The Ashes are burning bright all right. A lot of cricket still to play. Two Tests remaining — the fourth begins at Nottingham on Thursday, and how might things stand as they go for the grandest of finales at Kennington on 8 September? The series has easily outstripped its ballyhoo billing, every dramatic switch and swash pinning back the ears of the nation. ‘What’s the score?’ is the ubiquitous question. In every high street you see huddles of the citizenry pausing on pavements, fretfully to peer through the plateglass shopfronts of premises which sell television sets. A month ago the Australian captain, with disdainful sauce, reckoned that only a solitary Englishman — Flintoff — was worthy even to challenge for a place in any combined XI made up of the two teams. Now Trescothick, Strauss, Vaughan, Pietersen, Harmison and even the Welsh bowler Jones would demand a game alongside big Freddie. Nor would Ponting captain this imaginary side: tactically, Vaughan’s controlling calm has shown up the Aussie gum-chewer at almost every turn so far.
And so to Nottingham. Might the whole thing be settled there? If so, there is no better field for it. Trent Bridge, with its knowing crowd, is my favourite of England’s ‘out grounds’ especially basking in the sun, with sweet breezes from the river. Trent Bridge is trim and businesslike, yet still with a pastoral air; the reverie of cricket’s heritage always pervades. John Arlott said a distinguishing pleasure of Trent Bridge was always its fond welcome to veteran players, those ancients who once adorned in their flannels the famous field — and on Thursday morning we shall once again sniff the aura and savour those spirits.... Parr and Carr and the Gunns, Larwood and Voce, the two Harrises and the handsome Hardstaffs, Hadlee and Keeton and the engaging Retford ragamuffin Randall.
Ghosts of grandeur.... A couple of weeks ago this corner made passing mention of a boyhood hero batsman who played with the same unconventional and invigorating vim as Randall. I thought of my Gloucestershire’s Charlie Barnett again during that sensational second Test at Edgbaston when Flintoff and Pietersen were so joyously making merry, not only to turn the whole tone, tenor and flow of the series completely on its head, but to lead England to a total of more than 400 on a Test match opening day for the only time since the fabled Ashes Test of 1938 which set Trent Bridge on fire. That midsummer morning 67 years ago was the nearest in all history that any Englishman has come to scoring a century before lunch on the first day of an Ashes contest. I was, of course, oblivious at the time and mewling in my cot, but it wasn’t long before it became probably the first news item ever to fix itself into my noddle, because, obviously, it at once became an imperishable legend in our parts (where the Barnett family ran the high-class fish and game shops in Cirencester and Cheltenham). Our dasher, Charlie, had gloriously flogged Bradman’s bowlers (McCormick, O’Reilly and Fleetwood-Smith) all over Nottingham, carried his bat into lunch on 99, and witheringly clocked the first ball after it for four — and by the time he was out for 126 a telegram-boy bicyclist was whizzing across the Trent to deliver the wire from his mother in Cirencester: ‘Hearty congrats. Everyone round about is thrilled with delight.’ You might say precisely the same about the Ashes 2005.