In April 1985 I was a stringbean with pink NHS glasses, plaits and hopeless dreams of becoming a ballerina. Four months later, by which time England had beaten Australia 3-1 - by five wickets, an innings and 118 runs, and an innings and 94 runs - I was that same stringbean with plaits and specs, but one with an obsessive, compulsive desire for cricket.
We went to three matches that year, my brothers and I. Middlesex v Somerset then v Australia at Lord's, and Surrey v Hampshire at Guildford. But the memories that have stuck are of the cricket I saw not a single ball of, except on television. The sodden but golden Ashes series.
It wasn't the allure of the Australians, not at first anyway. Everyone knew about 1981, but at the time I'd been far too busy sticking pictures of Lady Diana into a royal wedding scrapbook to care. I wasn't a complete stranger to cricket. Throughout the summer of 1984 my best friend Katherine Longbottom held a torch for Eldine Baptiste, and we'd had lengthy discussions about him - and the blackwash - over Mini Munch Man and those collectable Texaco Trophy caricature cards. Sam, Toby, Tom and I had followed England's fightback in India the following winter through our Dad's Cricketer. We'd played hundreds of games of tip-and-run in the garden and on the beach. So we were ripe for the plucking; it's just we'd never been properly seduced.
The BBC did the groundwork in early summer by screening Bodyline, the Aussies' dramatised version of the 1932-33 Ashes tour. It starred an unfeasibly gorgeous - and suspiciously tall - Sir Don and an evil-looking Jardine, plus much slow-motion, heavy-breathing film of Larwood's 18-yard run-up. It was gratuitously bad. But it was addictive, a cricket-lover's Dynasty, and it didn't half pull in the crowds.
They needed something to cheer. It was the high '80s. Thatcher had defeated the miners. Greed was beginning to be good. Football was too busy choking on its own vomit after Heysel and Bradford to be desirable. Boris Becker won Wimbledon aged 17, but people wanted to rally behind something or someone British, someone other than Roger Moore hamming it up in his James Bond swansong A View to a Kill. Particularly when they were faced with one of the worst summers in living memory. It would rain, cloud over, and then rain some more. Day after day. Week after week. Misery - particularly for a kid with six weeks of freedom from school.
But there was a silver lining. The Australian tourists twiddled their thumbs for days in pavilions all around the country, but when the Tests began my brothers and I hardly missed a ball. The puddles outside meant that our mum was content to leave us, aged 12, 10, 8 and 6, sitting in front of the television. We would be dry, distracted and would probably refrain from killing each other. Even when it was chucking it down both in Woking and at the Test, the BBC came up trumps. They either obliged with highlights from 1981 or turned the cameras on those sitting in the commentary box. As the cricket was curtailed at Headingley, Lord's, Trent Bridge, Old Trafford, Edgbaston and The Oval, we grew to love them, especially Tom Graveney and Peter West.
Peter, the avuncular godfather, could be guaranteed to conduct a cheery interview with someone, anyone, usually in the pouring rain, and you always hoped that Tom, with his friendly chuckle, ruddy face and sports jacket, would be free to entertain you during lunch. If not, it was Tony Lewis, now recognised as Mark Nicholas's inspiration, then just another old smoothie. Or Jim Laker. He was as spare as always, more often than not coming up with the one phrase, the one cadence, which would lodge in your head for a lifetime. No-one then knew it was his final season (he died suddenly the following April).
If you did miss a ball, Richie Benaud was there in the evening to present the highlights, together with some snappy spinning graphics of the captains, David Gower and Allan Border. We liked Richie and his unfamiliar accent (there was no Neighbours then), his scrupulously fair assessment of every situation and the slightly disturbing hint of baby-pink lipstick that always seemed to be hovering around his lips.
He wasn't the only popular Aussie in England that year, and this was a key to the whole summer. The Australian team were agreeable, as well as beatable. They may have worn baggy green caps and moustaches, but they didn't have the baggy green stare. Exhibit No. 1: Greg Ritchie. Good old fat, genial Greg Ritchie, about whom Alan Ross wrote: One felt that at any moment he might fish a Mars bar out of his trousers and start munching. Then there was elegant Wayne Phillips. The utterly useless Murray Bennett, who bowled in tinted glasses, though not of a type Shane Warne would care to recognise. Botham's bunny Simon O'Donnell - the perfect pre-pubescent crush. Tall, dark, handsome and hairy, as revealed by his Australian-special low-cut cricket shirt. What's more, because not as many English girls fancied Simon as George (Michael), you were in with a definite chance. (Just how much more of a chance, we weren't then aware).
