Ashes to Ashes
‘Just wait till next year’ is the perennial cry of the disappointed sports fan, particularly in the US, where all the big sporting events – bar the Olympics – are annual ones. In the major American sports there’s no relegation or promotion, so year on year the same contests recur, and next time really could be different. It’s the glory – and the horror – of international sport that it doesn’t operate to that comforting rhythm. If you blow a World Cup, it will be at least four years till you get another chance. If you lose an Ashes series before we even get to Christmas, it won’t be next year’s Christmas present to have them returned.
Having just gone 3-0 down in a best-of-five series, England now have to get themselves up for the two dead rubbers, knowing that nothing more is on the line than their dignity, self-respect and, in some cases, professional futures. That wouldn’t happen in America either, where everyone goes home once there’s no coming back. At least England can start to prepare for summer 2019, which will be their first shot at redemption. Trouble is, this Australian team looks young, hungry and ready for more, whereas England are what’s politely called ‘in transition’ (too many either past their best or not yet good enough). So eighteen months’ time is likely to be too soon. It’s 2021-22 before we get another opportunity in Australia, where, as they also politely say, ‘history is against us.’ Then it’s 2023 back in England – that looks realistic, though so far ahead it’s hard to be sure Test cricket will still be a thing by then. And Ben Stokes will be 32 years old.
In a time of breakneck change, much of it driven by new technology, some sports try to keep up, and others retain their charm by knowing they can’t. Cricket is split between Twenty20, which does the first, and test matches, which do the second. I’ve loved this Ashes series, even though England has lost it, because each game they lost contained moments when they could have won – and not just moments, but whole half-hours, and occasional mornings, and even the odd day. Test matches, and entire test series, have a wonderful open-ended quality, and then an equally wonderful finality when the door eventually shuts. Whenever a game ends, there’s always that strange feeling that there must be one more twist left. But the haunted look on the faces of the defeated players tells you that there isn’t.
The Australian spinner Nathan Lyon said before the series started that he hoped it might end the careers of some England players. He was mocked for saying something so uncouth, and seemingly hubristic, but he had a point: sometimes there is no coming back. Alastair Cook and Stuart Broad may now be finished, even if they carry on playing for a little longer. The question is whether they can still be considered potential match winners for 2019, and if they can’t, then what’s the point in persisting? England will play other test matches before then, and they will matter, but the older players won’t be able to escape the shadow of the Ashes, which have their own remorseless logic. We need to win them back, which means we can’t just wait till next year. We have to plan ahead.
In many ways international sport feels more like electoral politics than it does the rough and tumble of domestic leagues. When your side loses a general election, you know they’ll get another chance eventually. It’s just that there’s always a nagging worry you’ll be dead before they do. True, the supporters of really cursed teams can go a whole lifetime without redemption. When the Chicago Cubs won the baseball World Series last year, for the first time since 1908, some fans listened on their radios at the gravesides of relatives who had spent whole lifetimes without knowing the joy. England’s cricket team won’t put its supporters through that kind of cosmic tribulation. But 2023 is still a long time to wait, if it does take that long. And it may take even longer.
‘Four more years’ is what gleeful Australian rugby players used to jeer at the All Blacks whenever they blew the rugby World Cup, knowing that for some of them it was too long, regardless of what happened in between. You had your moment, and you didn’t take it. Australians seem to have a particularly aptitude for driving that point home. So too do the Tories. Corbyn said he’d be prime minister by Christmas. Not now he won’t. The next election may not happen until 2022, which isn't as far off as 2023. But it isn't a lot nearer.