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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 August 2005, 18:01 GMT 19:01 UK
Cricket v football

By Jonathan Stevenson

With England involved in a fascinating fight with Australia for the Ashes, cricket has once again entered the mainstream of the nation's consciousness.

For the first time in many years, football has a very real challenge to its dominance of the media, and its place at the forefront of sporting minds.

Sure, later in the season, our focus will shift back, especially in the build-up to the World Cup.

But here, BBC Sport suggests six reasons why the start of the Premiership season - at a time when the Ashes series is on a knife-edge - feels to some like an unwelcome intrusion...

SUMMER MEANS CRICKET

OK, so it was only a Twenty20 game, but there was something quintessentially seasonal about England's 100-run demolition of Australia at the Rose Bowl in June.

England celebrate their Twenty20 win over Australia at the Rose Bowl

As the sun beat down and England's bowlers reduced their counterparts to 31-7, the Ashes summer had begun in earnest. Without a football in sight.

Two enthralling one-day international competitions and a phoney war between the principal protagonists that dominated the newpapers on front and back pages later, and the real business of Test cricket got under way.

As the third Test began last Thursday with the score tied at 1-1, it felt like the start of the football season was an unwelcome intruder on the public's sporting consciousness.

England went into Monday with a very real chance of going 2-1 up, thanks to a heroic 106 from Andrew Strauss on the fourth day.

Not everyone seems to agree where the nation's priorities lie at the moment: The Sun's back page lead with Hernan Crespo's late winner for Chelsea at Wigan, leaving just a lowly paragraph for Strauss.

SPORTDAQ COLUMN INCHES
MONDAY, 15 AUGUST
Andrew Strauss 14,022
Hernan Crespo 7,168

19 MAY - 10 AUGUST
Jose Mourinho 52,958
Shane Warne 44,461

But for column inches across the English press as a whole Strauss featured far more prominently than the Argentine, showing that the Ashes are still very much the apple of the media's eye at the moment.

In fact it has been a close battle between the two sports all summer since the football season finished in May - Australian spinner Shane Warne has rivalled even Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho for coverage.

TOP-CLASS SPORT

It is fair to say that since England last won the Ashes on the 1986/87 tour to Australia, we have not exactly been spoiled by top-class Test match cricket going the home side's way in this country.

When Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne blew England away in the first Test at Lord's it seemed as though the familiar story of the past 16 years was set fair for another repeat.

Match-winners Steve Harmison (left) and Geraint Jones celebrate at Edgbaston

But the Edgbaston encounter was played at such a majestic level, former Australian captain and doyen of cricket commentary Richie Benaud was moved to call it "one of the greatest Tests of all time".

There was so much to savour: England's frenzied day-one batting; Warne's magical 10-wicket haul; Andrew Flintoff's stunning nine sixes in the game; and Australia's brave but ultimately unsuccessful fightback on the final day.

Indeed, England and Wales Cricket Board head of communications Colin Gibson believes England's success deserves more coverage.

"It shows that when you've got a successful England team the nation wants to get behind it and it's fantastic for cricket," Gibson told BBC Sport.

"The Premiership's a great competition but I can't ever remember in its 13-year history the opening day being overshadowed by cricket.

"It's fantastic for the game and for the country. Cricket is certainly in people's consciousness now."

SPORTSMANSHIP

At Upton Park on Saturday, 81 minutes into the new season, Blackburn striker Paul Dickov launched into a two-footed lunge on West Ham's Paul Konchesky and was sent off for foul play.

The furious reaction of the Hammers players was understandable - they had, after all, just seen their team-mate kicked up in the air and lucky to escape a serious injury.

Contrast that with Sunday's battle between Australia's fastest bowler Brett Lee and England opener Andrew Strauss.

Andrew Strauss bleeds after being hit on the helmet by Brett Lee
The great thing about playing the best side in the world is you are challenged to come up with a solution to the problems they cause
Andrew Strauss

Early on in his second innings, Strauss was struck on the helmet by a vicious Lee bouncer and the blood dripping from a cut on his ear showed how hard he had been hit.