There was Bob Holland, with that fey little skip neatly tucked into his bowling action. Jeff Thomson, now 35, tubby and not very fast, sporting what may still be the worst hairstyle ever seen on a cricket field - the spike grey rocker's mullet. He was also good value in the field. Twice he gave the crowd the finger, or two - a gesture tentatively passed over by the TV commentators but enjoyed hugely by four giggling children. What better entertainment than a riled Aussie? Nor should we forgot Andrew Hilditch. Robotic, headbanded Hilditch - the most military-looking man on either side, and an addicted hooker. We'd watch entranced as Botham, bold as brass, set two fielders back and bounded in. Hook - line and sinker. It was such fun to rewind the highlights of the second innings at Edgbaston and hear the exasperated Benaud despair: I just do not believe it. If he were playing today, one would be tempted to enquire just where his wife had got her hands on such a nice leather jacket. And in those days David Boon was a lovable figure rather than a tough-as-hide, hard-nosed, tinnie-drinking sledger.
True, we didn't like Border much - far too tight-lipped and tight-arsed, and far too good (he scored eight centuries that summer, embarking on the post-Duchess Lavinia leg of the trip with 106, 135, 125, 100, 59, 85*). But Gower and Botham did, so he must have been all right underneath. Greg Matthews seemed an annoying squirt, though if we'd known what the future held - and his balding temples were already revealing telltale signs - even he would have been looked upon fondly.
They also seemed, in a most un-Australian way, to quite like us (probably better than they liked some of their team-mates, especially those - Graeme Wood, Dirk Wellham and Wayne Phillips - who only pulled out of the rebel tour to South Africa at the last minute). They joshed with England players in the field. They played golf with them, even wore similar pastel sports shirts and golfing jumpers. Because, Hilditch aside, the grille had yet to gain popularity, we learned to recognise them from the off and grew to - almost - cherish their faces. They shared our penchant for facial hair. They shrugged off the rain, dropped a few catches and carried more than a few passengers.
England, by contrast, had initial allure. DI Gower, IT Botham, AJ Lamb, PH Edmonds, GA Gooch. Even RT Robinson, complete with plastic visor, curly wig and armguard. Where the Aussies had clubbable C-list celebrities, we had superstars.
Botham, who averaged 100.91 in the Championship that year and blasted Arthur Wellard out of the record books with a world-record 80 sixes, was in his buxom prime. Bleach, rasta sweatbands, truck-driver's moustache, no helmet. He got wickets with long-hops and was out to non-shots. But in between he took 31 wickets and, during his more inspired spells, was the fastest bowler on either side. The fall of England's fourth wicket - Botham's cue - always caused a stampede toward the television. He argued with umpire Alan Whitehead, stood too far forward at slip with his hands on his knees, and reverse-swept to disastrous effect in the one-day internationals. We loved him.
Maybe more, we loved his partner-in-crime. Gower, Delicate David - my father's hero and his children's too. Whippet-thin, in baggy sunhat, he would casually patrol the covers, or closer, before swooping in with a cocked finger here and an outstretched palm there. Flick of the wrist - four. Eighty-nine of them that summer. Stressed-out executives should be forced to watch videos of each one, every morning before work.
He was also our captain. A Suitable Boy - he could have been a lawyer; don't you know - hounded in some papers after a lean period with the bat. The selectors put their heads together and demonstrated their support by appointing him only for the first two Tests. It just made him appear more gallant.
Those selectors didn't always deal Gower the strongest hand in the pack. The bowling suit was particularly patchy. Four of the five one-Testers were out-and-out bowlers: Jonathan Agnew, Norman Cowans, Neil Foster and Arnie Sidebottom. The fifth was Peter Willey (it's not wise to forget Peter Willey). The selectors only really looked like they'd got it right in the last two Tests, when Richard Ellison and Les Taylor were unveiled as the new seam-dream team. Goodbye big bad Bob Willis, hello the two kindly men of Kent and Leicstershire. At least they had their hour of glory.
