Following on from last month’s musings about The Ashes (which you can read here) we are now around the halfway point in this sporting series. If you have no interest in sport in general, or cricket in particular, you can stop reading now. Otherwise you will find a further 1200 words in the paragraphs that follow.
We have had 12 days’ play out of a scheduled 25. Cricket being what it is we might already be past the halfway point. That will turn out to be true if the current match or either of the two remaining fixtures last less than their scheduled five days. By this time tomorrow we will be past the halfway point. In the 12 days of the series so far England have played better than Australia on only two of them: the first day of the series (which featured in an update in that earlier piece, when my mood was “relieved, and disproportionately happy”) and yesterday (Day 1 of the 3rd Test, from Perth, Western Australia). In between, on days 2 to 10, England were outplayed and lost the first two Tests. If Australia win this current Test Match they will win the series and regain the Ashes, and I will no longer wake up in the middle of the night to check the scores.
Thousands and thousands of words have been written about each day’s play. You can review each day, and each test, on dozens of sites. My aim here, as in that earlier piece, is to record how the games affect me, and to reflect on sport and memory.
On a biographical note I have been able to follow some of the play most nights, going to bed early and waking up in time to catch a few hours of each innings. The exception was Day 5 of the 1st Test, when it looked like Australia would win comfortably. They did, before lunch Australian time on that final day (2am UK time). I had an uninterrupted night’s sleep while the Australian openers knocked off the remaining runs to win by 10 wickets.
When drafting last month’s piece I hadn’t registered that the 2nd Test was a day/night match, with play starting at 3.30am UK time rather than midnight. There were days when play continued till 11am UK time, which I wasn’t expecting. I was awake for each of the first four days sometime between 3.30am and 5am. We got to the end of Day 4 (last Tuesday, 5 December) with England still in with a chance of winning the game. Chasing 354 to win they had reached 176-4, with Joe Root 67 not out. I prepared for the next day’s play with a similar routine to much of the 2010-11 series: a cup of camomile tea immediately before bedtime, the radio alarm set for just before the start of play, a planned five hours of shut-eye before Test Match Special on Radio 4 Long Wave kicked in. I woke before 3am, 30 minutes before play began. I headed downstairs and lay on the sofa listening to (rather than watching) the BT Sport team’s predictions about the day ahead. My plan was to follow the first session of play through to 5.30am, make breakfast and eat it during the lunch interval, and be ready for the second session beginning at 6.10am UK time. I didn’t plan any further than that, other than vague thoughts about how to keep up with play during the school run if England were still batting. As things turned out it was all over before 5.30am. England were bowled out quickly, and I headed back to bed for an hour, having done what I could to support the team from all these thousands of miles away.
It was a similar story for this morning’s play from Perth, which is in a different time zone to the other Test Match venues. I was on the sofa just before 2.30am to see Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow resume on 305-4, hoping to witness the latter make his first hundred against Australia. He did, which made me very happy, but soon afterwards I was also able to witness the Australian bowlers work their way through England’s lower order quickly, for a total of 403 all out. I stayed awake through the lunch break with a light breakfast, caught the first few overs of the Australia’s first innings, and was back in bed before 5.30am. I caught a little bit of play after that but choose not to spend too much time watching Australia’s batsmen.
During this series I have seen rather too many England wickets fall and have spent too many hours watching Australia score runs. But that’s been the way of the series. Until yesterday no England batsman had scored a hundred but two Australians had (Steve Smith in the 1st Test, Shaun Marsh in the 2nd). As in the last series (2013-14), when England lost 5-0, they have been in promising positions but have been unable to bowl out the opposition’s lower order quickly. In 2013-14 the key difference between the two teams (as I recall it) was the different contributions of the wicket-keepers. If Matt Prior had scored the same number of runs as Brad Haddin, and vice versa, England would not have lost 5-0. Beyond that, and my experience of watching the decisive final day of the 3rd Test (which I referred to in that earlier Ashes piece), my memories of that series are now vague. So are my memories of the 2010-11 series, which England won, their only win in Australia since 1986/87. I can’t remember exactly what happened in each of the five matches. I have re-read some of the match reports and know that I was following each day’s play keenly at the time, but they’re a blur. An old school-friend and I were sending regular emails about each day’s progress. The correspondence became a daily thing after we found that when neither of us emailed about a particular day’s play England would play badly the next day. You know that superstition and routine are a key part of how many of us follow sport, so our routine (and superstition) was to email something about the game – even if it was only a line or two – before play resumed in the early hours of the following morning. Those emails provide a record of how we both followed the five games but unless I make a conscious effort to memorize the scores of each game, to recall exactly which England batsmen scored big hundreds and which bowlers took the wickets, all I have is an overall memory of England batting big, bowling well and winning the series.
My memories about this series will probably be equally vague in five or ten years’ time. Will I recall that Australia won the 1st Test in Brisbane by 10 wickets after Steve Smith’s match-winning 140-odd in the first innings? Or that they won the 2nd Test in Adelaide by 220 runs, despite being bowled out for 138 in their 2nd innings? I doubt it. The course of the next few day’s play will dictate whether I’m still following events keenly when the 4th Test begins on Boxing Day, in Melbourne, and whether I’ll be staying up past midnight on Christmas night here in the UK to catch the first few hours of play. But for now the series is alive. It’s 9.30pm UK time, a cup of camomile tea sits beside my laptop as part of my pre-sleep routine and five or six hours from now I’ll be lying on the sofa, watching BT Sport, hoping that England’s bowlers can dismiss Steve Smith before he gets his hundred, and run through the rest of the side as quickly as possible, leaving Australia with a first innings deficit. If not, my sleep might return to its usual uninterrupted pattern by Monday night (18 December).
You can find out what happened next in this piece, “Final Ashes update”, from December 2017.