to be precise. Everything I have ever wanted, and more, has suddenly been delivered in one big jingle-belled parcel, and frankly it's all a little overwhelming. An Ashes victory, and the greatest Test series of all time, all in the same wrapping-paper? What more can there possibly be to look forward to?
I'm not alone in feeling slightly wistful either. At Lord's on Tuesday, as scores of cricket-crazed camera crews scrambled for whatever pound of flesh they could get their hands on, both Matthew Hoggard and Ashley Giles were facing up to the first days of the rest of their lives. "Apparently I'm not in control of my time anymore," muttered Hoggard, as he was buffeted from one interview to the next. "It'll be good to get back to normality," echoed Giles. "If there is a normality, that is ."
Welcome to the graceless world of celebrity stardom. As the cricket season winds down and autumn takes hold, England's heroes - for that is what they are, nothing less - can expect a wearying round-robin of guest appearances and supermarket openings, so much so that the prospect of reconvening as a team in November and fleeing en masse for Pakistan will never have seemed more appealing.
Some - well, okay, one, ie Kevin Pietersen - will lap up every drop of the attention that comes his way. Others, such as Hoggard and Giles, Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff, will probably feel rather less at ease in the spotlight. As Flintoff slurred to the nation, during an heroic post-Ashes bender that demonstrated everything that is good and noble about the ancient art of binge-drinking: "I'd make a rubbish celebrity."
Amen to that, because Flintoff and his team-mates have achieved something this summer that transcends mere talkshows. In the final year before cricket disappears from British terrestrial TV - and by implication, from British mainstream consciousness - they have delivered the biggest performance of their lives, at precisely the moment the game most needed their talents to be showcased. In a society that is currently obsessed with the preening, self-serving worlds of football and reality TV, England's cricketers have captivated the nation with a bit of old-school heroism.
Suffice to say, the bean-counters at the England & Wales Cricket Board who struck the deal with Sky have been incredibly jammy. Cricket may never again touch the heights that it has done this summer, but it has done enough, through the skill and tenacity of two incredibly charismatic teams, to maintain a sound footing for the next four years at least. The spontaneity of the team's celebrations merely added to the charm of the occasion. Twelve ordinary mates enjoying the days of their lives with 100,000 wellwishers helping to kickstart the party. As reality TV goes, the events of the past 72 hours beat seven bells out of Big Brother, and the contrived euphoria of one of their so-called eviction nights.
Big Brother has always been a particular bug-bear of mine. To put it mildly, I detest it and everything it stands for. The only reason I haven't firebombed the offices of Endemol, the evil corporation that came up with the shameless concept, is that they are situated three floors up from my desk at Wisden Towers, and I don't much fancy getting showered with charred egos.
And yet, cricket and reality TV have more in common than I'd care to admit, which is probably what fuels my resentment. The bottom line is that both can be incredibly demanding of one's time, particularly in the summer months when, in all honesty, you'd often be better served leaving the house and enjoying the weather while it lasts.
This summer, however, the cricket has been an event in which the entire nation has shared. Thrilling, compelling, and lasting for months, the fanatics have not allowed themselves to blink, but the fringe fans have been able to dip in and out - in the papers, on the internet at work, in the pub and back at home - without losing sight of the narrative. Test cricket used to be in danger of extinction because nobody had the time to get to grips with it, but this summer it has been all the rage precisely because it appeals to the casual participant.
In many ways this shouldn't come as a surprise. Character development, regular evictions and sporadic excitement were the staple diet of any cricket fan foolish enough to tune in during the 1990s. Never mind pressing the red button or texting EVICT to the England dressing-room; all you needed to do was get up from your seat to make a cup of tea, and you could guarantee that Mike Atherton would fall next ball.
But what has come as a surprise, even to those who are devoted to the game, has been the sustained nature of this summer's drama. The final day of the Old Trafford Test was witnessed by 8.4 million viewers, not to mention the thousands of ticketless fans who had to be turned away at the gates. For all the belief that football is a Leviathan by contrast, Chelsea's Champions' League fixture on Tuesday attracted a TV audience of half the size, and a gate of 65% capacity. It's all about the action, regardless of the game.
And yet, for all the Ashes excitement, cricket will never begin to rival football's prestige and popularity, which is why the humility and good humour of England's cricketers has touched such a chord with the country. One only need glance at the sodden one-day debacle between Hampshire Hawks and Glamorgan Dragons that took place in Cardiff on the day after the Oval Test, to realise a fundamental truth about the game. There is a whole load of humdrum in the life of a professional cricketer, which makes their days in the limelight all the more enjoyable. Flintoff and friends will shrink from the front pages soon enough, but the entire country should be grateful for the legacy they've left behind.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo