Cricket's the real winner as the Ashes goes the distance

Whatever happens over the next two weeks there has been one triumph about this Ashes series and it is that at least the fourth and fifth Tests in Melbourne and Sydney matter.

It has not always been the case. When England won in 2005 and 2009 at home there was huge public interest for two reasons. First was that Australia had dominated for so long but there was also the increasing tension that built over all five Test matches. In both cases the winner of the urn was not decided until the final innings of the final Test match at the Oval. Each delivery mattered, let alone each day and match, but in Australia recently the whole shebang has been decided far too quickly.

Remember 2006/7? End of the third Test in Perth and it was 3-0 Australia and all that mattered was the possibility of a whitewash that was duly achieved. There was no pressure or excitement, just a ritual slaying with minimal drama and interest.

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In 2002/3 the main feature for England was the superlative batting of Michael Vaughan. He scored 633 runs including three centuries but the series result was again 3-0 after the third Test. The whitewash was only avoided by an England win in Sydney based on Vaughan's 183 and Andy Caddick's 7-94 on a worn, dry surface.

In 1998/9 the series was also completed long before the Test schedule.

The first Test was saved by England courtesy of an enormous thunderstorm in Brisbane but Perth and Adelaide were defeats that ensured Australia kept the Ashes. Melbourne, however, saw a thrilling last-day win as Dean Headley discovered reverse swing and bowled Australia out 12 short of the 175 target. It was notable not only for it being one of England's first performances of reverse swing but that he bowled unchanged for an extended session, finishing with 6-60.

The win livened the whole series as another in Sydney would have left the score 2-2, a very creditable result, but Stuart MacGill exploited a turning pitch to take 12 wickets in the match and complete a comfortable victory for the Aussies. It was not all bad for England though as the irrepressible Darren Gough took a hat-trick and England had at least competed.

However, to have a series so evenly poised as this one has generated much greater interest than any individual performances ever could.

After the Adelaide Test a newspaper poll in Melbourne asked the locals if they would go to the Melbourne Test. The answer was a resounding 'No', a direct reaction to Australia's meek capitulation. Two weeks later and after a thumping win in Perth the organisers at the MCG were hoping for a world record first-day crowd of more than 94,000.

While such levels will not be reached for each day, if the match is close then there is a very good chance that ticket sales in Melbourne and Sydney will break all records.It proves the public want close, hard-fought matches where the result is not known, and this time they have it.

It is curious, though, that the winning margins in the two result matches have been so big and yet there is absolutely nothing between the two sides. It is an anomaly that cricket produces but, if the teams can manage a final-day nerve-jangler, then this series may go down as one of the classics and a new generation of Ashes heroes will emerge, ensuring the kids in backyards and gardens in both countries grow up desperate to beat the old enemy rather than solely as a replica shirt-wearing football fan. And cricket desperately needs such interest if it is to survive and indeed thrive.

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The power of the Ashes cannot be better explained than by the fact that South Africa are currently hosting India in a three-match series that will decide the No.1 ranked team. India are No.1 and South Africa No.2 but it is the Ashes as an iconic series that has the world's attention. This is partly down to history as the Ashes is one of the most recognisable sporting brands, but also because it is played over five matches, which allows a stronger narrative to develop. Players are exposed, can be dropped and recalled like Mitchell Johnson, and the likely eventual result can change numerous times.

A three-match series is over too quickly, frequently within eight days of playing. The public miss out on the drama of players developing or unravelling before them and it is this characteristic of five-match series that engages the public.

Consider the story of Johnson in Australia. Appalling in Brisbane, dropped in Adelaide and a match winner in Perth. What will he do in Melbourne and Sydney? It could decide the result. Indeed it probably will.