The Ashes: Return of the fiercest rivalry is welcome and leaves me envious

England's Ben Stokes (left) exchanges words with Australia's Mitchell Johnson (right) during day four of the Second Test Match at the Adelaide Oval, Adelaide in December 2013..
England's Ben Stokes (left) exchanges words with Australia's Mitchell Johnson (right) during day four of the Second Test Match at the Adelaide Oval, Adelaide in December 2013..
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NEVER meet your heroes? Sound advice, as a wide-eyed, nine-year-old Sutcliffe discovered after a Test match at Headingley when Bob Willis refused my request for an autograph.

Distraught at the snub, a previous tendency to tear in from the boundary edge, delivery arm rigidly held by my side until approaching the crease, to bowl was abandoned in favour of an equally unsuccessful tilt at spin bowling.

Well, after fulfilling a lifelong ambition a couple of years ago by attending all five days of an Ashes Test Down Under as a delayed 40th birthday present, I can confirm that ‘be careful what you wish for’ is another phrase worth listening to unless being on the end of some Pommie-bashing gives you any kind of thrill.

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The 2013-14 Ashes had been in my mind from the moment it was confirmed that the series would be brought forward a year. The only decision was which Test to attend.

Football reporters at The Yorkshire Post not being allowed Christmas or New Year off meant there was no chance of joining the hordes set to descend on either Melbourne or Sydney from these shores.

So, after careful consideration that took into account a previous trip to Perth that had seen a pint cost the eye-watering equivalent of 11 English pounds, I opted for the second Test in Adelaide. I was more than happy with the choice, not least because the Oval had long been regarded as the most picturesque of Australia’s cricket grounds.

Come December and with tickets secured for the first four days via a couple of ex-pat friends from my student days in London, I bid farewell to a cold and dark winter in excited mood. England had just lost the opening Test heavily in Brisbane but, with four triumphs in the previous five series, surely Alastair Cook and his men would respond positively.

The reality, of course, was rather different.

Centuries for Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin in Australia’s first innings set the tone for a one-sided contest that, mercifully from an England perspective, came to an end just an hour into the final day.

As a lover of cricket, there were moments I’ll never forget. Chief among these was a quite remarkable Saturday afternoon of sporting theatre that saw Mitchell Johnson run amok and six English wickets fall for just 16 runs in 26 deliveries.

Twice, Johnson was on a hat-trick as England visibly wilted in the punishing south Australian sunshine. It was a sorry mess and one made all the more sorrier by Stuart Broad’s antics on arriving at the crease during that collapse.

Broad’s refusal to walk the previous summer at Trent Bridge meant he had few friends among the locals anyway. So, when he then proceeded to hold up play for a full five minutes by complaining that the sun was reflecting off the sightscreen at the northern ‘Hill’ end of the Oval, the cat-calls from the 30,000 plus crowd were unrelenting.

What happened next was, from an English perspective, wholly predictable. Johnson, who had barely concealed his own annoyance at the delay, raced in and shattered Broad’s leg stump to the glee of those sitting around me in the lower tier of the new River Stand.

After that, the only imponderable was when, not if, Australia would go 2-0 up. The English-baiting soon became merciless.

Little of it was particularly clever or insightful, unless you count the merry (literally, in this case…) band of nine or 10 Aussies on the row in front of me bouncing up and down chanting ‘Barmy Army’ in mock unison after the fall of every English wicket.

Or the loudmouth from two blocks along who shrieked ‘Keviiiiin’ at regular intervals during the final hour or so of that third day, even though Pietersen had been out for the best part of two hours when he started bellowing.

As for the rest, the ‘banter’ raining down from the stands amounted to little more than ‘Pommie’ being added to the word that laughably got Alan Titchmarsh in trouble recently on BBC Breakfast when he was trying to explain a legitimate gardening term.

By midway through day four, it had become incessant and reminded me of a similarly miserable night at Old Trafford surrounded by crowing Lancastrians as Yorkshire crumbled to a Twenty20 defeat in front of a full house.

I wasn’t surprised. The Ashes rivalry is fierce, not least because cricket is the one sport that unites Australians in a way that rugby league, football or AFL could never manage due to their largely regional appeal.

Throw in the widely-held belief that the English look down on their Antipodean brethren and it is perhaps no wonder the chance to put one over the mother country is seized upon so gleefully.

It is, of course, far from a one-sided rivalry. English cricket fans have displayed a tendency to be just as boorish and cocky in victory in recent years as those I encountered at the Adelaide Oval.

That said – and even allowing for the crushing manner of defeat and the subsequent 5-0 whitewash – I still look back fondly on those five days Down Under in December, 2013, and am proud to say ‘I was there’ to witness Johnson’s bowling masterclass.

That is down to the massive sense of occasion generated by one of sport’s fiercest rivalries. Which is why I’ll be envious of every single man, woman or child fortunate enough to attend any of this summer’s five Tests.