Australians are at their most Australian when the English are around. And the English are at their most English at the first sight of Australians.
An Aussie meeting a Pom will say “g’day” and “mate”, more than they’ve said it in the entire previous year. I know Englishmen who are normal people one minute, but an Aussie walks into a room and they turn into Hugh Grant or Simon Cowell impersonators. It’s an odd relationship. And it’s that relationship that the Ashes is based on.
Both teams really play up to their roles. Being a born-and-bred Aussie who has lived in England for the past five years, I’ve had the opportunity to see this complete nonsense from both sides.
Australian cricketers are known as tough, uncompromising guys who swear a lot and enjoy their own chest hair. English players are known as posh ponces who prance around in cravats and say things like, “Jolly good show”.
Perhaps way back when the Ashes started, and possibly even until the 1990s, there was a bit of that going on. But both countries have massively changed their profiles in the past few years.
The Australia team is no longer a pack of unwashed men with facial hair. Most Australian men spend more time on their appearance than Aussie women. The chests have been shaved, the facial hair is gone or, at best, used for ironic comedic effect; the hairstyles are like something you would see in Twilight or on a member of One Direction.
Even the tougher, rougher Aussie blokes have been groomed. Dougie Bollinger might be one of the rougher recent players, but it’s hard to take a sledge from a man who has had a rug stapled on to his head.
Katich, Ponting, Symonds (or Kat, Punter and Roy) were men you would fear. Phil Hughes is, as online radio station Test Match Sofa refer to him, “a boy in a mouse costume”.
England on the other hand is building a team full of hard men and South Africans. Their South Africans are serious and look awkward when they smile - they’re here for business, not pleasure. Then there are the bowlers; Chris Tremlett would have been carved into stone had he lived a few thousand years ago, Tim Bresnan has a barrel chest and anger to match and Jimmy Anderson is a tough, wiry character who’d slit your throat for a wicket. Even their spinner, Graeme Swann, is a former pub rock singer.
They still have their fair share of poshos, though, men who believe working-class means not going to Eton and knowing none of the Royal Family. But with former captain Andrew Strauss leaving the team, it’s less of an issue.
Despite the fact that when England does fancy they make the others look like dirty miscreants, it is Australia that is the middle-class country, and England the working-class one.
The Great British Pound may still be worth a bit, but the average wage in Australia is massively higher than in England. If Australians were paid what the English are being paid now, they would throw their soy frappuccinos at their big-screen TVs in disgust.
The Ashes is of less and less cultural importance these days. Australia no longer sees England as the mother ship. Young Australians don’t flock over there to work. Aussie families have either been in Australia too long or emigrated from countries that have no interest in cricket at all.
Cricket gets less important by the decade in English society. It’s seen by many as a posh sport and state schools don’t really play it. If your rich or Asian parents don’t introduce it, you’d have to find it by accident to get involved. Cricket is slightly more working-class than polo or croquet. Have you ever seen a fashion line in America pushing cricket sweater vests? The majority of the English still see it that way – blond-haired rich boys enjoying their day off. To round out this look, Test cricket in the UK is sponsored by an investment firm.
With the countries changing, so has the importance of the Ashes. For most Aussies and Brits, the Ashes is just a thing that happens. They don’t lose sleep over the result. In fact, due to time differences, most sleep through it. Cricket is not the top sport in England. If it is in Australia, it’s by default because no Aussie rules football code is popular everywhere. While once it was important for England to put the colonials in their place, and for the Aussies to teach the Poms a few lessons, now it’s just sporting rivalry that keeps the tradition alive.
That doesn’t mean the series itself is not an amazing event. These two teams have been playing each other in Tests since 1877. That was before Pakistan or Bangladesh existed. International sport didn’t really begin as a worldwide concept until the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens. Yet here was England, playing its convict colony after having travelled for months by boat. Fans would have to wait ages for the results; there was no Twitter in 1877.
