The tout stood in Cathedral Road, a small middle-aged man in a rumpled suit. He was waving a wad of paper and pleading with the passing crowd: "Tickets for the cricket! 'Oo wants tickets for the cricket?" One or two nodded politely, but walked on. It was 10.30, half an hour before the start of play, and the tout was becoming anxious. "Come on!" he yelled. "Tickets for the cricket!" Then it started to drizzle, and he shuffled off to shelter beneath a tree. He seemed resentful. Here we were, on the first morning of an Ashes series, and he couldn't find a customer. If this were rugby, they'd be biting his hands off.
But, when it came to cricket, the Welsh didn't seem bothered. It was going to be a difficult summer. Drizzle turned to downpour and, inside Sophia Gardens, wretched groups huddled under umbrellas. Several wore sun hats, in perverse disregard of the conditions. Stoically they sat and stared at three platoons of soldiers performing pointlessly intricate manoeuvres across the soggy outfield.
The morning headlines had spoken boldly of "England's New Era", and the early-summer matches with New Zealand had carried hints of promise. But the Ashes demanded something more. An elderly philosopher at the Taff End described it as "hoping for the best, but fearing the worst - rather like going to the dentist". Yet he was smiling as he spoke. And, as you looked around, you became aware that most people seemed to be smiling. For suddenly the sun was shining, the crowd was swelling, and Alastair Cook was winning the toss. "First blood to us," remarked the Taff End sage, chuckling at his own frivolity. At lunch, England were three down, and normal service was being resumed, yet the public mood remained buoyant, their pleasure almost tangible.
On the first day of each Ashes Test, every venue assumed a character of its own. Lord's was self-assured, Edgbaston rowdy, Trent Bridge intelligently absorbed, The Oval relaxed. But Cardiff was characterised by its sheer niceness, with the hosts going out of their way to welcome their visitors. Surprisingly, the drinking was a shade less obvious than at other grounds. Pleasingly, most seemed to have come for the cricket. Despite England's travails, the morning passed in tranquil fashion. This was partly due to the merciful absence of most of the Barmy Army. Once or twice, the trumpeter piped up, adding "Bread of Heaven" to his limited repertoire.
But few joined in, most preferring to watch the Test match. "Can't get them to sing," complained a Barmy camp follower, which is not a remark one often hears in Wales. In the grandstand, Andrew Strauss was obliging with a series of selfies. "Who's that, dad?" asked a small boy. "Kevin Pietersen," replied his father. Then, coyly: "Only joking!" By now, the sun was beaming. High in the stand, a straw-hatted young man turned to his stunning companion. "Who's batting?" he asked. The lady stared, quizzically. "England," she said. "Just testing, darling," he replied. "Well done." She looked as if she might kill him.
But, overall, the mood was benign, as Joe Root dug England out of their turbulent first hour. Drink was widely taken at lunchtime and, by midafternoon, the songs were louder, the abuse more forthright. Mitchell Johnson was on the receiving end, but he was not obviously bothered. "You're a shit bowler and a shit fielder, Johnson," bellowed one brave soul. "And you can't catch!" Johnson picked up a plastic bottle on the boundary edge. "There you go, mate," he called. "Catch that!" And he lobbed the bottle with an evil grin.
The drunk fumbled, and the crowd cheered. Johnson had actually noticed them. He was their hero for the day. By tea, a good many watchers seemed befuddled. The stadium bars featured groups of middle-aged men shouting at each other: one bunch telling jokes, another repeating them. At times, it grew surreal. A troop of porky gentlemen in lederhosen and feathered trilbies were discovered lurking behind the grandstand - an oompah band, no less, awaiting the call to the pitch. "Right, lads!" barked the leader. "Let's give it some welly!" And on they marched, feet stomping, horns blaring, to mighty applause.
By close of play, England had scored 343 for seven, with Root contributing 134. The series had taken encouraging shape, and a tout in a rumpled suit was reassessing business opportunities for the summer.
* * *
Before the week was through, England had taken the First Test, the circus had moved 150 miles east to Lord's, and the nation at large was hugely enthused. The usually slumbrous Long Room raised its voice as England took the field that Thursday morning. A few even cheered, which some thought rather poor form, until it was pointed out that the opposition were Australia, and the usual conventions did not apply.
As the ground filled, the Test Match Special team attempted to define the Lord's noise. "Is it a buzz or a hum?" asked Phil Tufnell. "It's a hum," decided Jonathan Agnew. "A contented hum, I'd say." One of the delights of attending a Test in England is to watch the cricket unfold to the comforting hum, or buzz, of TMS. This being Lord's, of course, a good many patrons had precious little intention of actually watching cricket.
Lord's has long since joined Royal Ascot and Henley as part of the English summer pageant - a place less concerned with seeing than being seen. For a sizeable slice of the crowd, it is an extension of school sports day, at which old friends are encountered and elderly anecdotes exhumed. The drinking started early in the Harris Garden behind the Pavilion. Darren Lehmann, the Australian coach, came hurrying past the fringe of the crowd, returning from last-minute nets at the Nursery End. "Fancy a drink, Boof?" drawled an impertinent young chancer. Lehmann strode on without a glance.
