The Ashes start on Wednesday. Wednesday night, that is – the time zones mean that just as the opening bowler is running in, we in Blighty are drifting off. And so begins one of the most wonderful cricket traditions of them all: following your team through the night.
Play in that first Test, held in Brisbane, will start at midnight GMT. Depending on your nocturnal habits, this gives you a good chance of still being awake when the toss takes place and the early overs are being bowled. So you’ll know before entering the Land of Nod who’s batting and how they’re shaping up. But the third Test is in Perth, which being at the western end of Australia doesn’t reach start time until 2.30am GMT. This means that to watch the first ball you either have to stay awake or set your alarm. Much more likely is that you’ll fall asleep, then wake up and have to decipher what’s going on. And here begins the real magic. There’s a delightful Alice in Wonderland quality about not knowing for the first few seconds which team is batting, how many they’ve scored, which (if any) batsmen are out and so on.
This assumes, of course, that you’re listening to Test Match Special rather than watching on TV. More people do use radio than TV, I’d guess, if only because the latter is (a) expensive and (b) a faff, given that the rights have just switched from Sky to BT Sport, and will doubtless move on to some other company that doesn’t even exist yet but will no doubt bid squillions before the next series. I’d certainly recommend the radio, for the reasons I’m describing and also for the comfort of sleeping in bed rather than on the sofa.
So there you are, earpiece in (always show consideration to your partner), TMS fired up. You surface from your slumbers and try to work out what’s going on. There’s the murmur of tens of thousands of Aussies in the background, punctuated by the odd chant from the Barmy Army. Then the commentator says ‘x comes in to bowl’, so revealing which side is in the field. He tells you which batsman has just played the ball: ‘Cook dabs it into the off side …’ Thank God for that, at least he’s still in. But then Cook might play the next three or four balls, with no mention of his partner. ‘Who’s at the other end?’ you’re screaming (to yourself). ‘Please let him not say Anderson. Please let us not have collapsed.’ If he names someone above Root in the order, you can rest easy. If not: start praying.
Things get really interesting when you drift in and out of sleep without realising. One minute Steve Smith has got 13, the next he’s bringing up his century. You wonder when they’re going to bring Moeen on to bowl, and what seems like two minutes later he’s taken a five-for. It adds an extra twist to the words of Charles Dickens: ‘Are not the sane and the insane equal at night, as the sane lie a dreaming?’ Yes, Charles – and when you throw a dose of commentary from Aggers into the mix it gets stranger still. You can even start to mix the reality into your dreams. The nature of these is that you can never remember them in the morning – but I’m pretty sure that at one point on the last tour I was standing next to James Anderson at mid-off advising him on his field placings.
My very strangest nocturnal cricket experience, however, was thinking I’d fallen asleep when I hadn’t. It was during England’s 2002 match against New Zealand at Christchurch. Thanks partly to Graeme Thorpe scoring the third-fastest double century in Test history we’d set the Kiwis 550 to win. Forget your third-fastest, said Nathan Astle, I’m going for the fastest – and he got it, passing the landmark in just 153 balls. Christopher Martin-Jenkins said that witnessing it was ‘like watching the highlights’. I, meanwhile, lay there periodically thinking: ‘Is this really happening? Or have I fallen asleep again, and it’s just a nightmare? Because if he carries on like this he’s going to win it for them.’ In the end Astle was last man out for 222, having put on 118 for the last wicket and taken his team to within 99 runs of victory. Seems a big margin now – it doesn’t in the middle of the night when you don’t even know whether you’re awake or not.
A further complication on this tour is that the second Test (Adelaide) is a day-nighter, starting at 4am GMT (so more a night-dayer from our point of view). This puts it into the bracket of ‘one you might set your alarm for after turning in really early the night before’. Tours to Pakistan and India are like this. I once had the misfortune of waking up to Geoff Boycott commentating on a match in Pakistan. His first word – his very first word of the day – was: ‘Look …’ Borecott’s a pain at the best of times, but never more than at 5.30 on a cold November morning.
If, as some of us fear, things go badly over the coming weeks in Oz, just enjoy the madness of what you’re doing. The weird thoughts and dreams that arise from following England through the night give a whole new meaning to Steve Waugh’s famous concept of ‘mental disintegration’.