Reliving the Spirit in the Ashes
Unless you're the kind of person who, when reading his chunky English broadsheet of a Sunday, skips impatiently through the cricket pages, or who flicks his remote control unthinkingly at the sight of a white jumper on Sky Sports, you will be well aware that the Ashes got under way last night, our time, in Brisbane.
Delightfully bereft of any sponsor's name, governing body acronymous prefix, or focus-branded ersatz moniker, the aged simplicity of the Ashes concept is clearly resolute in its interest and excitement for cricket followers in the two participating countries.
Of course, as far as the English are concerned, the extraordinary summer of 2005 didn't half help the cause of the ancient rivalry's profile. The explosion of enthusiasm that that series incited almost paralleled the socio-cultural thrill-spikes usually only engendered by World Cups.
The reference to football is both useful and misleading. While the crossover interest in the success of Michael Vaughan's team and the elevation to the superstar class of Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff fitted the model of the modern soccer/celeb interface, a large part of the affection the England team won - aside from the fact that they actually won, unlike the much derided teams that preceded them back to their previous success in 1986/87 - was due to the very fact that they were so clearly not like their counterparts in the Premiership.
The wonderful, twisting narrative of the 2005 Ashes, with its daily epics of heroism, sportsmanship and sheer nail-biting excitement struck a powerful chord with many and provided the nation's media with a blanket editorial line: that these fine examples of men were a welcome relief from the overpaid, preening, morally bankrupt species which usually inhabited the back pages during the rest of the year.
Flintoff was the epitome of this long-lost, Boys Own ideal, his reputation not only burnished by his swashbuckling batting and rip-snorting bowling, but by his sporting consolation of Brett Lee after the Australian's valiant innings had only just failed to prevent England winning the second test. Even Flintoff's astounding display of celebratory inebriation won plaudits, the hero clearly a likeable, amiable drunk rather than a brawling, roasting embarassment.
Of course, there was much more to the Ashes fever of 2005 than its protagonists' good natures. Cricket resides deeply in the English psyche, rarely eliciting the feverish passion of football - despite the terracing-style carry-on of the 'Barmy Army' - but representative of a broad and wholesome sort of Englishness that, suddenly, seemed to strike the zeitgeist like a Flintoff full toss on an Aussie wicket.
At a time when the concept of Englishness is the subject of endless, beard-stroking debate, when Celtic nationalism, immigration problems and post-imperial guilt seemed to leave the English nation struggling for positive representative symbols, the cricket team provided an unquestionable affirmation of the sort of national character that English people could recognise, but also feel good about.
It is the nature of such sporting festivals as that created in England by the last Ashes series that their passing should take with them much of the bunting and brio that they brought with them. The Premiership behemoth had already heaved into view by the time the famous urn had been won, and it was soon followed - and dwarfed - by the World Cup. Twelve months after Flintoff consoled Lee, Ashley Cole was spilling his heart about the ignominy of being offered a wage of £55,000 a week.
So perhaps that summer of 2005 was - like a summer holiday should be - just a glorious and restorative break from reality. Countless cricket fans and those who fondly recall the thrill of England's Ashes win will spend the next weeks in bleary-eyed observation of their attempt to retain them. It won't be the same, of course: injury and form problems and the formidable Australians will make it hard for England and the time difference will do for the party atmosphere. But this series' curious power to fascinate and resonate will, undoubtedly, remain undimmed.