Lee responded with a succession of short balls to try to further unsettle Strauss, but the batsman gritted his teeth and went on to make a terrific hundred, his first in an Ashes Test.

When he was eventually out, Lee rushed over to him and warmly shook him by the hand to congratulate him on a fine knock.

And there were numerous other examples too involving Lee, and others like Shane Warne and Andrew Flintoff, at Edgbaston in the previous Test.

Perhaps not so long ago such respect did exist in football, but this type of comradeship is hard to find in the money-obsessed world in which the players now live.

BANTER IN THE CROWDS

After a low-key start in the audience participation stakes at Lord's, the Ashes has burst into life and the crowds have played their part in England's resurgence.

Football-style chanting and Mexican waves have been a regular occurrence and the players have been responsible for getting the public involved.

At Edgbaston, Justin Langer was fielding at deep mid-wicket off Shane Warne and was indulging the spectators as they barracked him for Australia's loose bowling.

Brett Lee picks up a fake severed foot thrown from the Old Trafford crowd
Brett Lee picks up a fake severed foot thrown from the Old Trafford crowd

He responded with an extraordinary one-handed stop on the ropes to prevent a certain four and doffed his cap to a well-deserved standing ovation.

In Manchester on Sunday there was more of the same from Lee, fielding on the boundary for much of England's rapid second innings.

Supporter Zoe Feller, who was at Old Trafford, told BBC Sport: "Lee is my new hero. He played the crowd perfectly - waving on demand and responding to chants of 'So macho' with a wink and a smile.

"Sitting next to the Aussie 'Fanatics' was lucky. They'd arrived with their 'Jonesy' banners and spent the early part of the morning flapping their hands impersonating England's unfortunate wicket-keeper.

"The minute Gilchrist missed his first catch, the entire stand turned on the six rows of Aussies, chanting 'Gilchrist, Gilchrist' and flapping their hands in the same way.

"Having spent Saturday afternoon standing in the rain at Portsmouth watching a waterlogged start to the football season, it was a pleasure to enjoy the spirit of the summer's sport for a bit longer."

CHARACTERS

It has been said often enough in recent times: there just aren't any characters left in football any more.

Paul Gascoigne was arguably the last English footballer who you could not take your eyes off - you just knew something was always going to happen when he was around.

Star performers Flintoff and Warne show their mutual admiration
Star performers Flintoff and Warne show their mutual admiration

In this Ashes series, in Andrew Flintoff and Shane Warne, we are blessed with two of the most box-office-friendly sportsmen in the world.

The fact that they have both taken wickets and scored runs aplenty is a major factor, clearly, but they possess an X-factor that makes them stand out amongst their peers.

When they talk, you sit up, stop what you are doing and listen.

And even more so when you hear them cannily chirping out on the pitch, as on Sunday when Warne quipped to Strauss: "Don't get too far across your stumps there, Straussy!"

How many footballers can you imagine in the same situation?

Guys like Warne and Flintoff also make things happen when they have no right to. Take Warne's ball to Strauss at Edgbaston that turned square and thudded into the leg stump, or his gutsy 90 at Old Trafford.

Think back to Flintoff's mesmeric over in the second Test when he produced beauties to dismiss Langer and Ricky Ponting, not to mention the gigantic six he smote back over Lee's head.

RESPECT FOR OFFICIALS

Make no bones about it, this is the most important series for English cricket in many, many years and there is a lot at stake every day, every session, just about every ball.

Yet when a bad call has been made, and there have been a few, how many times have you seen players from either side rush to the umpire and question the decision?

In future I'm going to have to learn maybe to calm myself down a bit
England bowler Simon Jones

Just because players harassing officials is considered the norm in football these days does that mean we should just accept it and let them get on with it?

Sure David Prutton was upset at his sending off while playing for Southampton against Arsenal in February, but pushing the referee to get his point across?

How many times have cricketers been fined a percentage of their match fee simply for shaking their head after being on the end of a wrong decision?

However low they feel, there is always an acceptance that the umpire's decision is final.

It is to the sport's great credit in the modern day that the players are advised to keep their own counsel rather than air in public their grievances.





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