It’s been a long and gruelling winter for everyone who follows the England cricket team. As each wretched day in Australia unfolded, both our sleep and our sanity were stretched to breaking point, Here, Full Toss reader Nick Allbury re-traces that overnight journey into the heart of darkness.
The opening bars of Love Spreads prize me from deliverance before being silenced by my flailing hand. For a moment I am lost in the warm fug that shields me from the day. Then weariness slams into me like a sledgehammer. How many times did she wake last night? It isn’t her fault. Her eczema rumbles under her skin like a Stone Roses bass line.
Each time she woke I was there in a flash, like any good father, with one hand detachedly lathering her with cream, with the other checking the score, my pulse accelerating in those dizzying moments before the page refreshes.
My wife would be instantly propped on an elbow, her face etched with parental concern. “What is it? Is she ok?”
“Consecutive boundaries for Clarke. We need another wicket.”
A roll of the eyes and she would be back to sleep.
A few blind caresses and I have it. Aussies 155-6. I am at once alive, my mind churning through the possibilities. Haddin and Johnson are in. Get through one of these, I tell myself, and we are into the tail.
I listen. Mercy me, my little girl is asleep. I rise and pad silently into the shower.
At 6.50, always 6.50, I open the front door and stumble into a dark and dormant world, instinctively cowling under my hoodie as a bitter wind drives through me. At least there is no frost, so I am spared having to scrape ice from my car windows. I climb in and its engine on, heating on. Test Match Special on. I sit motionless, awaiting enlightenment. It’s Aggers. Haddin defends comfortably and it’s the end of the over. So he’s still in then. Is Johnson? As the players move around, Geoff Boycott recalls the first time he saw Johnson play, a few years ago in South Africa when he flayed them for a ton and a ninety in the same match. He should be an all-rounder, says Geoff. He has the talent. I take that as a yes.
I move easily through the sleeping town, unconsciously negotiating each turn as if detached from myself. I am not really here. I am in Brisbane, basking in the heat, the cruel English winter and the fripperies of life pushed momentarily to the shadows. Random images play like a reel in my mind. The Barmy Army, singing and smiling. Kevin Pietersen, face cast into a moody shadow by his floppy sunhat as he back-steps to the boundary. Captain Cook at slip, chin in hand, his expression one of perpetual puzzlement. The light glinting off Broad’s flushed and generous forehead as he retreats to his mark. Is he receding?
Only the radio can do this. I recall recent news footage of the England team in the nets, fooling around as they collectively celebrate their considerable talents which have brought them to this place at this time. I am overwhelmed with envy but a positive one. No shred of bitterness. How good would that be? How good would that be?
Haddin pulls Broad for four. Pitch it up, I shout. How hard can it be? 235-6. Why do I bother putting myself through this? And then I remember. It’s because I love it, or at least I think I do. Can you love something to which you are hopelessly addicted? Does an alcoholic love Tennents Super? Do junkies love heroin? Cricket taps my veins, slipping into my blood stream, taking hold of me in a way that no other sport can. It’s a team game but its intrinsic loneliness tugs at some unsettling vulnerability in my mind.
The traffic thickens as I reach the roundabout at the A5. I stop, pull the handbrake and glance to the right. A youngish girl with blond hair is alone at the wheel, singing away and I turn my envy on to her. No TMS for her it seems. No addiction. No vulnerability. I bet she’s never even heard of Brad Haddin.
We are green and as I pull away I allow my mind to briefly contemplate the day ahead. Meetings at ten and eleven, if my memory serves, then a free afternoon. Time to wallow in apathy, moving seamlessly between websites, digesting the day’s play, the musings from those wise old scribes who, regardless of the score, will insist with glorious hindsight that it was ever going to be thus.
Swann begins a new over and a familiar piercing shriek fills my little cocoon as he futilely appeals for an LBW. Graeme Swann. The people’s champion. The wisecracking soul of the dressing room. For the thousandth time during his England career I think back to my childhood. Northants youth. Under elevens, under twelves, under thirteens. His brother Alec opening the batting, balanced, elegant, oozing confidence. And then me at first wicket down, awkward, nervous, crippled with self-doubt. Eleven young lads who have yet to grow into themselves, playing with an intensity no-one should experience at that age, feeling without seeing the lasering eyes of pushy parents on the boundary’s edge.
Graeme Swann was in the age group below me, supremely gifted but utterly indifferent to the expectation which weighed upon him. Unlike Alec, he didn’t care whether he scored nought or eighty, took 0-70 or 6-34. I suppose you can be like that if you know you’re the chosen one. Just strap yourself in and let fate take its course while the rest flounder in your wake.
Swann appears tired, says Michael Vaughan. His usual joie de vivre is absent from his gait. Johnson flogs him for another boundary and Vaughan is telling me how tough is the modern schedule for England’s cricketers. He reminds me that it’s only been three months since they last played a test match. These slaves to their central contracts live out of suitcases, rarely seeing their families as they move from one tour to the next. I think of my own family, my wife and daughter curled up in bed. I get to see them all the time and I realise that Vaughan has struck a chord. But then I am away again, flying first class, staying in five star hotels, the exotic cities, the endless sunshine, getting paid a fortune to hit a piece of leather around a field. Mumbai, Sydney, Colombo, Cape Town, Bridgetown, any town. How good would that be? How good would that be?
I reach a shallow crest of the A5 and the Milton Keynes skyline appears in front of me, illuminated by iridescent yellow pock marks and a horizon which has shifted from black to an indifferent blue. It’s 7.28 and England, from a position of dominance, are now on the rack. Maybe they won’t have it all their own way in this series after all. Two minutes until their day ends and mine truly begins. As usual they have failed to bowl their overs but, as Jim Maxwell intones in his laidback Aussie drawl, if Anderson gets a shift on and delivers this last ball, they can still fit in one more. I pull into the almost empty car park and make a beeline across vacant spaces to reach my usual one near the front door. I park up but make no move to exit. I’ll listen until stumps. Cook has wandered over to Anderson. What can they possibly be discussing, asks Jim. Nothing, says Vaughan. They are stalling. They just want to get off the field. They don’t want to play any more today.
I feel strangely cheated. They don’t want to play.
The crowd knows it too. The noise builds as Anderson finally approaches the crease. He’s in, he bowls, and Haddin leaves alone outside off stump. A moment’s calm, then warm Aussie applause as the bails are lifted and I know that Cook and his men have had their way. I turn off the engine and take a breath. The real world awaits.