Hooray, at least, for hubris. After all the optimism, fuelled by threatening boasts from some of England’s cricketers, the Lord’s Test match in no time turned into as retributively gruesome an anticlimax as the British Lions’ rugby tour had done earlier in the month. To be effective, swank must be supported by confidence in your own elementary basics, but once the bell sounded the Lions couldn’t tackle or pass and the cricketers, woefully, couldn’t hold their catches. It was daft, as well, to set about the Ashes challenge by dismissing many of your opponents as over the hill — over the horizon and far away, more like, and if, beginning next Thursday, England cannot reel back the Australians in the successive Tests at Birmingham and Manchester, then the whole contest could be done, dusted and relegated forlornly to the inside pages by the time Premiership football kicks off on Saturday week.
At Lord’s it was thrilling — elevating — to witness the majesty of the two veteran Australian bowlers, McGrath and Warne, the former relentlessly controlled and almost dot-perfect in unremitting, cold-eyed hostility, the other a lulling, ensnaring provocateur of taunting imagination, daring and infinitely subtle variety. It has been one heck of a high summer for figures of imperishable sporting grandeur whose names even great-great-grandchildren will utter in awe. As well as those two prodigious cricketers for all time, last weekend also saw sealed in the pantheon of immortals the astonishing American cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose uniquely wondrous seventh victory in the ravagingly pitiless Tour de France was, some say, the most exceptional feat in any sport, ever. Only three Sundays before, the young Swiss Roger Federer had won his third Wimbledon tennis title with such an arresting, beguiling ease and beauty that greybeards in the know insisted no player before could ever have bettered him; again, ever. And in between, with an almost operatic aptness, on Scotland’s ancient golf links the old order gave way when, with monstrously cool severity and skill, Tiger Woods dismantled the field at precisely the same time as a hubbub acclaimed his compatriot and the former emperor as he played his final farewell-forever strokes. A similar wise-innocent, Woods seems pluperfect heir to the fabled paragon Nicklaus.
All that and the Olympics for London too! Meanwhile, it would give English cricket an immeasurable boost if in the next couple of weeks at Edgbaston and Old Trafford the Australians were to find themselves seriously stretched and fretting. The good old grassroots game goes on, of course, but it needs some perking up, like an Ashes victory or two. Twenty years ago, when Birmingham was bidding for the 1992 Games, I spent a lot of time with the optimistic supremo of the Brummie squad, Denis Howell, and one lovely late midsummer weekend afternoon we flew by helicopter the Olympic eminence Sr Samaranch from Heathrow where he was to inspect progress at the proposed Olympic rowing facilities near Nottingham. It was a blissful flight — a bird’s-eye view across the heart of a serene and glorious pastoral England bathing in a heatwave.
Doubtless with a myriad of weird and wacky Olympic sports in his mind as he looked down over England, the pallid Spanish panjandrum seemed increasingly dismayed by what he was seeing from the air. ‘I can no understand it,’ he said, pained and disbelieving, ‘the whole of England, all of it, seems only to be playing just this cricket.’