An hour after the start, the crowd in the Harris Garden numbered around 300. A large screen had been set up on the edge of the lawn, but only three people were watching. The rest were gossiping, posing, supping; tall young men, for the most part, fresh from broking house or merchant bank, in beautifully cut, dark blue, lightweight suits, their hair impeccably groomed, likewise their accents. The uniform of a caste. Few women were present, even fewer than at Cardiff, and those who came along conformed, by and large, to the prevailing stereotype.
Down at the Nursery End, the clientele was far earthier. There were beer and burritos, and stalls called Chicken Hut and Fish 'n' Chips. There was an even larger screen available, and many more eyes were following the cricket. One man, stout and pallid, wore khaki shorts and a grubby white T-shirt bearing the slogan "England's Barmy Army… Down Under 2010/11… You All Live In A Convict Colony". For almost five years he had carried on his chest the same dire joke. You imagined him chortling as he pulled it over his head that morning.
At lunch, the crowds choked the bars at both ends of the ground, and there, for the most part, they stayed. When play resumed, Lord's was ringed with swathes of empty white seats, save for the cluster of yellow-capped Aussies in the Edrich Stand. The Australian batsmen were piling up the runs, and their followers were resolved not to miss a ball of the revival. Come tea, there were one or two casualties in the Harris Garden as the Chardonnay took its toll. At the Nursery End, the carousers grew louder, with small groups of men shouting jokes at each other and repeating the punchlines. Lord's is unique in lots of ways, but its drinkers have much in common with every other Test ground in the land.
* * *
As Test followed Test, the drinking gathered pace. A significant section of fans saw the Ashes as an extended pub crawl, with a little cricket between pints. And yet, with Australia having levelled the series, public interest had intensified. Thus, on a gloomy Wednesday morning, the touts were out in force on Edgbaston's Pershore Road, diligently exploiting the renewed public appetite for "tickets for the cricket".
The Australians had been told to expect an aggressive crowd, yet the reality was surely beyond their expectations. If Lord's had been Royal Ascot, then Edgbaston was Aintree. The noise was dramatic, a sustained assault on the senses. The singing was stolen straight from the football terraces, so that Anderson, J. M. (Lancashire and England) instantly became: "Oh, Jimmy Jimmy! Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy An-der-son!" And the old chap seemed to revel in the adulation as he squeezed every last crumb of assistance from a helpful pitch.
Wickets fell at a comforting rate, each greeted with thunderous acclaim. The fact that rain imposed three interruptions on Australia's brief first innings merely offered opportunities for refuelling, and the chances were gladly taken. The Hollies Stand accommodates 6,000. During the rainbreaks, only a handful remained: the rest were clustered beneath the stand, queuing for the gents or buying cold lager at £4.20 a pint from young men bearing large containers on their backs. Many wore fancy dress: suits of armour, cowboy outfits, Spiderman costumes. And there was something else which revived the Aintree comparison. At every Grand National meeting, newspapers publish wickedly mocking pictures of plump, painted ladies in micro-skirts, towering stilettos and plunging necklines. And here they were, transported en masse to Edgbaston: same drinks, same make-up, same dress sense. Only their gender had changed.
Attempting to understand this communal appetite for cross-dressing, I approached one vision in purple beneath the Wyatt Stand. He was wearing a lustrous black wig, a cocktail dress in purple chiffon, and a preposterously inflated bosom. He said his name was Derek, from Moseley: "But today I'm Kim Kardashian." Asked why he had dressed in this way, he seemed puzzled.
"It's a Test match, innit?" Kim/Derek was puffing a cigarette, and he was not alone. Unlike the other Test grounds, it seemed that most at Edgbaston were smoking, dragging desperately at the declining stub when the announcer informed them that the umpires were out and play would resume. They hurried back to their seats to watch England send the Aussies packing for 136, with Oh Jimmy Jimmy taking six for 47. How they cheered! How they cackled!
And how they then scampered, fast as their heels would carry them, back to the bars and tents for yet more drink. The consumption was staggering, and so, come teatime, were many of the spectators. As at Aintree, there were a good many fallers, yet the lager kept coming. "I won't have another drink," said one brave young man. "I fancy a coffee." "Poof!" bawled his companions. Moeen Ali strode past, padded up, on his way to the indoor nets. He seemed bemused by the chaos.
Yet, for all the boozing, the crowd had become an authentic factor in the match. England were lifted by the ceaseless din, while the Australians were clearly affected - none more than the chief target, Johnson. In the field he was relentlessly barracked, so much so that his throwing became frenzied and wayward. More importantly, he began to lose control of his bowling action. Towards the end of the game, he ran through the crease without releasing the ball, then delivered one from 24 yards. The England fans hugged themselves.
Time and again, they screamed their daft ditty: "He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right…" Shortly after, Johnson was rested, to save him from further punishment, and the roars rolled around the ground. Back to day one and, while the home side were ahead, there was much work to be done. But a curious coalition of cowboys, cross-dressers and bawling Brummies had helped England secure a significant advantage. That evening, in his suburban lounge in Moseley, Derek would tug off his wig, slip out of his heels and toast a triumphant day.
