When a football legend like Sir Alex Ferguson turns up at the other Old Trafford on a Sunday to watch England play cricket rather than nip along to see Wigan lose to Chelsea you know that there's a sea change going on in the appreciation of our summer game.
Ferguson is such a cricket refusenik that he actively discouraged Phil Neville as he contemplated a career with Lancashire, telling him that football ought to be his preferred choice. Otherwise he could look elsewhere for a contract.
But there he was on Sunday, extolling the virtues of investing in youth, whatever the sport, singling out the splendid Andrew Flintoff for some knightly praise, looking for all the world as if cricket could supplant horse racing in his affections in his efforts to deal with the pressures of Manchester United.
Ferguson?s gut instincts are tuned into concrete proof that cricket?s popularity just grows and grows in this country. In the opinion of countless fans of both sports, the dawn of a Premiership season has never been less welcome.
The contrast in football?s bickering and remorseless self-delusion with the grandeur of an ancient sporting contest stretching back to 1877 has been particularly stark since the dramas of Edgbaston were almost immediately replaced by Old Trafford?s unrelenting tension.
The enduring sporting image of this year remains Andrew Flintoff?s respectful gesture of commiserations to Brett Lee at the moment of England?s victory at Edgbaston. It doesn?t take any prodding from the ECB?s spin doctoring department to point up the difference between the Flintoff vignette and the snarling, angst-ridden photographs drawn from the renewed action in the Premiership.
The facts behind cricket?s renaissance are striking. This summer, sales of England cricket shirts have outsold any football shirts. More than 600,000 tickets have been sold for the series and there isn?t one to spare for the last two Tests. The ECB could have sold another half a million tickets for this series if the grounds had been big enough.
Every day since the first day of the Lord?s Test, the ECB?s website has logged record hits, with more than two million on the first day at Old Trafford.
Yet if the England players manage to regain the Ashes for the first time since 1989, their bonus will be #60,000 each. That?s about half of what Rio Ferdinand earns in a week. Yet you won?t find Flintoff and his mates moaning about such a differential. They?re bubbling, excited and grateful for the massive public support, relishing the prospect of making history.
Young Ian Bell can?t believe how lucky he is that his continued development as a batsman has coincided with a place at number four in this series.
When you talk to him, he glows with pleasure, readily confesses what a thrill it all is and admits that scoring two fifties in the Old Trafford Test was a career highlight.
As the Warwickshire batsman smashed Glenn McGrath over long-off for six, the delighted reaction on the balcony of Michael Vaughan ? flexing his muscles at Bell like Popeye ? spoke volumes of the regard he has for Bell.
The only jarring note has been the ICC regulation that cheats the paying customers out of a certain amount of overs per day and rewards the team which isn?t totally consumed by thoughts of victory.
Because play has to finish at a certain time every day to accommodate the demands of television, overs lost aren?t made up. So a total of 14 overs were lost for good during three days and, with Saturday?s rain lopping off 74 overs, that meant a whole day?s play went down the plughole at Old Trafford. It was fatuous to see the players troop off at 6.30 on Saturday night, in the best weather of the day.
The players are doing more than enough to popularise Test cricket. It?s time the game?s ruling body showed some common-sense, allowing umpires to show flexibility. Conditions of play do vary all around the world.
That?s the only quibble from another extraordinary Test. It was no consolation to England?s shattered warriors that the match they almost won was a wonderful advert for Test cricket.
One wicket would have seen England go 2-1 up and these are hardened professionals, uninterested in the wider gains from Old Trafford.
I believe England should be the happier of the two sides. Australia have problems. Jason Gillespie is a spent force as a fast bowler, Matt Hayden hasn?t scored more than 70 in the last 29 Test innings and their fielding lacks the edge and efficiency of their years of supremacy. Friday?s play convinced me that the wheel has turned and that England can win the series.
The Aussies batted like millionaires, but rashly, and their institutionalised arrogance and conviction that four runs per over is the norm is rebounding on them. They were saved by the rain at Old Trafford. England have dismissed Australia five times out of six in the series and finished only one wicket short in the other.
We should be grateful to Australia for reviving Test cricket by their verve and gusto. Other teams have taken note and are trading punches with them. The winner is the game itself. We have a month to go in the series, thank goodness.
Who will be the tea-pot clubs and who'll get the cups?
I thought I?d wait for Robbie Savage?s first booking of the new season before offering a few thoughts/predictions over the forthcoming nine months of hoopla.
Like the first cuckoo of the spring, Savage?s indiscipline is always a sure sign that the seasons are changing. The surprise was that it took him as long as 20 minutes to get booked on Saturday.