Even now, I can recite the litany of results for that series. A sort of: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived - but more memorable. The Tests divide neatly into three. The first two, at Headingley and Lord's, were competitive sparring sessions, with first one side getting the upper hand and then the other. Then there was a prolonged hiatus at Trent Bridge and Old Traffordtwo Tests dominated by high scoring, rain and the build-up, execution and aftermath of Live Aid. And before the final curtain, two cathartic encores, full of incident and accident and celebration. The week after The Oval, David Bowie and Mick Jagger were No. 1 with Dancing in the Street. Some people still think it was a coincidence.
Headingley was the first chance many English people had to see Tim Robinson bat, and bat and bat. He turned on the charm, in a back-footed-opener, kind of way, and knocked up 175 - not bad for a first Test at home. Botham contributed 60 off 51 balls. Border, for once, failed and his backroom boys couldn't make up the difference, though England teetered in their final innings. This Test coincided with end-of-year exams, and was my first experience of cricket-induced work avoidance. To stop listening would obviously be unlucky. If I switched off my radio (new from Argos) then Robinson was going to come to a tasty end. As were Botham and Downton, more especially Lamb and Willey on the final day. I may have failed my religious studies exam, but England won - which of those episodes is the more memorable now, Mr Kopen? It was a result which probably should have taught me something about time-management but really taught me something else - you can never be too superstitious when it comes to cricket.
England inevitably lost at Lord's (their last win over Australia at Lord's then, as now, was in 1934) but that didn't stop Botham trilling 1981 in the direction of the Australians as they chased 127 to win. It was a match memorable for Border's batting - a painstaking 196 - and for the ferocious bowling of Craig McDermott, the only Aussie who snarled properly. And for Gatting's catch that wasn't a catch. Fielding at short leg, he seemed to have grabbed hold of a pull from Border, then only on 87. But Gatt opted for premature celebration and the ball slipped from his grasp. He dived after it, desperately, like a drunk trying to keep hold of his slipping glass, but it was a fruitless pursuit. Dickie Bird wasn't going to stand for any funny business. Botham batted as he had at Headingley and for the first time, but not the last, provoked Hilditch into an ill-disciplined hook. It was a baiting routine which soon became Botham's favourite game. England's disappointment at losing that Second Test was tempered by Gower's batting. The wry, perhaps ever-so-slightly knowing smile, was back.
Score draws at Trent Bridge and Old Trafford didn't dampen our patriotic hopes. The Aussies got the better of the game at Nottingham but England began to inch away in Manchester, just in time for the start of the school holidays. Gower's rich summer began in earnest and Gatting made his first hundred in England, and his first against Australia. Border got yet more runs and Wood saved his Test career, for a while. Botham nearly broke free from his leash when, in the space of one over, he was warned for bowling too many bouncers and for running on the pitch. For good measure Whitehead, brave man, also turned down a good lbw shout from him and called no-ball, late, when Phil Edmonds (who we thought a terrific showoff) had scooped up a great catch at third man. McDermott had more success, taking eight wickets in an innings for the first time. Not bad for a veteran of six Tests.
The fifth Test was the spine-tingler. Saturday and Monday were as perfect as any day could be, if you were English and owned an umbrella. Gower ran out Geoff Lawson from the very first ball on Saturday morning, and then began to bathe the crowd in runs. He and Robinson put on 317 in a day, and Gower went on to make 215, much to the delight of my baby brother who loved numbers - the bigger the better. It was, and would remain, his highest Test score. How does any bloke come out and follow that? We needn't have worried about Botham. He hit his very first ball, from McDermott, into the crowd for six. Two balls later, he repeated the shot; six balls later he was out. It was the most spectacular 18 in Ashes history, and ensured that poor old Gatting's hundred, his second in successive Tests, was largely forgotten. Then England declared and Australia collapsed.