* * *
"If you're just switching on in Australia, turn the radio off and go out and do some gardening." Jim Maxwell's memorable advice to his countrymen was delivered with the Fourth Test only 12.4 overs old. Stuart Broad was dancing a demented jig, Mitchell Starc was slouching back to the dressing-room, and the scoreboard was telling the world that Australia were 46 for eight.
The Nottingham crowd were almost subdued. Naturally, they had celebrated the fall of each wicket, but the atmosphere was a world away from the perpetual cacophony of Edgbaston. Instead, there was an air of disbelief, as if reality had been suspended, and replaced by some farcical fantasy. It had been this way since the opening over, when Broad took his first two wickets. Many spectators reached for their plastic earpieces, the ones which receive TMS, as if they needed an independent witness to confirm what they were watching. At 19 for four, they heard Phil Tufnell chuckle "'Appy days!" so they knew it must be true.
A glance around the ground suggested that all 15,000 spectators had stayed in their seats, as if afraid to break the spell. A swift check outside confirmed the impression. The bars and stands, where long queues usually form, seemed lonely. "What are they all watching in there?" asked the girl on the Gluten- Free Curry stall. "We were told we'd be really busy." I apologised for taking her time. "Nice to find someone to talk to," she replied. When the Australians reached 50, nine wickets down, their followers gave them a standing ovation. They were cheered in turn by the England fans, who by now were in magnanimous mood. And any lingering disbelief was replaced by rapturous delight when Broad dismissed Nathan Lyon, and Australia were done and dusted for 60. In 18.3 overs and 94 minutes, England had effectively ensured the return of the urn. The entire ground paused for a few moments to hear the stadium announcer drool out the details of this gloriously improbable morning, then cast off their restraint and made for the bars. Which was where I met Gareth.
Now Trent Bridge does not actively encourage exhibitionists and, on this first morning, they were relatively few in number. But Gareth stood out, since he was dressed as a banana. A Londoner, he had come to the cricket with three Australian friends, all dressed as bananas. "We're a bunch. Geddit?" When did they decide to dress up? "A few weeks back," he said. "It just came to us.
Inspiration, I suppose. No, I don't feel a bit silly. Why did I do it? I wanted to be on telly, simple as that. I wonder why I've never done it before. This is what cricket is all about." Gareth, a "theatrical producer", then prepared himself for an afternoon of waving and gurning in the hope of being caught by the kindly eye of a Sky cameraman. Those who chose to watch the cricket saw England's batsmen start to compose the kind of innings which would remove all doubts about the outcome of the match and the series. Strong drink worked its wonders late on, as a brilliant young Yorkshire batsman reached his hundred and was greeted - to the tune of "Hey Jude" - by choruses of: "La, la, la, la-la-la-laaah… Joe Rooooot!" At the close, England led by 214. 'Appy days indeed.
* * *
With the Ashes secure, The Oval offered England's players and fans a relaxing experience. But, if the match was free from stress, the cost to the watchers was as steep as ever. The most expensive tickets were priced at £110 on days one to four, while the lowest came in at £25. Yet demand remained high, hence the presence of those ubiquitous touts, snuffling around Oval Tube station.
The match itself contained little of the eccentric flamboyance we had come to expect from the series. Instead, the opening day offered old-fashioned Test cricket, with Australian batsmen batting soberly, patiently. The crowd, or most of them, seemed to relish it, since this was the game they recognised, the game they remembered before the onset of this manic summer.
Once again, a minority seized the chance to attack the booze. The noise from the hospitality boxes grew louder with the day, while by mid-morning there was a queue of 23 at the Gin and Tonic Bar, which boasted three kinds of gin and, intriguingly, five kinds of tonic, including elderflower. One optimistic soul edged through the crowds with a tray of green paper cups. He was offering samples of Yorkshire Tea, a series sponsor. His wares were not widely taken up.
At lunch, the Oval alleyways were thronged with enormous crowds, jovial and pleased to be at a Test match. It is a ground devoid of pretension, a place where the game is appreciated more than the trappings which surround it. On the first day, there was little or no fancy dress, since The Oval caters for grownups. Whereas Lord's has its champagne garden, The Oval has a small champagne stall, and trade was not flourishing. When the players came out after lunch, the alleyways swiftly emptied. As at Cardiff and Trent Bridge, you felt they had come to watch the cricket.
Australia batted on, methodically compiling a total which would win them the game. Nobody seemed to mind. For England, this had been less a Test match, more a protracted lap of honour, and the fans appeared to understand. In the long queue for the Tube, two elderly Surrey members attempted to apply a historical perspective. "Not a vintage series," said one. "Not like '05 or '53.
Two pretty ordinary teams, I'd say." His friend agreed: it had been less than vintage, certainly. And yet, he added: "Everyone seemed to enjoy it, didn't they." Indeed they did. They always do. The game may face all manner of challenges and problems, but any time the Aussies arrive in England, with reputations to make and the Ashes at stake, we shall always want our tickets for the cricket.