England are the overwhelming favourite to defend the Ashes, which begin tomorrow. While they may have dropped to No. 3 in the Test rankings behind South Africa and India, Alastair Cook leads a well-drilled side. The return of Kevin Pietersen also gives them a player capable of changing the course of a game in a couple of sessions. On the other hand, Australia appear to be a team without a center - disciplinary problems off the field compounding a lack of performance on it.
Bet365 is offering just 1/3 for an England victory while Australia are 9/2 for the upset. Ladbrokes have England at 4/11 and Australia 4/1.
The apparent gap between the sides hasn’t stopped the buzz around the series though. The Ashes is the pinnacle of Test cricket for players from both countries. In a round-table disscussion for the Telegraph, Michael Vaughan, who led England to a memorable Ashes triumph in 2005, said “there’s a different feeling when you wake up on an Ashes morning.”
In the same discussion, Shane Warne, said “every English and Australian player will get defined by how they do in the Ashes. You can play rubbish against everyone else but if you have an unbelievable Ashes series, people will say you are fantastic.”
Of course it helps that there is plenty of history to the series. Since 1882, the Ashes has been played every two years except during the two World Wars. All the greats from Don Bradman to Steve Waugh, from Fred Trueman to Ian Botham, have written their names into Ashes lore. Douglas Jardine and Bodyline, Mike Brearley and Botham’s Ashes and Australia’s whitewash of England in 2007 are all linked in an unbroken line connecting the two countries' cricketing histories.
The depth and breadth of the series drags in fans from other countries as well. The series will be telecast live in India, with an amped-up promotional campaign from Star Sports featuring a Florence and the Machine song called “Kiss with a Fist” that contains the following verse:
You hit me once
I hit you back
You gave a kick
I gave a slap
You smashed a plate
Over my head
Then I set fire to our bed
Plenty of aggression then, in case there are any fans out there that don’t get the importance and magnitude of the series.
But beyond the hype and hyperbole, the Ashes offers cricket a way to keep Tests relevant in an age of limited attention spans and the clinking cash registers of T20 leagues. Rivalries fire up fans and bring them to stadiums around the world. Liverpool and Manchester United supporters circle the team’s meetings every EPL season despite Liverpool’s slide in fortunes. In Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees take special pride in beating the Boston Red Sox and vice-versa. The same goes for the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA.
The ICC is on the right track by creating a Test championship to provide some context but the semi-finals and final will take place just once every four years. But that still doesn’t solve the problem of what happens in the intervening period. Fans are not going to come out to see India play Zimbabwe because India could qualify for the Test championship.
What the sport needs is to create rivalries within the framework of the Future Tours Programme. This won’t be easy or happen overnight, but if Test cricket is to endure, it needs to stoke the passions of its fans. The Ashes does that and there is no reason why over time more series can’t come to embody the same idea. India vs Pakistan would also fit the bill but sadly those series are few and far between for geo-political reasons. India and South Africa are one option. South Africa's played their first series after the apartheid ban against India and recent series have been hotly contested. There are also broader links between the countries, including Mahatma Gandhi's time there as a lawyer
This would require some rejigging of the ICC calendar and a commitment to playing Tests, occasionally at the cost of limited-overs matches. But that can easily be done if it is the will of the ten Test playing nations who effectively run the ICC.
The sports governing body’s has repeatedly touted the primacy of Test cricket, though their decision to set a minimum limit of 16 Tests over four years suggest that the rhetoric might outstrip reality. But if they want to back up their rhetoric, the Ashes can show the way. The question is whether anyone is watching.