A remarkable English summer. Remarkable for its madness at times, its unpredictability and for its volte face. The England players went from whipping boys in April to wizards against Oz in August. Excellent new men are at the helm pretty much wherever you turn and fresh young faces have it in them to inspire the next generation.
Somehow the message has to get to the masses. This is the daunting job that faces the ECB. Television bankrolls the game but does not attract enough attention to it. Viewing figures are surprisingly low and though grounds have been mainly full, the demographic remains as middle-aged and middle class as it ever was. Tickets are expensive, though there was value to be had from the T20 against Australia in Cardiff. Indeed, the train home was packed with youngsters.
Everything possible must be done to ensure that a culture for cricket exists in schools. This work must be localised, involve communities and cannot be left exclusively to Chance to Shine. The county game needs to be tightened up, the schedules require imagination and clarification. The county clubs must regard themselves as heads of a family and open their doors and pockets to every young person. Talk of money and survival around the counties is insane. The talk should be of the game we want for our future and the most intelligent and unselfish way to achieve it. Cricket's myriad bodies, boards, counties, clubs, schemes, programmes and initiatives should come together as one to create the most powerful force for growth.
"The county clubs must regard themselves as heads of a family and open their doors and pockets to every young person. Talk of money and survival around the counties is insane"
Superstar cricketers spend much of their time off the field satisfying sponsors. That time could be better spread across the needs of the parish from whence they came. We have authentic heroes in our midst but those who own them have previously buried their heads in the sand. A great many children in Britain barely know that cricket exists. A great many of those who do, think the game out of reach. We have to find a way to spread the gospel. If this means compromising income to sustain a younger audience, so be it. At the rate we are going, it may not be longer than a decade before the income is irrelevant. When Moeen Ali came to a school in Bethnal Green back in May, the response to him reached fever pitch. The visit, if not quite a one-off, was squeezed between other demands.
In the way that most children with an iota of sport in their DNA know about the football Premiership and it's champion performers - in the way that these kids already want to volley like Christian Benteke and dribble and shoot like Anthony Martial - so the same kids should want to fly through the air and hold incredible catches like Ben Stokes, or charge in to knock over Aussies like Stuart Broad. There have been few catches so spellbinding and hardly ever an hour of bowling more surprising, dramatic and decisive. These men are a potent force on the field and should be used as such off it. These are the men to ignite passion in the young.
What a summer this has been for surprises! The lucky ones among us have been on a magical mystery tour of international cricket grounds that has left us breathless and amazed. The artists rocked the house day after day, night after night. A list of the best moments runs off the page.
Let us start with Joe Root and that man Stokes at Lord's against New Zealand. The score was 30 for 4. England were doomed, oh yes they were: oh no they weren't. At breakneck speed the pair put on 161 together. Crash, bang, wallop and the initiative was won. Stokes then bowled the ball of the summer to Brendon McCullum. The whole thing was so Botham-esque as to be unbelievable.
McCullum, by the way, was a catalyst. He plays cricket as if on speed. He leads without fear of defeat or recrimination. He never grumbles, just thanks his lucky stars. This rubbed off on his opponents who finally thought "what the hell".
Another catalyst was Andrew Strauss, who cleared the air and empowered the players. One minute Strauss was there, fixing it all up. The next - whoosh - he was gone from view, ensuring that those in whom he trusts received the curtain calls. Strauss believes in the power of participation. He must think how the best 150 cricketers in the land can contribute both regularly and with relevance.
"The five one-day games were not so nuts as the Test matches but there was a certain craziness everywhere, what with the huge margins of victory both ways"
In Cardiff, at the start of the Ashes ride, Root and Moeen were men apart. Moeen played the strokes of a man who does not sweat the small stuff and twice, t'boot, dismissed David Warner - a nice touch. Root's hundred came quicker than any other in the first innings of an Ashes match.
At Lord's, the Australians turned up and in fine weather and on a flat pitch reminded everyone why they were favourites in the first place. England had a grotty first day and by the end of the fourth were dragging their tails out of the Grace Gates. This was Australian cricket at its magnificent, overwhelming best. Bat first, go big, bowl fast, snarl a bit, spin a bit more and catch everything. No worries.
At Edgbaston, Jimmy Anderson swung the Dukes ball as if he had manufactured it for his own ends. Steve Finn made the comeback of the century and that man Moeen made a mockery of some of the most dangerous bowlers alive. Any of these performances would have captured the imagination of a wide-eyed child but how many were watching?
Had they come to Trent Bridge, they would not have had to wait for long. An hour would have done it, an hour and then off home. In that time, Broad gave us one of the greatest and most thrilling spells of fast bowling in the long and distinguished history of the game. His slip cordon gobbled up catch after catch and Stokes held a blinder to rival Strauss' acrobatic effort on the same ground ten years before. Before you could say "Chris is your Dad", the Ashes were won.
Alastair Cook gave a marvellous summary of it all. At the start of the series had he thought England would win? "Honestly, no!" Asked about the impressive impact of the new Australian coach of England, Trevor Bayliss, he replied: "Let's not give him too much credit, he's only been here for five minutes." Cook was emotional too. We all melted. Heroes were everywhere.
At The Oval, England were spent. In the 12 days after Trent Bridge, all the men fell to earth. Cook said something like: "Our target was to win three games of cricket. Clearly we didn't have the mind for a fourth." They were excused. Mind you, the Australians took the fight to save face pretty seriously. Cook gave Michael Clarke a guard of honour. They are not "mates" in a matey way but they know what it is to do the other's job. Bloody hard.
We are not done with heroes yet, by the way. In the T20 back in Cardiff, Moeen batted exactly as he had done in the Tests. It is a surreal, almost out-of-body approach that transfers itself to the viewer in mesmerising fashion. The balls he hits for four are tour de forces of their own; then we giggle at the ones at which he flashes and misses; and we forgive those that conquer him. At the death of this match, Stokes bowled with nous and courage. The finish was electric. England got up.
The five one-day games were not so nuts as the Test matches but there was a certain craziness everywhere, what with the huge margins of victory both ways; the Starc/Stokes moment; Eoin Morgan's advert for Italian tourism and a legbreak bowler taking wickets for England. The eagerly anticipated decider turned out to be the one, huge anti-climax of the summer. England fell apart. The scent of their cricket has been rich and intoxicating but the seams are not yet strong.
In this match, Morgan was hit on the helmet. It was a withering blow. Immediately, the Phillip Hughes flashbacks took over. The bowler, Mitchell Starc, went white as a sheet. Everyone was whispering hope. Morgan left the field to take no further part in the match. Reports are that he remains shaky but okay. We pray this is so.
The moment was a salutary reminder that courageous men play a dangerous game. At times they are treated with indifference, or worse. Cricketers should be celebrated. They bring us immense joy. The key is to ensure that the next generation appreciates them properly. There can be no tomorrow without heroes today.