The Ashes also survived two World Wars and even the Boer Wars in South Africa. It survived Bodyline, where the English played like the Australians, but meaner. The fact that it still remains and can be watched in your lounge is something special.
But how relevant is it today if England and Australia no longer share a truly special bond and cricket’s moved its headquarters from Lord’s to Dubai Sports City? In cricket only two things make big money: India and the Ashes. India could be in a tournament against your mother-in-law and some lint in your belly button and the TV rights would still be sold for millions.
Under the current arrangement, each international game that India plays is worth $7.86 million [around Dh29 million]. That could be a game against Pakistan at the Eden Gardens or against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo – they are both worth the same. Eighty per cent of cricket’s money comes from India, and unless the other cricket boards start smuggling drugs to America, that won’t change.
Where Australia and England once ruled cricket as if it was their pet, stroking it and locking it out of the house depending on their moods, India now rules the roost. Their cricket board is a crazy hodgepodge of various individuals who don’t seem to like each other. But if their leader, currently Narayanaswami Srinivasan (unless he is forced to step down between now and the time you read this), picks up the phone, whether you are the chairman of the Australian cricket board or captain of the Pakistan cricket team, you do what he says. And he will only ask once. If you cross that office, there will be a chalk outline around your career in cricket.
While, with India taking over world cricket, it may seem The Ashes is nothing more than a novelty, that’s actually not the case. Because while India is making money and spreading its wealth when it sees fit, other boards aren’t swimming in cash. Sri Lanka’s is $70 million in debt, despite a schedule that seems to have the team playing India at home 20 times a month; South Africa’s can barely break even – their former CEO Gerald Majola was fired for taking kickbacks; Pakistan can’t play at home; and there is no money in the boards of Bangladesh, Zimbabwe or New Zealand.
That leaves only two countries that can continue to make money without the mighty India in the picture. Not crazy light-your-cigar-with-dollar-bills money, but a decent income. They are Australia and England.
Australia have just signed an extremely lucrative A$500 million [Dh1.7 billion] five-year TV deal with Channel 9. England have a £280 million [Dh1.6 billion] four-year deal with Sky Sports. These are also the only two countries that still get massive numbers to the majority of their international matches. The Melbourne Cricket Ground alone can get 300,000 to a Test match over the five days. Lord’s sells out in England for practically all its matches despite the ticket prices.
Both countries also squeeze every last drop out of merchandise and sponsors. In Australia you can buy a badge of your favourite player, and in the UK you can buy Pink Middlesex panther shirts (don’t ask).
It’s impossible to show how important the Ashes is financially in this money pot. But the execs at Sky are willing to pay all that money for TV rights that may include matches against Bangladesh and New Zealand that few will watch, because they know that come Ashes time, people will buy subscriptions to watch the Ashes.
It may not be England’s favourite sport, but in those who had cricket forced upon them as children, it is an important part of their national identity. They can’t not watch it. So they pay for subscriptions.
For Channel 9, cricket is almost the entirety of its summer catalogue. Australian TV is essentially a zombie at that time of year, only cricket has a pulse.
This year the ECB has trademarked the use of the word ‘Ashes’ to stop ambush marketing. That’s how you know the money is being made. How useful this will be remains to be seen, but it’ll stop crematoriums using the word in their marketing.
Cricket has probably never been less important to these two sport-loving countries than it is at the moment. But for the people it matters to, it matters a great deal. They are willing to pay subscriptions, watch it, listen to it, read about it and buy the merchandise. They’d smear it on their bodies if someone would sell it as an ointment.
The Ashes has history, which helps. But the biggest reason why the Ashes is vital to international cricket is that it has a genuine story arc that takes place over weeks. You can be drawn in at any time, by anything. Whether it’s a player trashing a dressing room, someone being hit in the face, a controversial decision or two rubbish batsmen trying to save a Test for their nation. It is two months of arguing with your friends over the use of the leg slip, or why DRS makes umpires look like idiots. You can’t put a price on that.
The First Test in the 2013 Ashes will begin on July 10 at Trent Bridge, Nottingham