I’m glad I’m not a betting man. One of my best mates is, and I am forever bemused by his enthusiasm for absurd spread bets. This summer, however, when he said he had backed the Aussies to win the Ashes I almost felt like joining in; despite the recent improvements in the England cricket team, and the shaky performance of the Australians during the one-day series’, I felt that come the five day game their undoubted superiority would tell and there could only be one winner. It seemed like easy money to me; but I didn’t succumb, and so had a lucky escape. My mate has lost a small fortune.

All the way through this test series I have thought that the Australians would eventually show their class and turn us over. Even going into the last day at The Oval I would have put my money on Warne spinning the English batsmen out, followed by the Aussie’s rattling together their rapid fire winning runs; and yet it never happened. I still find it hard to take in, but looking back objectively at the whole Ashes series (or as objectively as I can) I have to say that England have not just been the better side but have largely dominated this series and have been superior in all departments (with, I guess, the specific exceptions of spin bowling and wicket keeping). Gaining a first innings lead in four out of five tests, even making the Aussies follow-on at Trent Bridge, illustrates this well; that we have simply batted and bowled better than the opposition. But I still can’t quite believe it.

Where does cricket go from here, and can the recent popularity the sport has gained be built upon? Much has been made of live test matches now leaving terrestrial television and “disappearing to Sky”; but as Sky is present in over 30% of homes I doubt disappearing is the right word to use. That said, I do feel that part of the decline in the popularity of the sport in recent years has been down to the way the matches have been split between Channel 4 and Sky, making many games unavailable to the majority of the public. When the BBC had exclusive rights, and showed every test and one day international, as well as the NatWest cup games and some Sunday league matches, cricket seemed to be more a part of the fabric of national life. I was more than happy when cricket first moved to Channel 4 and their coverage has been excellent, a huge improvement on the BBC’s efforts, and with a few exceptions (Mark Nicholas’s occasional embarrassing hyperbolic commentary, sounding like Alan Partridge reading a Batman comic; those two buffoons who do the BetFair adverts at the breaks, better known to passive Cbeebies viewers at “the twats from Big Cook Little Cook“) I will miss the way they have covered the sport; but I do think the decision to put one day matches and some tests on satellite TV did overall lower the profile of the game. Similarly I feel that the Rugby Union missed a trick after the success of the England team in the World Cup in not trying to get a regular prime time Zurich premiership show on terrestrial television. There may have been all sorts of practical problems preventing them from doing so, but if they had then I think they could have capitalised on the publicity from the World Cup victory and increased the popularity of the game; instead interest seems to have waned back to pre- World Cup levels.

Then again, I don’t have Sky; if I did then perhaps I would still feel that Cricket and Rugby have a good presence on television. Perhaps the best way to build upon the surge of interest in cricket is to have a successful cricket team; after all, that is the reason more people are suddenly interested in the game again today, and perhaps Sky’s money is the best way of ensuring that this success is consolidated and built upon. By the same token perhaps the decline in interest in Rugby Union is more down to the decline in the success of the England rugby team than anything else. But if success of the national teams is a factor, how do you explain the continued popularity of football in England?

Update 14/9/05: The Daily Mail is hilarious (unintentionally, of course) on this matter today. There is their leader, “Hijacking the Ashes heroes” that complains about Labour leaping on board the cricket bandwagon; when in fact all the Mail are doing is hijacking the Ashes to bash the Labour party. While making a fair point about Duncan Fletcher having just been awarded British citizenship, stating that “New Labour hate everything cricket stands for” is plainly absurd, and complaining about “the disgraceful sale of school playing fields” is an incredibly hypocritical statement for a Tory paper to make. But hypocrisy is their stock in trade as their front page story “Labour’s great cricket sell-out” makes clear. Yes, it is all Labour’s fault, for conceding to the the ECB’s own request to remove test matches “listed status”, and for then failing to prevent the ECB from signing an entirely legal contract, approved by OFCOM, with Sky to televise cricket over the next four years. Don’t look surprised; this is classic Daily Mail in action; a fierce proponent of free markets and the scourge of the nanny state…until such a position provides a result they don’t like, or an alternative standpoint can be used to bash Labour, and then their fine principles are jettisonned in the blink of an eye.

I would call it a silly newspaper, if it weren’t so nasty; but I have just spent the past few minutes of my life criticising the Mail, and I feel cheapened as a consequence. I don’t want to be dragged down to their level, so I will shut up now.