Love in the afternoon session: Ashes liaisons that left their mark

Winning the Ashes, or a crucial game within it, leaves an imprint on the emotions – almost as strong as being in love in some cases. Tony Bishop finds the two corresponding in four tales of longing – and belonging – that take him from the Oval to a Curry’s shopfront via the former Yugoslavia and the New Forest.

Love is indeed a many splendored thing. Complex and metaphysical with ever- shifting depth and dimension. A simple word that can cover such a range of emotion. I love my family; I have been in love many times; I am in love with my partner now. I love wine, the Blues and Bob Dylan; I love Watford; I love Middlesex. And I love the Ashes.

This latter love has endured for 45 years throughout which it has engendered all possible emotions from despairing depths to ecstatic peaks. On occasions, it has collided with life’s other loves creating a magical chemistry and burning moments in time into the memory so strongly that I can see and feel them as if they were happening now.

Father, Son and Two Brothers

Saturday August 12, 1972. Sat in what is now the OCS stand at the Oval with my father, this was my first day of Test cricket. Precious for that alone, but also because of the father and son time that came with it. Ninety minutes of football together was one thing, but this was an entire day of shared sporting theatre.

Before us another family occasion was taking place. The Chappells were majestically becoming the first brothers to both score centuries in the same innings of a Test match – Ian studied and circumspect, Greg the classier shotmaker. To my 13-year-old eyes they seemed to go on and on and on. But then Ray Illingworth dropped one short, Greg was a fraction early on a pull shot that would have come straight to us had the tall flaxen-haired form of Tony Greig not moved sharply to pouch the catch. As he threw the ball up in celebration and relief, my Dad and I leapt up and punched the air. And that is my moment captured in time. Greg Chappell, Tony Greig, my Dad and I. England went on to lose by five wickets but draw the series 2-2 and retain the urn. Perhaps not the greatest of series, but for me containing that one eternal moment.

Dutch Delight and 500/1 odds

Tuesday July 21, 1981. At Headingly the irresistible force of nature Ian Botham was making 149 not out after England had followed on, a situation deemed so irretrievable that even the Aussies were placing bets on England in ironic jest. But after Botham’s heroics and his notable support from Dilly and Chilly (C. Old), Robert George Dylan Willis, stoked up by Captain Brearley, obliterated Kim Hughes’ shellshocked Aussies with eigh for 43. England had defeated the impossible odds and won by 18 runs and went on to win the six-match series 3 -1.

I was in Dubrovnik (when it was the jewel of Yugoslavia and before the bitter civil war), a 21-year-old on a lads’ holiday and falling in love with just about every woman I could. Devilment was driven by the same carefree energy that fuelled the batting, bowling and general roistering of Ian Botham. Until near the end of the holiday when I met Ali.

Dubrovnik, where a man’s thoughts turn to women … all women

She was Dutch, delightful and had me utterly in the palms of her delicate hands. After fond holiday romance farewells, we did stay in touch, briefly, by letter and occasional phone calls before it inevitably faded away. When I managed to get the news of England’s incredible win and excitedly told her, I doubt she really understood exactly what had led me to scale such emotional heights. But the way she smiled, indulgent and affectionate, she did understand it was something very special. I was in love at that moment and have not forgotten that smile.

Kasprowitz, Karen and Curry’s, Isleworth

Sunday 7 August, 2005. Now divorced, I had reignited a flame that had flickered more than once before I was married. Maybe due to similar circumstances, both separated and with children, Karen and I had rediscovered one another and through me she had discovered the highs and lows of an Ashes series. In retrospect, I wonder how passionate she was about the cricket, but true love is blind. A wonderful lady and it was two wonderful years before life got in the way and we went our separate ways.

I don’t recall exactly why, but Karen was the reason I was in Curry’s of Isleworth that day. Intense drama was unfolding at Edgbaston – although unbelievably on only one of the Curry’s TVs. I joined a small group that had already formed around that one TV. Rapidly the small throng became a crowd. On the screen Australia were nine down but needing just 15 to win when Michael Kasprowicz top-edged to Simon Jones at third man. The arms of Curry’s shoppers were aloft, ready to celebrate a narrow win. But the catch went down and so did the arms accompanied by groans of despair.

With every ensuing ball and run, tension built, the whole store fell silent. Karen held my hand as transfixed as the rest of us. Hope though was turning to despair and one or two of my fellow Curry’s brothers-in-arms turned away, convinced all was lost. But then with the Aussies needing just three to win Steve Harmison got one to lift, Kasprovicz gloved down leg and the tumbling Geraint Jones did the rest to secure England’s narrowest ever Test win. Curry’s exploded, hugs and high fives were shared. You would have thought we were all old friends. But then, in an instant, the crowd dispersed and went on with their shopping, leaving Karen and I alone, still savoring the moment. A turning point in the series that, of course, as England won 2-1.

Brigadier Block in Brockenhurst

Sunday July 12, 2009. I have a very good friend who passionately extolls the virtues of an attritional draw. The tension can be as addictive as any belligerent run chase or Calypso Collapso wicket-est. The first Ashes Test of 2009 was just such a game. Utterly beguiling whilst failing to deliver a winner, it nonetheless set up the series that England ultimately won 2-1.

As Paul Collingwood was in his finest Brigadier Block mode grinding out 74 off 344 balls, the love of my life, Vivienne, and I were driving through the New Forest to find the perfect pub for lunch. I may have taken more than few wrong turns to try and eke out more time to provide the Brigadier with remote morale support.

New Forest ponies

New Forest ponies: not always interested in the Ashes score

On more than one occasion Vivienne marveled at how I could be so excited about listening to a man dead-batting everything that was thrown at him, the art of not scoring to winkle time out of the game. Somehow the tension of it all seemed greater on the radio than being able to see it. Throughout our leisurely lunch he batted on, but I was rapt with Vivienne’s company and seduced by the tinkling ivories of the jazz pianist that accompanied us.

Following our lunch, we set out to stroll through the Forest, enjoying the balmy summer weather and one another’s company. My only link to Cardiff was now surreptitious glances at my mobile phone, which revealed that England were nine down and Monty had arrived at the crease to join Jimmy Anderson.

Standing in the middle of the New Forest, time seemed to stand still. We stopped walking and waited and waited until finally the match was drawn. It was only then we realised that around us other couples strolling romantically had also stopped and were equally enthralled with the Miracle of Cardiff via their mobiles. Nods were exchanged. Shared relief was palpable across the grass and heather.

Vivienne still wonders why a draw can mean so much. But it does.

And, so, does she.

Broadcast Schedule

England v West Indies 2024
ENG v WI 3rd Test, Edgbaston
26th July to 30th July
Start time: 11:00 am BST