It's called the ultimate challenge in world cricket. Not the ultimate fighting challenge, but the ultimate challenge nonetheless. Australia playing England in a five-game series of cricket matches that last a maximum of five days each. The trophy, a fragile and minute 125 year-old artifact - The Ashes - securely and permanently stored and displayed in London.
Yes, the ultimate. Australia, the number five ranked Test cricket team in the world, is playing host to England, the number four ranked side. And yes, seriously, it is the ultimate, the premier cricketing event in the world.
Why? There's a rivalry that has evolved and grown for more than a century and a quarter, and yet still managed to maintain its relevance, even as society and the sport itself have changed. In this day and age, there's its regularity - one cycle of home and away series every four years, just like an Olympiad. There's the magnitude - five matches, up to 25 days spread over the summer, at a time when other Test series are crammed into two games in a consecutive 13 day period to fulfill ICC obligations.
And there's the spectators. No other multi-day cricket competition comes so close to repeatedly filling its stadia as does Australia v England. And none has become such a tourism phenomenon. Travellers by the planeload from England - many guerrillas with the Barmy Army, many not - following the cricket, the Australian sun, and the fermented alcohol across the continent. Many Australians, though not quite in the same magnitude, reciprocate when the time comes.
Where else in world cricket do you see this tourist phenomenon? Where are the thousands of New Zealand fans trekking across India this month? Are the South African supporters braving the sharks like their heroes Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel at the Dubai Shopping Mall and Dangerous Sea Creature Aquarium for the Pakistan Test series? (Indeed, how many Pakistan supporters have made the overseas trip to the UAE for their home series?)
But more than anything is the prospect that the series could go either way. As the 20th century clocked over to the 21st, England was looking more and more the easybeats of this contest. And then came 2005. If Australia's 5-0 whitewash in 2006-07 looked like a return to normality, the England reclaimed victory in 2009 to make abnormality seem the norm.
As the Ashes of 2010-11 beckons, I'm predicting an England 2-1 series victory, thus retaining the Ashes. They've come into the series on a roll, good preparation, a stable side. Australia's preparation has been shambolic, too many short tours, switches of formats, unstable and injury-prone bowling attacks, and some crazy marketing stunts. Why on earth did Cricket Australia insist on a major announcement of a 17-man squad ten days prior to the First Test? (Though it was really a shortlist, for they never convened as a squad of 17.)
Australia's other problem is that Ricky Ponting is still their captain. The only Australian captain since the 19th century to give up the Ashes twice on English soil. I've written before about my belief that Ponting does not justify his leadership role on his history of poor performance.
Brisbane Tests are often won and lost on the first morning. It's twenty minutes before the start of play as I write this, Andrew Strauss has won the toss and will bat first. Can Johnson, Siddle and Hilfenhaus deliver for Australia this morning or will Strauss and Cook give England the initiative? I'll check in tonight with an interpretation (and, of course, the return of the Midwinter-Midwinter).
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