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'It's just not cricket is it? Well, perhaps it is now'

Members of the England cricket teams are given a rapturous reception in Trafalgar Square. Picture: WAYNE McCABE/FERRARI PRESS AGENCY
Members of the England cricket teams are given a rapturous reception in Trafalgar Square. Picture: WAYNE McCABE/FERRARI PRESS AGENCY

"SIX Appeal" on a poster of skunk-haired Kevin Pietersen held by two young female fans alongside me in Trafalgar Square showed just how sexy cricket has suddenly become.

We lifetime devotees always knew it was.

But the tens of thousands of fans jamming Trafalgar Square and London’s streets included new fans who spanned the generations.

A game ridiculed as one for old fogeys has been transformed by the heroic deeds of talented young men and women.

A sport seemingly condemned to life in the shadows of rapacious football has emerged into the sunlight again, regaining its rightful place as our wonderful summer game that inspires good things, not bad.

As smiling Kent Test players Geraint Jones, Charlotte Edwards, Lydia Greenway and Jo Watts basked in deserved adulation, their happy demeanour was an unspoken indictment of football.

For a few marvellous weeks, that money-obsessed game with a consistently under-performing national team was sidelined by a more complex sport with a vastly improving national set-up and a good image for young people.

OK, Freddie did a passable impersonation of some footballers by getting smashed and emerging bleary-eyed and slurred. But we can forgive him that for all his heroics. Beefy Botham was no saint, after all.

As we sang out Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory and Nessun Dorma in the sunshine, and waved our flags, the atmosphere in Trafalgar Square was joyful and friendly.

The emotion of the historic occasion affected many who wiped tears from their eyes.

There may have been a few T-shirts hailing England as "Kangaroo Bashers" but there was little hint of Aussie-taunting.

It took four special teams to make the men’s and women’s Ashes series so spine-tingling and players who are good role models for the young.

And it was good to see Kent playing a key part, with not only the cricketers but also Paul Millman, chief executive of Kent County Cricket Club, and Penny Pietersen - Kevin’s mum from Canterbury - spotted among the guests. One fan from Kent was proudly wearing his Spitfire shirt.

Lord MacLaurin, former Tesco chief who at the England and Wales Cricket Board pioneered the changes that have now brought such stunning results, looked out over the colourful scene with undisguised pleasure.

David Graveney, another unsung hero who got most of his selection decisions right, could not believe what he was seeing. All this, for cricket? It's just not cricket, is it? Well perhaps it is now.

Things have changed. The passion that surrounded our Rugby World Cup winning team has now come to cricket. It would come to national football if only Becks, Rooney and Sven could sharpen their act.

We enjoyed the celebrations in Trafalgar Square. Many, like Freddie, will have had sore heads on Wednesday morning. Those who soaked themselves in the fountains may be suffering something worse.

We want more of this. But further joy unconfined will depend on new generations of players. We need new Harmisons, Flintoffs and Connorrs. That means bringing cricket back into the mainstream of British sporting and school life where it belongs.

But cricket must beware of becoming too like football, with excess and greed corrupting its soul.

For now, it's enough to drool over the return of the Ashes. They have come home. For younger fans, it's the first time in their lives. Older ones doubted it would ever happen.

The summer of 2005 was truly a magical, momentous, never-to-be forgotten time for us all.

Cricket thrives on history and nostalgia. Being in Trafalgar Square on Tuesday, September 13 was to be part of what will be seen in years to come as the cricketing times of our lives.

As other T-shirts put it: "Now I Can Die Happy."

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