Offside, 15 September

Even people who don't know their 'Owzat?' from their lbw joined in the post-Ashes party. Why?

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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He can bowl for England. He can bat for England. And now we know he can drink for England, too. Is there anything that Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff can’t do?

Reports of Flintoff being spotted in the bar at the team hotel at 7.45am tucking into another vodka and cranberry juice, and demanding hard liquor at Number 10 instead of tea and water, are the stuff of legend. A bleary-eyed Flintoff, being interviewed before tens of thousands in Trafalgar Square, admitted, ‘To be honest with you, David, I’m struggling. I’ve not been to bed yet. Behind these glasses there are 1,000 stories’.

This sits a little uneasily with the reams of hagiography about him over the last few weeks. ‘[H]e has it in him to be a great man, not in the sense of changing the world, but in being role model and a force for good’, gushed Stephen Brenkley in the Independent on Tuesday. And with our best footballers increasingly going teetotal, there’s a vacancy for a leading British sportsman who likes a few sherbets.

Obviously, that’s not to suggest that a rapid descent into alcoholism is desirable. One look at the sad figure of George Best, who should be nicknamed Jaundiced George now that he’s nearly wrecked a second liver, would be enough to remove any illusions that being drunk is in any way glamorous. But there’s nothing wrong with partying hard when the occasion demands it. If Freddie can be hero in a minority sport like cricket, he could be a megastar in a mass participation pastime like binge-drinking.

The real question is this: do we have the strength in depth? When Freddie’s time is over, will there be youngsters coming through? It is shocking to note that the British government has no plans to make binge-drinking part of the national curriculum – except to discourage it. In fact, not a single primary school in this country is equipped with a licensed bar for its pupils. This is surely a case for lottery funding.

Flintoff wasn’t the only one who felt there was something worth celebrating. After all, it’s nearly 20 years since England last won a Test series against Australia and the Aussies have dished out a fair few thumpings along the way. For England to have avoided humiliation in this series would have been a step forward. To win back the Ashes was a major achievement.

So, English cricket fans have been gripped by the five matches this summer and are over the moon that England managed not to bottle it. The interesting question is why quite so many people joined in the party.

Recently, various different sporting achievements have been marked by open-topped buses and Trafalgar Square receptions. First, it was the rugby team winning the World Cup. Then it was the Olympics team. Okay, that particular parade was about a month too late, but never mind. Then London won the right to host the Olympics in 2012. And now, the Ashes.

It helps that there are teams winning things to celebrate. But the character of these celebrations, and the way even non-sports fans get sucked into them, suggests that this has little to do with sport. In fact, there’s been a trend in recent years towards Shared National Experiences. With the flag and the monarchy treated with derision at best (and more frequently with loathing), the powers-that-be have been only too quick to jump on any passing bandwagon that might unite us all, even briefly.

So it was that Tony Blair said that he’d been following the Ashes series ‘ball-by-ball’. Since that’s the best part of 25 days of cricket, I suspect he might actually be fibbing. Or else, the country’s been leaderless for large chunks of the past two months and nobody noticed. Dear reader, you decide.

As for the majority of those people cheering on Tuesday, who only know one player in the England team and don’t realise his name isn’t actually Freddie, they were just following the hype. They were in Trafalgar Square because they thought Something Big was going to happen, and it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. They’ll have the best possible answer to the question ‘Where were you when…?’.

And what a jolly good sing-song it all was, especially belting out ‘Jerusalem’. Quite what a song speculating about whether Jesus paid a fleeting visit to Blighty, and featuring the phrase ‘dark Satanic mills’, has got to do with cricket, we’ll never know. But it doesn’t matter because hardly anybody knows the words to ‘Jerusalem’ anyway.

It’s not just sporting celebrations that have developed this peculiar character in recent times. This desire to be part of Something Big has been a feature of a host of otherwise disparate events from Diana’s funeral to the demonstrations against the Iraq war and the ban on foxhunting.

Yet anyone who has been part of a crowd like that will appreciate what an incredible sense of excitement and expectation can be created by so many people acting in concert. That’s the reason why so many people are willing to part with hundreds of pounds per season just to watch the pathetic bunch of overpaid prima donnas they call their favourite football team disappoint them time and again.

And that’s also the reason why no subscription to Sky Sports, with 25 different camera angles and endless analysis, will ever be as good as 20,000 people all questioning the legitimacy of the referee’s birth in unison. It’s just a shame that, at the moment, all that power and potency is only ever exercised in the cause of sport.

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Topics Politics


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