Champagne moments have popped up everywhere in an intoxicating summer | Emma John
There has been some suggestion, when analysing the individual performances at the Oval Test, that certain players are looking tired from their long summer of international cricket. It is easy to empathise with them – it’s been an epic one for all of us. Some of England’s players will be rested during the T20 series in New Zealand and it is tempting to follow their lead. When else are we supposed to take stock of all we’ve seen?
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You could sense a little spectator fatigue set in after the false ending at Old Trafford, when Australia retained the Ashes. For Australians, the prospect of their first series win on English soil in 18 years, a prize every bit as valuable as a World Cup – hey, they’ve lifted that six times already, no biggie – led Tim Paine to dub this their Grand Final. A series win would also be a great way to stick it to anyone who ever booed Steve Smith.
But for England fans, the best-case scenario of a two-all draw scarcely seemed a reason to put the Moët on ice, not after a summer that had given us so many champagne moments already. We’d been spoiled for storylines and the realisation that the Ashes weren’t coming home – and England could still finish on the pointy end of a 3-1 scoreline – was as deflating as sitting through seven series of your favourite TV show only to discover that Bran Stark had won the Game of Thrones. (Still not over that, no.)
As it is, the Oval has provided us with a well-balanced finale. Its pacing has been slow enough to foster plenty of in-game chat about who should be England’s next coach and how the county schedule can better prioritise red-ball cricket. For all our vaunted love of nostalgia, it’s impressive how quickly sports fans move on. Hindsight, that backhanded gift from the gods, is already staking its claim on a cricketing summer that was, for some, the greatest we’ve known.
It’s at times like these that I wish I was on trend enough to indulge in scrapbooking. I could do with something tangible to put some perspective on a hectic few months of drama and discovery. It is, after all, bizarre to think that it was only in May we were talking about how Ben Stokes was looking disappointingly quiet with the bat. Or whether Jofra Archer, an unknown unknown, should be selected at all.
It is not just that this has been one of the longest international seasons this country has witnessed in the men’s game. So much has happened in those matches that even the second Ashes Test at Lord’s seems pretty distant now. Remember when Smith got knocked on the head? Remember when people thought that might scupper his series? I am beginning to assemble a mental scrapbook. There are too many Headingley images begging for inclusion – so far I’ve chosen the second after Stokes scooped Pat Cummins and the toe end of his bat reached his lips like he was blowing smoke from the barrel of a gun. I’ve also pasted in the scorecard from the World Cup semi-final against Australia – the last time we saw an England top-four in full flight. It might take me several weeks to sift through my mental souvenirs from the final, although that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
Those are the pieces of action it’s impossible to forget. Just as joyous are the alternative moments from a sporting timeline that has spanned the sublime and the ridiculous. After all, where else should this scrapbook start but the World Cup opening ceremony, an event that successfully veiled the exhilarating tournament to come behind a curtain of drizzle and awkward celebrity match-ups? I, for one, never wish to forget that I once watched Freddie Flintoff interview the Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Or that the ICC’s version of David Beckham delivering the 2012 Olympic torch by speedboat was Graeme Swann carrying the trophy through a mostly empty Mall in a tux.
Considerable space in this scrapbook will be devoted to spectacular catches: Jimmy Neesham and Fabian Allen’s diving caught‑and-bowleds, Martin Guptill’s left-handed screamer off Smith, Joe Denly doing a cartwheel to get rid of Paine during the Lord’s Test. If much of the recent evolution of the professional cricketer has been about power hitting and biceps that can rocket the ball into the mesosphere, then this was the summer that showcased the players’ increasingly superhuman athleticism in the field. Yet these physical paragons haven’t lost their characterful quirks, so I’m also giving a page to favourite run-ups. These include Adam Zampa’s pigeon-step shuffle, Lockie Ferguson’s starting shimmy, and Jasprit Bumrah, hurrying his invisible tray of drinks to the crease while trying not to spill them.
Mostly, I’m keen to recall the games and performances that have been superseded by all that followed. Three months ago we thought Carlos Brathwaite’s spectacular World Cup century against New Zealand, bringing West Indies within a single hit of an impossible victory, had given the tournament its most heart-stopping finish. Some even thought that the inexplicable implosion of tournament favourites India in their semi-final against New Zealand – at one stage to the tennis score of 5-3 – was one of the most dramatic collapses we’d witness all year. Little did we know what was coming in the England v Ireland Test match. Connoisseurs may claim – and justifiably so – that the summer of 2005 beats this one for dramatic narrative(Smith aside, this Ashes series can’t match the quality of those performances, either). The summer of 2019 has been a very different prospect, but it has been no less emotionally involving – or, frankly, exhausting – for that. From the greatest World Cup final to an Ashes series with three breathlessly tight finishes, we couldn’t have asked for any more and we won’t want to forget a minute of it.