London — Twenty thousand Englishmen baying at the enemy. Screaming themselves hoarse, urging their champion to strike flesh. And then, it happens: The enemy is hit. Yes! Unwilling to show pain, he removes his helmet. Blood — the sight most keenly craved for — trickles down. His entourage runs to assist him — he attempts nonchalance, but concussion is an issue. The crowd is ecstatic.
Is this the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, eager for Norman gore? Or Wellington’s men at Waterloo, bayonets fixed for Frenchies? No, it’s June 2005 at Lord’s Cricket Ground, the spiritual home of cricket worldwide. And the bloodthirsty mob of 20,000 are mostly wearing blazers, brogues and club ties. On other days of the week, you’ll find them at work in arbitrage.
And the blood? Australian, of course — the ancient enemy, rival for the Ashes, as the trophy for each five-match tournament between England and Australia is known. What a start that was, and there were still some 24 more days of such glorious skirmishing to look forward to.
In fact, the 2005 Ashes series turned into the greatest I have ever witnessed, the probable outcome seesawing almost hourly. There were moments when I had to leave the TV, my anxiety too intense. (Spectating can be more nerve-racking even than playing oneself.) I still cannot watch the highlights of the second match — which England won by the closest margin in 123 years of the contest — without fear stoking my pulse. It also remains the only time I have attended a victory parade: Trafalgar Square, London, was awash with jubilant jackets and ties that day.
England vs. Australia in cricket may be one of the oldest sporting rivalries, but it is hardly the most chivalrous. Rather, it is when this oh-so-civilized game truly reveals its nasty, brutish heart. Cricket may be the only team game in the world in which it is entirely legal for a player to make a move whose only purpose is to hurt, if not hospitalize, an opponent. In cricket, this is not a foul; no penalty is awarded, or score deducted. For, central to this gentleman’s pastime — whether played on a village green or at Lord’s — is “the bouncer.”