Where were you when Richard Ellison took 4 for 1? I was squashed into the back of a Renault 4 on the way back from Wisley Gardens. If it were possible to bottle the feeling of listening to that session of play on Test Match Special, with the Birmingham crowd roaring in the background, drunk with success, it would take over the natural-high market.
Richard Ellison - who'd have thought it? He'd been suffering with a heavy cold on the Wednesday evening and been unsure whether to play. But six wickets in the first innings and four in 15 balls in the second made him feel a little better. He was an unlikely destroyer - an afro on a white man never looks particularly menacing. But at Edgbaston and The Oval he swung the ball on a length and to just the right effect. He was such a happy chap too. When he dismissed Border for 2, off bail flying, the win was inevitable. Ish. Ritchie and Phillips would argue that they were robbed of a draw on the final afternoon by a dodgy catch - Phillips to Gower, via Lamb's ankle. But England's fielders told a different story and the cameras proved nothing. It all added spice to the mix and meant that England had to win or draw the final Test to regain the Ashes, and Australia had to win to retain them.
My family were on a bucket-and-spade holiday, but only 80 miles away from The Oval, on the soggy beaches of the Isle of Wight. I had slipped over early on, while trying to get into a car, and had to have seven stitches in my knee. But there was a consolation prize - the order from the doctor that there was to be absolutely no running about or swimming until the stitches were out. Which meant spending the rest of the holiday watching England on telly.
I'd been in a quandary all series over Graham Gooch. Not only had he replaced the dashing Graeme Fowler, who'd scored that double-century in Madras yet only been given one chance for England all season, but he'd also gone on the rebel tour of South Africa. (One brief and worrying glance at my 1985 dairy confirms that a po-faced political consciousness was stirring-the entry for June 15 finishes: Robinson 175/ Botham 60/ Gatting 52/481 for 10. Well done England! Ron Todd won election for Transport Workers Union.) But, and Gooch was lucky here, he'd cut rather a pitiful figure once it became clear that he could be the one big gun who was going to miss out on a century. So I crossed everything I could - he made 196. And as Gooch grew bolder with every solid stroke of that mammoth bat, so did Gatting and Gower. The headline writers celebrated with G-force. The battered Australian bowling took on the permanence of a G-string.
In the year that the miners went back to work, Les Taylor, the last England seamer to emerge from the coalface, took the final wicket of the series - Murray Bennett, caught and bowled for 11. On the television the England players frolicked boisterously on the balcony, and Gower held the tiny facsimile Ashes between thumb and forefinger and smiled happily. Cheers rang out all round The Oval. For the third time in succession England had defeated Australia at home. All was rosy. West, Illingworth and Benaud raised a glass of champagne to celebrate a jolly good series.
Little did we know that we would be laughing, not crying, on the other side of our faces not only four, but eight, 12 and, we might as well admit it, 16 years later as well. (Although, come to think of it, Richie had a peculiar glint in his eye as he manfully sipped from his crystal flute.) Looking back I realised just how easy a time I had of it. The England team was full of readymade heroes, who didn't need to be coached by agent or media-relations officer on how to appeal to the public. They were natural showmen and wonderful players. And cricket's world order still had half a foot in northern Europe.
How much harder it is for children to fall in love with a game when their home team are constantly under the cosh, when Australia are 301 for 0 at the close on the first day ( Trent Bridge 1989) or when England have just lost six for 18 ( Headingley 1997).
Cricket in England was different then. There was no on-field advertising. No internet. No third umpire. No foreign umpires. No replays. No red zone. No compulsory kit for after-play press conferences. No advertising on clothing. No match referee. No dirt in pockets. Not so much corporate hospitality. But it was also the same and, 15 years later, no summer's cricket has had more effect on me. Not Gooch's wonder year of 1990, not the early euphoria of 1997, not the Atherton v Donald-headlining South Africa series. Not even last year's defeat of West Indies.
Perhaps your first season is always the most memorable. It's so new, so exciting. Probably no-one will ever appear more regal than Gower, more golden than Botham, even if they'd just hotfooted it over from King Midas's place. But don't they say that the best things come to those who wait? My first Ashes win was handed to me on a plate. In fact, so was my second - Gatting's glory boys in 1986-87. How much more memorable will the next one be, or is it already a case of roll on 2005?