Long back I had devised a therapy (of sorts), it can even be termed as obsession; depends on how you look at it really. But it certainly feels therapeutic when I am in the act. It takes various forms now, but it began with Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. In its early days it used to be a casual, non-intensive activity. From one end of the living room to another, a young boy would gently run across, or walk, depending on whom I was imitating, and release an imaginary ball to an imaginary batsman. It was almost metronomic, or maybe it wasn’t. It certainly is now.
Unfortunately/Fortunately (I am never sure which), there were severe flaws in my system, and what was supposed to be a never-will-be cricketer’s recourse to a parallel universe, instead assumed the shape of compulsive, hyper-charged, sometimes desperate attempts to blur the lines between the real and the absurd. I have an excuse though, refined over the years, to make it sound more acceptable. But back then, if anybody were to ask me why I expanded to Harmison, Flintoff and, for a brief period, Simon Jones along with the staple offerings of Warne and McGrath, I would have simply blamed it on an outbreak of the Ashes. Quite like the flu, it was terribly contagious, ten summers ago.
It coincided with a period during which I chose to plod my proverbial bat for the English. I too was tired of Old Australia’s dominance and craved for something fresh, an earthen take on a vicious, all conquering machine. In Flintoff and Harmison, I found two men, giants almost (seemingly gentle nonetheless); if given the chance, they would rip your throat off, decimating any semblance of dignity known to man in the process, but they smiled after doing so. Flintoff even had a goofy grin, maybe even the best goofy grin of them all. I was hooked, and in the course of an afternoon, gentle jogs to somewhere near the sofa (read: makeshift stumps) were replaced by a terrier-like rage against the imaginary batsman. The tennis ball seemed to fly out of my hands and ricochet off the wall. "Real pace", I thought, impressed.
It was not to last, as Australia and England, perhaps deeply aware of the intermittent identity crisis, resumed normal service. Australia was dominant thereafter, while England crumbled. In hindsight, I was a shrewder boy than I am now. I instantly reverted to the probing line and length of McGrath, taking care to get as close to the sofa arm as he did to the stumps. Warne's gentle walk to the crease was sharply back in focus. In my mind, I was making mischief on mosaic. Lords was to them, what my living room was to me, albeit mine was a bit hollow.
Edgbaston, however, was when I embraced this sycophancy. I vaguely recall the proceedings leading upto the fourth innings. I remember my father, at a loss for words, on learning that McGrath had been felled by the humble ball-that very object which, upon release from his hands, made grown men look foolish. Warne was imperious. He made the ball dip and curl, leg to off, rear to pavilion. England faltered before Flintoff steadied the ship, but Warne spun webs around English feet.
Surpassing a Warne master-class requires great skill, and determination that will make the Great Wall crumble in one piercing gaze. That afternoon, Flintoff willed himself into producing an over of fast bowling, so hostile, so brilliant, it was almost profound. It had qualities that were transcendental and looking back, I can feel the hair standing on my back. Ponting, that arrogant filth of a man, fleet of foot, and sure of timing, was forced to fend and survive, not swagger about. My opinion of Ponting has changed since then, I grew up to admire him, but during those six balls, I was part of a tribe, collectively, channelling our inner Freddie.
“Entertainment as pain was an idea entirely new to me”, writes Nick Hornby. I have been cruelly reminded of this over the course of my years supporting Tottenham and Netherlands, but it was at Edgbaston that I had my first brush with this unsafe mix. What was supposed to be formality became ludicrously open ended. Australia steadily crept up on the English and I began to despair. At about the same time, my compulsive need to run up and down, across the hall, in various patterns, took root. I huffed and puffed- first as Flintoff and then Harmison-moving closer to the sofa and sometimes going a bit wide, all angles were explored, but in vain. The final wicket remained elusive. I was delusional enough to sledge, what was technically, the wall. I finally gave up. Harmison almost immediately snared Kasprowicz. Kasprowicz caught Jones bowled Harmison. Australia had fallen three runs short of victory.
The delirium had spread from the field onto the stands, bouncing off the telly and into my home. The image of Flintoff, on his haunches, arm across Brett Lee's shoulder, helping him to his feet, amidst the pandemonium, is a moment of great tenderness. It was an acknowledgement of a great adversary and perhaps even the chance to remind him that, "it is 1-1, you Aussie bastard". Three runs more, and it would have been Lee's arms on Freddie's shoulders. Such were the margins.
