<
>

What the Ashes opening ceremony taught us

There was plenty of pomp and ceremony before the Ashes series began Getty Images

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em. On most counts, Ashes Tests and Wimbledon finals are born as great sporting events, regardless of the quality of the play. Once in a while, they also achieve greatness through quality: Goran Ivanisevic's five-set wildcard win in 2001 and the drawn Old Trafford Test of 2005 fall into this category. And even more rarely, the third element clicks in: a home winner, as at Edgbaston '05 and Wimbledon '13.

I'd only witnessed Ashes cricket live once previously, at Lord's in 2009, and I'd never been to the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships, although I was privileged to see Serena Williams play Olympic tennis at Wimbledon in 2012. Recently, that changed: much to my own surprise, not only did all my applications for Ashes tickets succeed, but also my LTA ballot entry. At £1.10 per minute, the Gentlemen's Singles Final (no disrespect meant to the following mixed doubles final, but the former is clearly the main attraction) proves the most expensive sporting event I've attended; by contrast, the first Test clocks in at £0.16 per minute.

The Ashes is already good value, then, and certainly doesn't need to attempt to boost it with an opening ceremony. The Olympics, as a slightly eccentric hodgepodge of sports from all over the world, can get away with a bonkers opening night, which serves to heighten rather than lessen anticipation. Something similar applies to the 32-team FIFA World Cup: less diverse, but excusable, owing to the global scale of the event. As an aside, though, it will be the height of hypocrisy if the ten-team 2019 cricket World Cup tries to use an opening ceremony to paint itself as an inclusive celebratory competition.

The only way the Ashes opening ceremony heightened anticipation was through the delay it caused to the start of play. I can't imagine that as many as even one in ten members of the crowd would have opted for 15 minutes of flag-waving rather than getting on with the game. Add to that the fact that not one, not two, but three national anthems had to be sung, and you end up with a force-fed dose of patriotism and partisanship.

"You cannot simply thrust greatness on an event, even one as venerable as an Ashes Test. And as enjoyable as that first day was, it will not go down as one of the great Tests"

Macbeth's words spring to mind: the ceremony "struts and frets [its] hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" - or at least nothing we didn't already know. Flags! Fireworks! Only Men Aloud! Men At Work!

You cannot simply thrust greatness on an event, even one as venerable as an Ashes Test. And as enjoyable as that first day was, despite leading to a home win it will not go down as one of the great Tests. Neither will Sophia Gardens become one of the great venues. Not that it's poor: from the spectator perspective it puts many larger grounds to shame, perhaps because of its lesser size.

Stewards actually live up to their official description, proving themselves probably the friendliest on the cricket circuit (G4S staff at Headingley and Old Trafford, take note). The buildings are not distinctive, but are at that period of their life while they still look clean and smart. The walk to the ground rivals the one in Adelaide as one of the most attractive approaches to a Test venue.

Nonetheless, the stroll down the hill from Wimbledon Village is almost as pleasant, and centre court has a much more obvious claim to greatness. Inside, however, up in the gods, the experience isn't as stunning as you might expect. Exposed wires run along the ceiling to fluorescent lights; not dingy, but not particularly special. I had forgotten how cramped and claustrophobic the space is, with the downward-sloping roof letterboxing the display. Photographers are queued up in such proximity that one fears a slight nudge will domino the lot.

For all that, the venue's status as a great is assured, as is that of the man who walks out onto the sunlit grass at approximately 2pm: the greatest sportsman of my generation, with a level of achievement arguably similar to Bradman's. Some would even place him above Jack Shantry. If he needed any further claim on the British crowd's support, Roger Federer is both the underdog and the consummate gentleman. Surely enough, within seconds of their joint appearance, the warm applause for the pair subsides and is quickly supplanted by the Federer-specific exhortations.

The crowd, certainly, is a different beast. "Allez Roger" or "Come on Novak" seem to be as varied as the exclamations get: far cries from the "He bowls to the left/right" and "We hate you, Watson" by, respectively, the English and Australian portions of the Cardiff crowd. It probably helps that Djokovic's on-field and off-field behaviour is so hard to fault; as much as I'd like to dislike the challenger to Federer's crown, I find it difficult to do so. I can't imagine Djokovic ever opening a press conference by discussing the "scared eyes" of his upcoming opponent.

Sadly, despite the second set tiebreak threatening to elevate the game to greatness, Djokovic's ruthless fightback snuffs out hopes of a five-set classic. Nevertheless, individual passages of play touch greatness: aces that sear the centre line, very roughly analogous to glorious straight drives, and that breathtaking moment mid-rally when Federer suddenly unleashes his singing forehand.

Comparisons in cricket break down here. The closest I can get is a ball rearing off a length at the batsman's throat: just as unexpected, but with the surprise down to the surface rather than skill.

It's back to tradition with the presentation ceremony. A member of the royal family is on hand, as ever. There are no anthems, no particular appeals to patriotism: it's both highly regimented and understated.

Lewis Hamilton and Nick Kyrgios might disagree, but I can't help feeling that, all in all, Wimbledon gets the oft-mocked traditions about right. Of course, traditions ought to be questioned, and negative ones retired; yet the many that do not fall into that category contribute to an intricate structure of historical grandeur, providing a sense of occasion fully appropriate for premier sporting events.

If the Ashes opening ceremony teaches us anything, it's that this sense of occasion cannot be forcibly injected into proceedings. Greatness cannot be thrust upon matches any more than it can on men; the best we can hope for is that they achieve greatness. Great players at both events, and also great play, but my wait to witness a great Ashes Test and Wimbledon final continues.