The Ashes and the Art of Memory
I have been helping my younger son with the times tables.
One times four is four
Two times four is eight
Three times four is twelve
Brearley and Yallop was ’78/79
Willis and Chappell was ’82/83
Gatting and Border was ’86/87
Gooch and Border was ’90/91
That same steady progression embedded in my mind. Each away Ashes series of my cricket conscious life separated by three winters. The elapse of four years sufficient for a distinctive cast to be in place and each series to have its own flavour.
Atherton and Taylor was ’94/95
Stewart and Taylor was ’98/99
And just as knowing, without thought, that six times four is twenty-four enables your mind to pivot around each number, performing related mental arithmetic, so the pattern to the dates of the Ashes series Down-Under are posts to which other cricket knowledge is stuck. Rodney Hogg took over 40 wickets in a losing cause in 1978/79. Norman Cowans was England’s suprise pick for the 1982/83 series, taking six wickets in an innings at Melbourne. Michael Vaughan soared to three centuries in 2002/03.
It’s the principle of the Art of Memory, the method of retaining information used in the centuries before the easy availability of books, which would come to be relied upon to hold knowledge for us. A structure would be imagined and information attached to or secreted around that structure. To recover the knowledge, the subject would head, in their own head, on a tour of the memory edifice.
Hussain and Waugh was 2002/03
Flintoff and Ponting was 2006/07
It’s not just cricketing feats that I can place confidently on this mental projection of time. My biography is fixed to it, too. 1986/87: first year of college and watching Channel 9 highlights (featuring Broad’s jutting backside at the wicket) in the room of my most enduring cricket friend, cautiously exposing to each other the depth of our obsession with the game. 1990/91: reading of Mark Waugh’s domineering debut ton in the international news store on campus in my first winter in Philadelphia. 1994/95: waking up in Edinburgh on a trip with red-haired girlfriend, me cheered by the news of Gatting’s battling hundred in the unlikely victory at Adelaide.
Strauss and Ponting was 2010/11
Cook and Clarke is 2013/14. 2013/14?
It’s like a fold in the times tables, disturbing the pattern, unsettling the mental framework. There are good reasons for bringing the Ashes in Australia forward one year. It prevents both teams entering a World Cup in the same southern summer that they have fought out a five match Test series. I don’t object to the timetable shift for cricket reasons. Nor do I have an issue with this tweak to a tradition – the four year cycle has been flexed before. My regret is a personal one.
In my forties, my memory is already duller than I want it to be. Regular, reliable formulae are valuable. In years ahead, I’ll stumble over this wrinkle in the predictable pattern of Ashes contests and cling to the progression I know. I can imagine people deciding awkwardly whether to correct me when I reminisce about Jimmy Anderson’s 30 wickets in 14/15 series. And Mrs DG will get frustrated when I insist I cooked Christmas dinner in 2014 – because we were still eating when Joe Root began his marathon innings on the first day of the Boxing Day Test.
I’ll acknowledge one upside to the timing of this winter’s series. Contrast it with a similar decision made almost 25 years ago by English cricket administrators. Then, English cricket was enjoying two years of financial feast (visits by Australia and West Indies), followed by two years of relative famine. To break this cycle and even out the cash-flow, it wasn’t the Ashes that was moved, but the Wisden Trophy. In 1991, the West Indies came to England ahead of schedule and on a run of seven consecutive series victories over England. It seemed unnatural punishment to bring forward this engagement. The perspective is very different today: England ought to believe that the sooner they play Australia, the stronger their chance of retaining the Ashes.