BEST PRE-SEASON QUIP:
The postman offering crumbs of comfort to West Ham?s captain, Christian Dailly, who was surprised to be told that the Hammers would stay in the Premiership for three seasons. The postman?s delivery was splendidly droll, though: ?This autumn, winter and next spring.?
STARTING A FIGHT IN AN EMPTY ROOM:
The Blackburn Rovers team comprising Savage, Kerimoglu Tugay, Craig Bellamy, Andy Todd and Paul Dickov. Red for Dickov and yellow for Savage last Saturday but rest assured that, throughout the season, manager Mark Hughes will blame the indiscipline on the media.
WHAT ME, GUV?:
The synthetic outrage from managers when referees carry out the promised threats and send off foul-mouthed players.
The Football Association has told the managers what?s in store, but they?ll suffer from collective amnesia when it suits. Stand by for the unedifying sight of Bolton?s Sam Allardyce chewing gum with his mouth open, trying to bellow at the same time. Sheer class.
A TACTFUL INTERVENTION:
Chelsea?s chief executive Peter Kenyon informing us that the Premiership winners will come from ?a select group of one?.
Nothing epitomises modern football more aptly than Kenyon?s arrogance and the media?s conviction that his thoughts are important.
The growing distaste for Chelsea doesn?t emanate from their brilliant, cocky manager but the ? loadsamoney? insensitivity of the bovine Kenyon.
That the glorious Thierry Henry stays fit, while his Arsenal team-mate Dennis Bergkamp gets on the park consistently in his final season and that Birmingham?s David Dunn finally gets some luck and returns fully fit.
REHABILITATION: Wolves and their manager, Glenn Hoddle. One defeat out of 27 league games since Hoddle took over is the sort of run that wins titles, even if too many draws are involved.
Hoddle surely has another big job still to come in management and his enlightened work at the training ground and ruthlessness in shipping out the puerile Henri Camara underline there is steel underneath the apparent blandness.
Of the 92 League clubs in England, only 30 managers have been in their jobs for the last two years. Yet still the chairmen over-react whenever the team makes a bad start to the season.
Will Villa and Blues shed their status of being ?teapot clubs? ? middle of the table?
Blues have bought shrewdly in the summer and if Muzzy Izzet and David Dunn get fully fit, their presence plus the returning Mikael Forssell could propel them into the second tier of clubs just below the top four.
Villa have signed four players for only #3.5 million this summer. If Milan Baros doesn?t materialise before the end of the month, the fans will be asking what?s happened to that war chest allegedly at David O?Leary?s disposal. We have been here before.
West Bromwich Albion would love to be a mid-table club after last season?s cliffhanger. They have landed two good players in Chris Kirkland and Steve Watson, but Nathan Ellington is unproven at this level and Kieran Richardson?s return to Old Trafford is a major disappointment.
BEST SUMMER BUYS:
Edwin van der Sar for Manchester United, Tom Huddlestone for Tottenham, Park Ji-Sung is more than just a reason to sell Manchester United shirts in the Far East, Chelsea?s Asier del Horno is an excellent fullback and Scott Parker, treading water at Stamford Bridge, should be rehabilitated at Newcastle.
PLAYER TO WATCH:
Jimmy Bullard at Wigan, Birmingham?s Jermaine Pennant, Villa?s Gary Cahill and West Ham?s Mark Noble.
FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR:
Wayne Rooney. The kid has everything, apart from commonsense.
Why can?t Michael Owen find himself a top club in England to showcase his proven goalscoring talents in the season before the World Cup?
THE OBC AWARD:
Out By Christmas is the fate awaiting Newcastle?s Graeme Souness. But keep an eye on Sir Alex Ferguson?s reaction if United continue to be overshadowed on the pitch by Chelsea and distracted off it by the Glazer family.
THE NEXT GREAT MANAGER:
Stuart Pearce impressed so many on a course last summer at Warwick University for aspiring young managers. Pearce is fully conversant with all the modern managerial paraphernalia such as laptops, diet sheets and Prozone areas and no player with any sense at Manchester City will coast under his withering stare. Apparently, his team talks are inspirational.
TEAM TO WATCH:
Tottenham Hotspur. Edgar Davids will add steel and aggression to the midfield and there is an encouraging mixture of young English and Irish players in the squad. And Martin Jol is an engaging, mature manager with a broad perspective. His press conferences are a hoot.
Call off the search. Chelsea have unlimited resources, outstanding players and the best manager. Jos> Mourinho has seven trophies in three years in Portugal and England. He is not a one-trick pony.
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