Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The most compelling sporting soap opera of them all

Can you wait any longer? In just seven hours time, The Ashes gets under way in Brisbane. Here's my piece on the oldest and most compelling sporting soap opera of them all, from today's The Australian.,20867,20804328-7583,00.html

FORGET Neighbours, Home and Away or Coronation Street. After a 14-month absence, the oldest and most compelling soap opera is back - and coming to a television set near you. In its 124-year run, this particular soap has had a cast of thousands. Some have played entertaining cameos; others - such as the Don in 1930, Beefy in 1981, and the Demon 100 years earlier - have given performances of a lifetime.

The Ashes combines the gripping, emotional drama of a play by Tennessee Williams with the colour and exuberance of an Alexander Korda epic. But unlike pre-scripted soaps, saccharine endings are not always on the agenda, as Don Bradman found out when bowled for a duck by Eric Hollies in his final Ashes innings at the Oval in 1948.

Old colonial rivalry, at least in the early years, undoubtedly helped make the series what it is. But the main reason the Ashes is still the biggest show in town is because it has changed so little down the years.
The players may no longer wear neckties, the final Test is no longer played to a finish beyond the time limit and advertising is now everywhere, but the essential premise - of a biennial five or six Test series between two traditional sporting rivals - has stayed the same ever since the 1880s.

With the Ashes we know what we're going to get and the familiarity, far from breeding contempt, engenders only affection - and an incredible sense of anticipation. What a pity, therefore, that unlike English and Australian cricket administrators, others have not heeded those wisest of words: if it ain't broke, why fix it?
For in today's post-ideological age, change for the sake of change appears to have become the new religion. Politicians talk of modernisation in the same way they used to talk about socialism or liberalism and see it as their duty to change as many things as they can, regardless of whether there is public demand.

Ditto, sports administrators. In 1999, England's football authorities had the brainwave to change the format of the FA Cup, the country's oldest and most popular knock-out competition. The all-important third round, when the clubs from the first two leagues entered the contest, was switched to the second Saturday in December away from its traditional home on the first Saturday in January. Fans were disoriented, unhappy and voted with their feet.

The renowned Cheltenham horse-racing festival, so beloved by jump racing fans, has also fallen victim to the mania for making unnecessary changes. For more than 50 years, the festival provided three days of intense, top-quality action. But in 2005, the authorities decided to introduce afourth day, diluting the quality of the event and ruining its unique atmosphere.

Unnecessary redevelopments of perfectly adequate sporting stadiums are also part of the modernising obsession. What was wrong with the old Wembley stadium with its evocative twin towers? Or the old Ascot racecourse, with its leafy paddock and elevated viewing terraces?

It's not just sport that has been adversely affected. Last year, in a shameful act of cultural vandalism, the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, decided to scrap the city's distinctive red double-decker Routemaster buses, an emblem of the city the world over. In their place, Londoners are served by ugly, modern bendy buses totally devoid of charm and photogenic appeal. And they go no faster.

Of course, we should not be slaves to the past and oppose all change. But we do need to acknowledge that too much of what is good is being destroyed needlessly.

Thank goodness, as we settle down to watch Warne, Flintoff and co commence hostilities, that there are some things in life that stay the same. Such as the art-deco bistros and brasseries in Paris, yellow taxi-cabs in New York and Aussies yelling abuse at the Poms at the cricket. The Ashes is proof that just because something has been around a long time, it doesn't mean that its time is up.

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