I love the Ashes

THERE was much to enjoy about the Test which sealed Ashes victory for England – Stuart Broad’s flurry of wickets on Friday, Ricky Ponting’s run out on Sunday, Andrew Flintoff’s surprising – and genuine – insistence that he was going to reign in his post-match celebrations this time around. But I particularly enjoyed a curious radio exchange between Geoffrey Boycott and Steve Bruce on Saturday afternoon.

Boycott, the curmudgeon’s commentator, can always be relied on to deliver something to remember him by. Making an appearance on Five Live during the third day, he was offering his forthright opinions on England’s prospects when the presenter cut in to introduce a live interview with the manager of Sunderland.

“I’m going to have to interrupt you there, Geoffrey,” the presenter said, “because we’re going to talk now to one of the great Manchester United centre-backs of years gone by.”

“Ooh, good,” said Boycott, a United supporter. “Is it Arnie Sidebottom?”

Bruce didn’t even try a comeback at Boycott, instead asking him how England were getting on. “Don’t you worry,” came the reply. “We’re going to walk it.” He was right, too, in the end.

It was a strange series. For all the hoohah surrounding Flintoff last night as he bowed out of Test cricket an Ashes winner, this was a series which was remarkable for its stubborn refusal to follow a script.

Beforehand, those who know far more about cricket than I do suggested that, for England to stand any chance of winning, Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen would need to have big performances. Flintoff claimed five wickets in Australia’s second innings at Lord’s, but missed two Tests through injury and didn’t exactly star with the bat. The most significant moment of Pietersen’s Ashes was his crazy first-innings dismissal in Cardiff.

No, Flintoff’s most memorable moment of 2009 will, curiously, be a run-out. The flick of the arm to dismiss Ponting yesterday was as unexpected as it was enjoyable. Freddie certainly looked as if he enjoyed it.

But this was a series when different men stepped up for England at key moments. Monty Panesar’s magnificent defiance with the bat saved the first Test for England in Cardiff, when even his team-mates looked surprised at his ability to hold out under pressure. And just when everyone was expecting the final Test to peter out into a draw, Stuart Broad ripped Australia to shreds with a stunning spell on Friday afternoon, taking five wickets for 37 runs and pulling the Ashes within reach. Jonathan Trott’s courageous century on his Test debut sparked Boycott’s confidence. Flintoff’s run-out of Ponting just about made sure.

I was pleased for Broad, who had suffered the indignity of bowling that final over (missing a couple of run-out chances in the process) when England were beaten by Holland at the World Twenty20 earlier this summer. I remember writing at the time that England could not possibly hope to win the Ashes if they were capable of losing to Holland at any form of cricket, which only goes to prove that: a) Broad has tremendous backbone as a cricketer to have recovered from such an embarrassing night, and b) I know sod all about anything.

England captain Andrew Strauss got it right with his assessment of England’s Ashes victory: “When we were bad, we were very bad. But when we were good, we were good enough.”

And yet it’s for exactly that reason that this Ashes victory is, in my view, so much more satisfying that the 2005 triumph. This time, England didn’t play at the top of their game all the way through – yet they still beat the Aussies, by capitalising on their mistakes and winning the key battles.

And that’s what proper cricket teams do. They don’t reach a peak for one series, spend eons celebrating, write swear words on each other’s foreheads and then crash to a string of embarrassing defeats, culminating in a 5-0 series whitewash 18 months later against the team they had worked so hard to beat in the first place. They win – and keep winning.

That’s something that England’s cricketers need to bear in mind if they are to do what Flintoff wants them to, and become the No.1 side in Test cricket. It won’t be easy. But if they’ve learned the lessons from winning the Ashes in 2005, they won’t go far wrong.

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