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Our Ashes obsession is in danger of diminishing the rest of cricket

England's Ben Stokes walks off the pitch dejected after his wicket is taken by Australia's Pat Cummins
Ashes achievements are held up as somehow greater than others Credit: Reuters

We need to talk about the Ashes. Or, at least, we need to talk differently about the Ashes.

It’s a wonderful contest, steeped in history, emotion and all manner of daring tales. From out in the middle or from behind closed doors, there is gossip, there are anecdotes and many legends have been made. Australia have just made a few more.

However, we must also be careful not to equate, on every occasion, a spectacle of entertainment with sporting achievement. This is not a world-class England Test side, nor is it an Australia one.

On occasion, we have been lucky enough to witness the two collide, both mass entertainment and the peak of sporting proficiency. Ben Stokes at Headingley, Pat Cummins in Manchester, Jofra Archer at Lord’s and Steve Smith throughout.

These are solo performances to define an era, whose executors will rank among some of the greats. However, the better these individuals perform, the starker the divide with the rest. Australia, having retained the Ashes, are a team of two halves, mediocrity carried by an exalted few. The difference with England is that their few aren’t quite as exalted.

This Ashes is being contested between the fourth and fifth ranked Test sides. Let’s not forget it. Stokes’ innings was one of the best in the history of the game, but it was quickly hailed as the greatest of all time. You can even buy a scarf which says so. However, even in this calendar year, Sri Lanka’s Kusal Perera surpassed it for individual runs, also with just one wicket in hand. Perera’s knock, against South Africa, barely even makes the conversation. After all, it wasn’t an Ashes knock, was it?

Anyone remember the World Cup? Credit: Getty images

For India’s vibrant cricket fans, a cheap and easy taunt is that Virat Kohli will never be amongst the greats because, so the refrain goes, "he never did it in the Ashes." Most throwaway lines have a hint of truth, this one too.

The Ashes are not quite the Oxbridge boat race, or its varsity rugby match, where history and tradition has long surpassed any genuine sporting skill. However, there is a real danger that we will slide subconsciously into comparing everything against the Ashes, even when this excludes most of the cricketing world.

There is a method, of course, to this maddening hype. The Ashes are a money-making machine and easy publicity to a sport that needs it, notwithstanding the engaging summer we’ve had. There is a reason that we have had a World Cup and Ashes starting and finishing within the space of ten days of each other. That reason is not player performance.

This, however, is short-sighted. It we continue to take the Ashes out of context, beyond compare with other nations, or dismiss the idea that another rivalry might not be able to achieve something similarly prestigious, we are narrowing the appeal of a sport at the very moment we should be doing everything to broaden it.

Failing to temper our Ashes obsession means we will miss an opportunity to engage part of the country which was enthused by the World Cup, but which has been strikingly absent from this series. It is no secret that, after a tournament defined by the enthusiasm of South East Asian fans, some for other countries but many amongst England’s own supporters, this demographic is now nowhere to be seen.

The Ashes are great, but if we hold them up as too much greater than they really are, we will get to the point where English cricket, every 18 months, maybe even every year, relies on this narrow, exclusive contest to the detriment of others. A series against Bangladesh, Pakistan, even India, will becomes less and less important, less followed, less meaningful, and cricket diminishes for it.

It diminishes the sport, the diversity, the calibre and attractiveness that events like the World Cup did so much to enhance. Celebrate the Ashes, for the spectacle, the fun, the moments of brilliance, but we should think twice before continuing to elevate it to a pedestal unreachable by anything else.