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The Ashes: the hype and the story

THERE are a great many things about cricket which I do not understand and I guess every follower of the game could say that. But there is nothing more mysterious to me as the reason behind one of the traditions of the game - why is the Ashes Test series still a five-Test affair?

SInce the mid-1980s, England have been nothing but pushovers. Only the degree of capitulation has differed. And since that very period, Australia has played at least one real hard-fought series with every other cricketing nation, in some cases more than one. Yet the Ashes remains a five-Test series. And the South Africans, worthy contenders to the position which Australia holds, are given three Tests. It defies logic.

Does the Ashes yield that amount of revenue? Does it produce that much of thrilling cricket? Is a three- or four-month tour justified when one comes back with lopsided results like 3-0 and 4-1? The real joke is that Australia could have played the five Tests which it did in England in 18 days, not 25. That's all it took to come back with four victories to England's one.

The problem lies in the fact that a bunch of old farts run the game. People who still put their right foot first when stepping out of their homes, people who see everything in terms of what happened 100 years ago, men whose vision of tomorrow is yesterday. I am pretty sure that the CEO of the Australian Cricket Board, Malcolm Speed, does not fall into that category and that he would gladly support a three-Test Ashes series and a five-Test tilt against the South Africans. But then he is not the only man who can make these decisions.

Of course, England and Australia have agreements that they will contest the Ashes every two years. Australia also has an agreement with the West Indies about reciprocal tours every two years. But then one-sided matches are slowly killing the game. Probably, home crowds may turn out to see teams slaughter the West Indies - people still have not forgotten those 15 years when the West Indies were cocks of every walk. But apart from that, who wants to see a series which is a clear mismatch? Or does the opinion of the masses count for naught?

Cricket administrators should take pride in knowing the mood of people. Unfortunately, most administrators these days are stuck behind rose-coloured spectacles and have little feel for the game apart from what they knew in their childhood. That those days are long gone and will never return is not something that these worthies are willing to admit. One of the by-products of this kind of antiquated thinking is a five-Test Ashes series.

There should be room for diplomacy in cricket as in everything else in life. But it should not extend to the ridiculous. Cricket is supposed to be exactly the opposite - sublime. Persisting with blind tradition and being prudish to the extent that one pulls down the blind when changing one's mind may give the individual a great deal of satisfaction and a feeling of "doing the right thing." The real world is just a step away and what is happening out there is what counts.