One-nil down. Where do you go from there? If you happen to be the England cricket team in Australia, usually only further down. All the way, crashing through the basement into the hard earth beneath.
For a short while, much like with the England Football team before a major tournament, I allowed myself to believe. Australia are not all that I thought. We were showing blemishes of form and Australia appeared happily undecided on their selection.
At precisely 2am in the wee small hours of Saturday morning – the kind of time that should be accompanied by cigar fumes and a Count Basie soundtrack, or alternatively a kebab and a punch-up outside a West Country nightclub – my belief reached its high watermark. But, even then with Australia seven down and the Kookaburra ball still shiny and flashing a hint of a seam, I wasn’t entirely convinced.
I turned off the radio and called it a night. Well, not the radio. I was actually picking up radio 5 Live through my TV. These are indeed strange times – not a shipping forecast or even a Blofeld in sight … only Graham Swann endlessly laughing at his own jokes. Aggers and Simon Mann lone modest and self-effacing voices in the wilderness. I would normally be watching this on the TV with pictures but I don’t have BT Sports. Instead I get to pay SKY a hundred quid a month not to be able to watch the one thing that I want to watch.
My sleep should have been of the dreamy and fluffy sheep variety but was instead mostly fitful. A friend – one that was with me in the brief modern golden age of 2005 at The Oval – had been messaging throughout the first session. He stayed up through the entire night with a 10-pack of lukewarm ones. Some people never learn, or perhaps the brew acted as a medicinal aid to quell the pain. Like root canal you know it is coming sooner or later.
Amidst this troubled backdrop I found my mind racing along like a roulette ball that constantly arrived at the same losing numbers. I had disembodied scores in my head of Australia making 500 and England being 46-5 and once incongruously 17-7 (prey that it isn’t a premonition!) In every nightmare induced scenario England had blown their relatively strong position.
When I awoke the next morning totally wrecked and anticipating the full weekend smorgasbord of kid related drop offs, I couldn’t bring myself to reach for my phone and look up the score. All the while that I refused to check I could conceivably hide from the already written reality. Perhaps, as possibly should have happened, England had rolled them over straight after lunch and had marched on into a commanding lead. Good old Chef cooking up boundaries and treating the porcine Smith to the full spit roast treatment.
I knew in my heart of hearts it was all fanciful though. Not since the aforementioned Cook and Trott rattled up over 500-1 at the same venue in 2010/11 have England so positively tricked me in an Ashes encounter. I knew the Sunday would follow the same formula and I wouldn’t allow myself to be duped again by unrequited optimism.
I made myself a promise that as soon as England lost two more wickets I would call it a night. I was already shattered and had to be up early in the morning for more taxiing and ferrying around. Armed only with a stubby six-pack of Mythos – a fleeting reminder of an ancient Lidl Greek week promotion (other German supermarkets are available) – I felt I had sufficient ammunition to see off Root, Stoneman, Malan or Ali in any combination they saw fit.
In truth this was as safe a bet as Jake Ball bowling like a drain or David Warner speaking utter garbage. The problem is I can’t face watching or listening to England struggle against Australia. The commentators, the fans, their dismissive players all coming together in a giant ball of mouthy, sweaty arrogance. I would rather hide from it like some lone game of hide-and-seek. Only fleetingly peering through my fingers and swiftly flinching back from the horror.
I understand this is dangerous territory. After all it is the Aussies that are apt to shuffle off in a huff when we have the temerity to beat them. Those empty stadiums in 2010/11 as England retained the Ashes are still a source of nefarious delight. We pride ourselves on our ability to stay with our team through the thick and mostly thin.
I am battle hardened from the lean days of attrition where getting battered by Australia was a formality, but interestingly we always avoided the whitewash. Our trenches armed with nothing but a spud gun and a paper aeroplane against a team of Howitzers and Warne’s V2 rockets. Ultimately this continued state leads to battle weariness and a form of reluctant shell-shock.
The war analogies are poor ones and should be left to David Warner, Australia’s own Colonel Kurtz, to articulate in his special way. The old Aussie golden boy Keith Miller could have taught him something about real war. Miller, once lounged in the bar of a Bournemouth hotel and nipped out to buy some smokes. By the time he returned the bar and most of his friends were gone, courtesy of a stray German bomb. In the 1948 series Bradman asked him to bang it in short at England’s Bill Edrich – a fellow bomber boy – on a lively pitch. Miller told “The Don” where to go in no uncertain terms “I’m not doing it Don. This bloke survived the war and you want me to kill him with a cricket ball”.
I tell myself to remember these things, that’s it’s only a game and the Australians are not our real enemy. There is a line from a scorecard in the 1936/37 Ashes series (the Aussies won!) where Australia’s Ross Gregory was caught Hedley Verity and Bowled Ken Farnes for 80. All three later fought together in the war and never came home.
From the other side of the world I am unable to influence England’s performance for better or worse. Everything is vicarious with Kipling’s triumph and disaster merely reflected. Sometimes it all feels a bit childish and then I remember that this is the Ashes and England bloody well have to win!
We have fought back before from losing the opener to win 4-1 in 1911/12 and 1954/55. All we need is Jack Hobbs, Sydney Barnes or Frank “Typhoon” Tyson, and the recovery will be assured. Whatever the truth I know that when the next match comes around, despite my better judgment, like a beardless Walt Whitman I will resume my watch and keep my “vigil strange”.