Part of the problem with the Ashes being played in the UK is that most of the action (yes, cricket does feature action) takes place while the majority of the population is working. Those Sky ads that show people watching on their PCs while at work clearly don't paint a true picture of what employees can really get up to, so most of us are left to watch highlights or perhaps keep updated via a live score feed. Feeling our pain, Codemasters has released Ashes Cricket 2009, the official game of this summer's series, so we can play in every Test match ourselves if watching at weekends isn't enough.
Ashes 2009 is split into three disciplines: battling, bowling, and fielding. Most people will gravitate towards batting as it's the most instantly satisfying, so we'll deal with how well it's been recreated first. When stood at the crease with a ball bearing down at you you've got a few shot options at your disposal. At the most basic level you press a button to either attack, defend or loft the ball - well that's the theory anyway. A successful shot is all about good timing, with an on-screen meter showing you if you swung your bat too early, too late or just perfect.
As we said, this is batting at its most basic. To really bat well you'll need to learn when you move across the wicket and how to play off your front or back foot. In general any delivery pitched short (and therefore likely to climb quite high before it reaches you) should be played off the back foot. To do this you hold down Left Trigger (on Xbox 360, although the PS3 version uses a similar mechanic) and then play your shot as normal. Doing this also helps the accuracy of your shots, with the aiming window (mapped to the left analogue stick) becoming smaller.
Conversely, if a ball is pitched up quite full (and therefore isn't going to come onto the batsmen too high), it's best for you to play off the front foot. Your final option is to charge down the wicket, which isn't really advisable against fast bowlers, but can be effective against slow spin bowling - be careful though, as a swing and miss will give the wicket keeper an easy stumping opportunity.
The various shot types are all on offer and taught to you in the dull, but essential for novices training mode. Aim legside on the back foot and you'll play a hook or pull depending on the ball's height, while a straight shot off a high ball will play a classy looking back foot drive. Playing on the front foot allows you to perform the classic forward defence and the straight drive, while also letting you glance the ball off your legs.
Good bowling is essential if you're going to stop your opponent scoring runs easily, but in Ashes 2009 it's definitely the hardest of the three disciplines. It's not tough to bowl the ball, with a button corresponding to a delivering type (swing, cut, spin, etc) being pressed once to begin with and again to set the delivery quality (via an on-screen meter), but consistently bowling high quality deliveries is very tricky. It's essential you do though, as building up your confidence opens up more devastating bowling options that will really test the batsman.
Going hand in hand with bowling is field placement. If you're trying to encourage the batsman to play some strokes by teasing him with deliveries outside his off-stump, in the hope that he's going to edge one to slip, you better have some fielders in that position. Fielding is more or less handled automatically, but you can decide which end to return the ball to and catches are caught or dropped depending on if you press a button when the ball is surrounded by green (it cycles through red, orange and green) as it moves through the air. It's quite basic, but full control of the fielders would have likely caused a fair few control and gameplay issues.
To add depth to the bowling you can control the ball's seam position, but it still feels like you can do less than what we were able to do in previous entries in the Codemasters cricket series (when it was Brian Lara). It's a nice addition for sure, and lets advanced players get more out of the game, but as a bowler at times you still feel painfully limited.
In terms of game modes there's everything here most cricket fans will want. The Ashes themselves are the main draw, backed up by the proper licence (although we're not sure if player likenesses were part of that deal, as most only vaguely match their real life counterparts). Outside of this test series mode you've got One Day and 20 over matches, although neither is a licensed tournament, so there's no properly named Twenty20. There are numerous challenges to complete too, set by legends Sir Ian Botham and Shane Warne.
Although the batting and bowling is solid enough, the on-field presentation is lacking slightly. Player models and stadiums are decent, but the animations are clunky and don't blend into one another well at all. There's also a strange delay when a wicket is taken, meaning you'll know you're out but the fielders won't react. Then a second later they'll all leap into the air to celebrate. For a fairly average looking game the frame rate isn't too hot either, frequently appearing a fraction too slow. Commentary is decent and the voice work by Beefy and Warne is solid, if a little sterile, but on the whole it's not a game to show off to your mates.
Ashes Cricket 2009 is a solid recreation of the sport and this summer's big sporting event, but it's lacking spark and feels a little slight in terms of depth. Play with a friend as opposed to the AI and you'll likely be able to have fun up to and beyond the end of the Ashes series, but as a next-gen sports sim it doesn't feel as though Codemasters has done enough to push the series forward.