Old Trafford was merely the sequel to Trent Bridge. England was clearly on the ascendancy and played with a swagger. Australia, usually a collective of cricketing Zeus’, were terribly unhinged and barely survived. Brett Lee, once again at the epicentre of nerve-shredding drama, guided Australia to safety with able help from McGrath. The pair survived four overs, every ball of which was ushered with a primal howl of raucous approval. In hindsight, it was poetic that Brett Lee, so cruelly denied at Edgbaston, should defy, rather delay, the inevitable.
In the intervening period between the third test and the fourth, my transformation from a line and length bowler to a boy capable of spitting missiles was complete. I felt I had it all- Jones’ control, Harmison’s pace and bounce and Flintoff’s enigma. I was yet to throw a ball across 22 yards, but there was no doubt in my mind, that a more complete fast bowler had never existed. After all, I had modelled myself on the best qualities of my three new-found heroes.
Trent Bridge was not an easy watch, not just for the cricket but because I could not shake off a feeling of guilt. Shane Warne, in what felt like his final roll of the wrists, was seducing me into believing that all of this was the greatest bluff of all time. That he would ultimately win Australia the test match and the Ashes. My boyhood hero was making advances I could not resist. The conflict was too serious-I was torn between an old flame and a new lover, one bold and brash, the other full of mystery and intrigue. If I am generally indecisive, it is for that short span of time that I am so. I chose both, Warne’s leg spin, and England’s flummoxed batting order. The game unfolding in my head was many balls ahead of the actual cricket. In a parallel universe, where my whims are everybody else’s command, the test would have been tied. It was not to be as the laddish charm of Hoggard saw England home by three wickets. Warne, and his box of tricks, had simply run out of runs to play with, much to my chagrin. To atone for my betrayal, I sought his approval, walking up and down the house, bowling leg breaks to non-existent batsmen. It did assuage the deep hurt I felt at my own betrayal. If Warne had endeared himself to me for eternity, Ponting’s vitriolic outburst, at being run out by minor offender Gary Pratt left a distasteful residue. I was convinced that the man was full of bile; little did I know that if push came to shove, I too would respond similarly. It was a significant moment, an indication that the English lads had penetrated beyond the veneer of Australian invincibility.
After nearly two months of gripping cricket and mind-numbing drama, The Oval was the venue for its final act. The cricket, over five days, oscillated between a climactic English triumph and soul-plundering Australian thievery. Shane Warne, that great yet occasionally misunderstood master of our times, gave the red leather one final spin. A vocal crowd silently admired a defiant genius’ final bow on English soil. He simply refused to quote Dylan Thomas, ‘go gentle into that good night’. In front of a heaving Oval, Warne raged against fate herself, a mistress he had conquered on innumerable occasions. This, however was not to be.
Pietersen, the batting incarnate of Butch Cassidy, in a remarkable display of braggadocio, carted the Australians. It was a cathartic display of joyous batsmanship. Ironically, it was Warne who dropped him at slips early in his innings. My heart sank and rose at the same time. In many ways, that dropped catch was the passing of the baton from one enigma to the other. Without Warne, there might never have been a KP. The final hour was a celebration, the scale of which I had rarely seen before or since. In a departure from my regular routine, I picked up my bat and swung it around, the tension easing from my face like a rapidly deflating balloon.
On my bad days, I steadfastly refuse to believe that ten years have passed since Freddie Flintoff, Shane Warne and the rest invaded my home, and gave me the most riveting cricket. I still have similar routines, when the outcome or course of play takes a turn for the worse. I still map out entire sequences of play in an alternative space, and when in need of exercise, I physically occupy that space. My friends will perhaps make a few jokes in this regard, but the very seed of the Total Fan, was born in my living room, ten summers ago. It was the most perilous, yet the most complete way to absorb myself in the proceedings, a Cruyffesque notion of what fandom should be like.
In my opinion, no other sporting contest is richer in context and appeal than the Ashes. It is 133 years of history, encompassing every detail of human nature, condensed into 11 cm of a terracotta urn. The Ashes summer of ten years ago made heroes out of ordinary men; the most minor of characters had the most decisive impacts. A drama of its calibre is only possible over five tests, gradually building a narrative, combining the past as well as the present. That is the great beauty of the Ashes, and only a series of its magnitude and quality, could bring out the most obsessive traits in a young boy. As Brian Johnston exclaimed, albeit in a slightly different context, “It’s the Ashes, It’s the Ashes!”