The Ashes begin tonight.
If those words mean nothing to you, let me try to explain. The England cricket team begin their series of five Test Matches against Australia, in Australia, at midnight tonight. The trophy that they are contesting is called The Ashes, also known as the urn. The first game is in Brisbane. A day of Test Match cricket is scheduled to last seven hours, including breaks. The hours of play tonight (in UK time) will be midnight till 2am, 2.40am till 4.40am and 5am till 7am. There will be a 40-minute break for lunch and a 20-minute break for tea. The Conundrum for me is this: should I stay up past midnight and watch the first couple of hours of play before going to bed? Or should I have an early night, aim for 6 hours of sleep, and get up between 3 and 4am to catch the last half of the day’s play? The rest of this piece is about sport in general and cricket in particular. If you have no interest in either, you can stop reading now, and thank you for getting this far. For everyone else, there are another 1,080 words in this Post.
Looking back through nearly two years’ worth of Blog posts I see that I have written about sport fairly regularly, so have just created a new category for it. Some of the categories I set up at the end of 2015 have been used rather less often than this one. Over the years I have heard many people say “I hate football”, “I hate cricket” and even “I hate sport”. Some of them, coincidentally, have also expressed great dislike for Bob Dylan. Such people will be able to avoid my reflections on sport more easily from now onwards.
As I draft these words, either side of 7pm, I am inclining towards a 9pm bedtime, hoping to do the following: whenever I wake, probably around 3am, turn on the radio, check out the state of play on Test Match Special on BBC Radio 4 and either listen for a while or head downstairs to watch it on TV. I hadn’t realized it until last week but the series will be broadcast on BT Sport, which I have as part of my broadband package. Before that I was wondering how much money to commit to Sky Sports for the cricket, as an occasional subscriber. (They have broadcast England’s overseas tours for over 20 years, until this winter.) Should I pay for the odd week, as I do now when there are enough Arsenal and Leeds fixtures to justify it, or commit to a whole month at a time? It doesn’t matter now, not for the cricket anyway.
The decision about whether to listen or head downstairs and watch will be made according to the day’s play so far. If England are batting and have been reduced to 80/8 (or 8/80 as the Australians would put it) I will probably just listen, hoping for a major contribution from the last two partnerships. If England are batting and have made steady progress (no more than 3 wickets down, 100 or more on the board) I will probably head downstairs to watch for an hour or two, maybe even till 7am if I’ve had enough sleep..
I am not alone in speculating about these timings, not just for tonight but for the weeks ahead. Thousands of other people (mostly, but not exclusively, men) will be doing the same. Some of them might not have access to BT Sport yet and could be wondering whether to commit to it, or will they be able to make do with Test Match Special on the radio and whatever’s available on the web?
The last three series in Australia (2006-07, 2010-11, 2013-14) are clear in my mind, and my commitment to each of them was different. I began to draft paragraphs about each series but remembered that I had already summarized 2006-07 and 2010-11 in a piece from last year (“Usually I’m Anthony Trollope, but not this week”). Here’s the relevant paragraph:
In the winter of 2010/11 I followed the England cricket team’s Ashes tour of Australia very keenly. I assumed that I would follow the matches late at night, maybe stay up till 2am and struggle to get 5 hours in bed before heading to work the next day. Matches typically begin at midnight UK time and finish around 7am (although it’s different in Perth, Western Australia). During the 2006/07 Ashes tour I would stay up till 2 or 3am to watch the first session of play, often with my new-born daughter asleep in her Moses basket beside me, or lying with her head on my shoulder. England lost that tour so heavily that I wasn’t tempted to stay up any later than 2am to watch. And our sleeping patterns were all over the place with a 2 year old and a 2 month old to take care of. In 2010/11 however the children were 4 and 6 and I experimented with going to bed before 9pm, for the first time in my adult life. I would wake between 3 and 4am, tune into Test Match Special on the radio, and then (because England were typically playing so well on that tour) I would head downstairs to watch live. By 5am I had made my coffee, eaten my breakfast and felt ready for the day ahead. I even joined a gym at this time so that I could have a swim at 6.30am before the kids headed to school and nursery, and my working day began. And England won that series, their first victory in Australia since 1986/87.
I approached the 2013/14 series the same way I had the 2010/11 matches, with early nights and waking up between 3am and 4am for the first two Tests, but England went 2-0 down and I took a different approach for the final day of the Third Test, Tuesday 17 December 2013. England were 251/5 and needed to score a further 253 to win the game (far more than any team has ever made in the final innings to win a Test), or bat all day to draw. I rested for a few hours and wanted to ensure that I was on the sofa watching every delivery from midnight UK time. I left the room for a minute to use the loo and Matt Prior was dismissed. When I returned to the sofa I didn’t move again till the lunch break at 2am, and saw Ben Stokes bring up his hundred. I lay on the sofa with my eyes closed during the break and wondered: would it be good luck or bad luck to have a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee to get me through the next two hours? I still believed that England had a chance of saving or winning the game and hadn’t eaten for nearly 8 hours, so went to the kitchen to make a very early breakfast. I was taking a sip of coffee when Stokes was dismissed and the game was up. I had time for a few hours’ sleep and, like most sports fans, wondered if the outcome would have been more favourable if I had behaved differently. Yes, logically I know that England didn’t lose the game just because I moved away from the sofa and had a cup of coffee, but following sport inspires irrationality and superstition in many of us. This sort of thing will be taking up my attention, and affecting my mood, for at least the next month.
UPDATE (Thursday 23 November, 8.45pm)
I went for the early option, in bed by 9.30pm, awake at 3.30am, dozed off again, got up at 4.20am to find that I had slept through the rain delay. Good timing. England had just resumed batting and were 67/1. I was able to watch most of the action through to 8am – play went on later than originally scheduled because of the rain delay. My daughter watched for around 30 minutes too, from 7.30am. Two further wickets (Stoneman and Vince) had fallen by then, while I was watching, and Root was out LBW on review when I left the room to get us both a drink of water. Overnight score: 196/4. Mood: relieved, and disproportionately happy.
There are two follow-ups to this piece: “Ashes update: the halfway point”, from 15 December 2017, and “Final Ashes update” from December 2017.