Forget Ashes phoney war, we need beef and bombast to get juices flowing

The football season is as good as done, even if the June internationals stagger and linger long past last orders.

The sun, having played peekaboo for the past eight months, is warming the loam. Derby Day has been and gone, along with many small fortunes, while the Lions won't fully roar for another three weeks. The decks are clearing for cricket, yet the protagonists seem determined to dull any Ashes buzz with feigned indifference and management speak.

When the Australians arrived last week, their captain, Michael Clarke, told reporters "as a team I don't think we are focused on the Ashes at all at this stage". Meanwhile Alastair Cook sounded like a newly qualified life coach when he reminded everyone "as cricketers you stay in the present, that's how you have to live life". Even the taunts and pantomime predictions, traditional harbingers of an Ashes summer, are neutered. You half wish that David Warner had used Twitter to get fruity with Graeme Swann rather than the Australian press corps.

Of course it's hard to forecast a whitewash when you've just been thumped, as Australia were in India recently. And the Champions Trophy, which starts this week, has also – inevitably – acted as a handbrake on the broader narrative of an Ashes summer that used to last from May to September but now seems crammed into the school holidays.

Even so, given that England and Australia face each other on Saturday, you might expect a little more beef and bombast. At this stage every encounter matters. In Ashes Regained, Duncan Fletcher's book of England's 2005 victory, he stresses how the first contest against Australia – a bawdy, chest-out, you-looking-at-me Twenty20 victory – served "as a statement of intent", adding: "No one should underestimate the value of that win."

In a week when Clarke said little, it was his predecessor Ricky Ponting who best summed up what the Ashes means. When asked about the distinct – and quickly extinct – possibility of wearing the baggy green again, he replied: "You wouldn't say no, would you, if that call came." It was both personal and universal; perhaps the most heartfelt 11 syllables Ponting has ever spoken. You wouldn't say no, if that call came. None of us would.

In his interview, Ponting recalled battles and played amateur futurologist. That's what this stage of an Ashes summer should be about: those twin forces of anticipation and nostalgia, stirring the juices before the first delivery.

As a young lad, I prepared for the 1985 series by playing Test Match, using the same hand to nudge the bowler's arm, play the batsman's shot and record the outcome of every ball in my scorebook. I added a nerdish nuance of using different-sized ball bearings for fast bowlers, medium pacers and spinners. The result was usually the same though: multiple boundaries and fielders sent flying as if felled by buckshot.

These days it's old YouTube clips that do it for me – usually Richie Benaud, tan standing out in the early months of the English summer as if given a fresh lick of linseed oil, pops up somewhere – as well as re-reading the greats: Neville Cardus, Gideon Haigh, Matthew Engel, and others. There's always a great line that stirs an ancient memory: a personal favourite is Engel on mid-period Ian Botham, his golden mane now flowing ever more like Aslan even as his powers faded, mounting a rearguard action: "But you know Botham. His policy at Dunkirk would have been to try and march on Berlin."

It's amazing what you forget. The fact that David Gower was guaranteed the captaincy only for the first two Tests of the 1985 series, or that Botham was banned from reverse sweeping by the chairman of the England selectors Peter May after being bowled attempting the shot in the opening one-day international. Apparently May had "thumbedthrough the MCC coaching book and been unable to find the stroke". Different strokes. Different times.

But it's startling how much you remember. After Ponting's reflections it was impossible not to reach again for the 2005 series DVD to watch his match-saving 156 on a day when 10,000 people were locked out of Old Trafford. Cricket, more than any other sport, has a universal Yellow Pages: pick a ground name, choose a year, open a trove of memories. Not just every Test of that series does it, every session does too.

After Lord's, Christopher Martin-Jenkins wrote: "No novelist or playwright would have dared, so early in the plot, to pack together dramatic events of such relentless intensity." But the drama kept coming. From Edgbaston to Old Trafford to Trent Bridge, where England nearly stumbled chasing 129 in what Ashley Giles memorably called "a bit of an arse-nipper", and then the flag-waving denouement at The Oval.

That summer a conflux of circumstances came together: 16 years of defeats and pent-up frustration; the extended foreplay as England and Australia went mano-a-mano across a Twenty20, the NatWest Series and the NatWest Challenge; a team on the up and another ever-so-marginally on the slide: 24 days of wondrous, blissful tantric cricket followed.

The denouement was watched by 7.2m people on Channel 4. It was on front pages and back. Afterwards the England captain Michael Vaughan said: "Cricket has captured the nation; I'm not sure the sport will ever get to that level again." As others danced and whooped, I felt a certain sadness because I knew he was right. It would never be as good again.

In his first dispatch from the 1985 Ashes series, the day after Alan Border's squad arrived in early May, the Guardian's cricket correspondent Engel wrote: "This is war, same as usual."

But at this rate you half suspect the 2013 Ashes phoney war will continue until Trent Bridge in July.

Powered by article was written by Sean Ingle, for The Guardian on Sunday 2nd June 2013 23.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Graham Dean