What with all that’s happened over the last few days, you could be forgiven for forgetting that, in actual fact, an Ashes series starts tomorrow.
Yes, the Ashes. Not just any old fixture, but the big one – not merely the definitive event of English cricket but the spiritual core of our entire faith.
Yet this feels like the most low-key build up to an Ashes series in living memory.
This can partly be ascribed to our other sportsmen’s feats during the last 72 hours. The Lions’ victory was one thing, but Andy Murray’s triumph was off the scale – a seemingly impossible dream come true.
Such dramas – in combination with the oppressively hot weather – have distracted us from what lies ahead over the next six weeks at Trent Bridge, Lord’s, Durham, Old Trafford and the Oval.
But there’s another factor – there seems less at stake this time. A lot of that is because we hold the urn already, and it’s an unfamiliar feeling to go into an Ashes series as holders; it’s not happened at home since 1989.
Because we’ve won three of the last four Ashes, the contest has – in the short term at least – lost some of its edge and mystique. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the very idea of beating Australia was hopelessly fantastical – an indulgent daydream. Now, it’s commonplace – or at least seems that way.
Superficially, it feels like there’s less to play for this time around. In 2001 we could dare to dream. In 2005 we knew we had a fighting chance. In 2006/7 we were the holders but facing a huge challenge. 2009 offered a real but far from straightforward chance to regain the urn, while 2010/11 took us into uncharted territory.
But in 2013, we have little to gain, and much to lose – at least on the face of it. And a lot of that is due to the perceived weakness of this Australian team. If we win, we’ll have achieved little more than maintaining the status quo, and few will be impressed. But if we lose, it will be a catastrophe.
There, however, lies the reason we should snap out of our collective torpor and remember just how important, really, this forthcoming series actually is.
Just imagine if we lose. The notion alone is enough to spell out what’s at stake. The thought of that treasured urn – so hard-won, so craved for so long, being wrenched from our hands. And although we probably won’t lose, the Australians will fight hard and cause us plenty of scares along the way.
But it’s not only the idea of defeat which should galvanise us, but victory too. We mustn’t get glib or complacent, or forget what life was like in those long, sixteen, urn-less years. A win this summer will be more than routine: not only is any win over Australia to be treasured, but this is our opportunity, in the best case scenario, to rub their Baggy Green noses in it, and take another huge step in establishing a long-term hegemony over our greatest rival.
Lest we forget, the Ashes is never an ordinary series, no matter what the balance of power or recent results. If you’re English or Australian, the Ashes are cricket – part our DNA, they’re where the story begins and ends. And frankly, even if you’re only remotely interested in cricket, the Ashes are the most important contest in all of sport – on both an emotional and historical level.
Heart-warming though the Lions and Andy Murray may have been, it’s time to remember that in the great scheme of things they are small fry compared to the real deal which now lies ahead. Ultimately, whether it’s a football or rugby World Cup, the Ryder Cup, the Olympics or the Champions League, the Ashes outstrip them all. I don’t need to argue this; it just is.
So let’s put all other thoughts from our heads and knuckle down to the emotional rollercoaster ride which begins tomorrow. Much of it will be hard to watch. There will be batting collapses, injuries, dodgy form and resilient Australians to contend with. We may not win. Stuck in the office or on the train home, we may not even be able to watch much of it live. But in our hearts and minds, we will feel every delivery, every run. Because we have no choice. These are the Ashes.