x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

England cricket reigns over Australia and its own history at the Ashes

The national team's demolition of its ancient rival in this winter's Ashes series has been a fairy tale of unparalleled sweetness in England

It's been easy to spot English cricket fans in recent weeks. We're the people ambling around looking as if we haven't slept for days and with glazed expressions of utter bliss etched on our features.

England's demolition of Australia in this winter's Ashes series has been a fairy tale of unparalleled sweetness for England supporters, even though it's required us to hunker down with our radios under the bedclothes and listen to the ball-by-ball commentary on the radio through the night. With my wife snoring beside me, utterly oblivious to the unfolding events, I've been laying in the dark, punching the air and muttering "YESSS" every time a boundary has been struck or a wicket has fallen. Sleep was never this good.

Until Thursday night, England hadn't won the Ashes Down Under for 24 years, during which time we'd become resigned to perpetual failure and humiliation each time we tried. Indeed, so absolute had been our capitulation that the Australian press had even proposed that this most celebrated of sporting contests should be downgraded from five matches to three.

My personal suffering reached its climax four years ago, when against all advice I travelled half way around the globe to attend our last tour - the one led by Freddie Flintoff. By the time I stepped onto the plane at Heathrow for the 22-hour flight to Sydney and the New Year's Day Test of 2007, Flintoff's bedraggled squad were already 4-0 with one to play.

"Are you flying over to watch the cricket?" asked the Qantas air steward as he welcomed me on board. When I nodded he shook his head in sympathy and put one arm on my shoulder. "Jeez mate," he said, softly, "I'm so sorry." Humiliation, ridicule and scorn - that I can take. But pity? From an Aussie? That really was too much to bear.

Well, no more. Three decades of hurt have been wiped away in six glorious weeks, with England dominating their rivals from the outset and showing a sense of purpose and preparation unthinkable even four years ago. It's been very special. And thanks to the radio, I've been able to hear just about every wondrous moment.

Yet among all the records that have tumbled - the centuries, the five-wicket hauls, the gargantuan England totals - the most improbable statistic of all was reserved for those of us following the action on our radios under the bedclothes.

The only break in live coverage on the BBC each night was for three minutes at 1am, when the sound of leather on willow briefly gave way to the shipping forecast, a digest of prevailing weather conditions for mariners in the North Atlantic. Yet by extraordinary coincidence, the precise moment of victory in all three Test matches that England won - Adelaide, Melbourne and finally last week in Sydney - occurred during this momentary hiatus on the airwaves. For those of us waiting to savour the actual moment of triumph it was frustrating enough to put us off eating fish for life.

But when all is said and done, who cared? The fact is, England has prevailed, and two decades of humiliation and shame at the hands of our oldest cricketing enemy have finally been exorcised. The Ashes are coming home.

And yet it's not so much the actual winning, so much as the way it has been achieved that has been the most pleasing aspect of the whole improbable series. Ashes cricket, like so much professional sport, has lost much of its grace and flavour in recent decades, and to play with anything less than a snarl and a sneer has become tantamount to seeming indifference.

Well, the England skipper Andrew Strauss has changed all that. A man so gracious and unflappable that the secretary general's job at the United Nations surely beckons once he hangs up his pads. He has shown that it is possible to win without having to sacrifice your sense of proportion.

It's nice to see a good guy coming first for once.

And what of the opposition? As I lay awake in the early hours of Friday morning listening to the celebrations, the BBC commentator described the look on the face of the humbled Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting as he watched his opposite number holding up the tiny urn. One of the greatest batsman of his era, and chief dancer on England's grave in recent decades, he seemed for the first time in his career dejected and bewildered. And for a moment, I almost felt sorry for him.

Almost, but not quite …

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer in London