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England fans will be in huge numbers as their side take on Australia for The Ashes title. Anthony Devlin / PA
England fans will be in huge numbers as their side take on Australia for The Ashes title. Anthony Devlin / PA

Ashes viewership among fans will give us a glimpse to future

Viewership for the traditional clash between England and Australia will hold clue if fans in the subcontinent have Test format close to heart, says Dileep Premachandran.

For the longest time, the subcontinent has had conflicting emotions about the two countries contesting the Ashes.

Early on, Australia were heroes, sending full-strength sides to the region even as England - the old colonial master - sent teams devoid of the titans of the day.

Indian fans got to see Neil Harvey, Ray Lindwall, Alan Davidson, Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell. They missed out on the likes of Peter May, Fred Trueman, Frank Tyson and Len Hutton.

It was not until Ian Botham lit up the Jubilee Test in Mumbai, in 1980, that a formidable English side travelled to Indian shores.

By then, Australia had started going the other way. Touring conditions - the accommodation and food - in the 1950s and '60s were so harsh that a majority of players came to see a trip to the subcontinent as punishment rather than adventure.

Between 1969-70, when they won 3-1, and 1978-79, when the Kerry Packer series meant that a weakened side made the trip, Australia did not tour once. From there until 2001, when Steve Waugh's Invincibles arrived, there were only four Tests on Indian soil between the two sides.

The Australian relationship with Sri Lanka was terribly damaged by the Boxing Day Test of 1995, when umpire Darrell Hair called Muttiah Muralitharan for chucking.

A few months later, the Australians would refuse to travel to Sri Lanka to play a World Cup game.

That World Cup was also the final step in the realignment of cricket's power equations. England and Australia found themselves on the one side, representatives of the game's old order.

The Asian bloc, led by Jagmohan Dalmiya, began to see itself as the new power centre, emboldened by the increasingly large sums sponsors in the region were prepared to invest in the game.

India's cricket board has had a far better relationship with Australia in the years since. With England, the relationship is still coloured by a level of mistrust.

Cricket Australia, for pragmatic reasons as much as anything, long ago recognised the Indian board's primacy and have cosied up to take advantage. The two countries play each other in some form of the game every year.

As for the Ashes, a fair few old-school cricket fans will follow the action. The timings make it ideal for those in India returning from a day at work, and there is still a market for tradition among the older generation who grew up listening to John Arlott, Brian Johnston and Jim Maxwell on the radio.

Having lost 4-0 away to both teams and then having had contrasting fortunes at home against them - India lost 2-1 to England, but hammered Australia 4-0 - fans will also be curious to see how they shape up ahead of future assignments. India's five-Test tour of England in 2014 is likely to be their first of the post-Tendulkar era, and a World Cup looms in Australia soon after.

If nothing else, a series caught in a time warp also offers a dwindling number of Test aficionados a glimpse of the world that was, a time before Twenty20 and the Indian Premier League transformed the game as we know it.

In a millennium that has seen cataclysmic change, the Ashes remains as cricket's rock of ages.

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