I am, at best, a very casual cricket fan.
I’ve dabbled with the IPL before, I was even glued to my sofa when England beat New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup final - although admittedly that had more to do with an aggressively obnoxious hangover and an inability to find the TV remote than it did with avid fandom - but for the most part it’s a sport that I’ve allowed to pass me by.
And so it has been with The Ashes. Aside from the odd well-worn montage I’ve passively absorbed on Sky Sports or the occasional foggily-remembered newsreel of a bleary-eyed Freddie Flintoff stumbling gloriously along Downing Street, my acquaintance with the series is slim to minimal.
I know that tiny little urn is important - although I’m not entirely sure why - and I’ve feigned faux outrage in social situations when we’ve inevitably taken another hiding from the Australians, but all things considered, I have been a distant, disinterested, almost wilfully ignorant observer.
This year though, I want to change that. I’m enlisting in the Barmy Army, getting hyped up for the rumble Down Under, and what better way to do that than by pulling a graveyard shift to watch the first day of the first test in Brisbane?
I’m throwing myself in at the deep end, going full Lionel Richie and staying tuned all night long to properly immerse myself in The Ashes like never before - and I’m going to try to document the whole thing.
So, without further ado…
11pm: Okay, here we go, nine consecutive hours of cricket coverage. I think the only other time I’ve spent nine consecutive hours watching something was when I got roped into a Lord of the Rings marathon at uni, and even then I’m pretty sure I dosed off for a bit at the end of The Two Towers. One minute the lads were toddling along and everything was hunky-dory, next thing I knew Frodo had ran off and Sean Bean was dead. Let’s hope for no Uruk-hai ambushes tonight.
11.01pm: I’m a big fan of this opening montage, I have to say. The storybook art-style, the fantastical inclinations - it’s all very Shrek.
11.04pm: Who ever thought of the “Gabbatoir” deserves a raise.
11.12pm: Twelve minutes in and I can say with absolute certainty that I would like to go for a pint with Steve Harmison.
11.17pm: Leaving Stuart Broad out feels like a big call, even to me…
11.22pm: I’ll level with you, a lot of this technical chat is going straight over my head, but Australia seem like a fearsome bunch, don’t they? Mitchel Starc has got me worried already.
11.31pm: “Rooty” doesn’t feel like a very natural nickname. It’s longer than his actual name.
11.32pm: England have won the toss and elected to bat first. I will let you know if that’s a good decision in a moment.
11.35pm: Harmie is happy, I’m happy.
11.40pm: Nothing says “Pandemic-era Ashes” like a series of increasingly awkward Zoom chats with homebound England fans.
11.49pm: They look like they’re floating on a melting iceberg in that studio.
11.54pm: The teams are out, the crowd are on their feet, and the atmosphere is simmering delightfully as the anthems are warbled. I’m probably going to end up a tad delirious by the end of the night, but while I still have some semblance of sanity, I’d like to emphasise in all earnestness just how momentous it all feels. It’s hard not to get swept along in the excitement, even for an Ashes rookie like me.
11.58pm: This morning session is brought to you in association with excessive caffeine consumption and enough Haribo Tangfastics to fell a wild boar.
12.01am: Rory Burns takes to the crease, Starc is waiting, ball in hand. Here we go, folks…
12.02am: First ball, Burns gone. I’m speechless. Wow. Just wow. What a sucker-punch.
12.04am: Dawid Malan responds with a boundary. Nerves somewhat settled. Somewhat…
12.12am: Burns’ dismissal was only the fourth time in Ashes history that a batsman has been bowled out with the very first ball of the series. Am I a curse?
12.19am: I might be a curse. This could be a long, long night. Malan edges a Josh Hazlewood delivery and Alex Carey gathers. Australia look ruthless. England look a little petrified. “Rooty” is padded up and enters the fray. The tension is honestly palpable, and I’m sat 10,000 miles away in Gateshead.
12.24am: For the sake of Haseeb Hameed’s descendants, thank god for boxes.
12.31am: This is getting ridiculous. “Rooty” has gone for a duck. Another Hazlewood delivery, another English scalp. England are now 11-3. Here comes Ben Stokes.
12.34am: Every single Aussie delivery is giving me heart palpitations.
12.50am: It’s been a mercifully quiet spell for England.
12.52am: SkyBet airing an advert on BT Sport. A bit like the McCoys erecting a billboard on the Hatfields’ estate.
12.54am: Just done some googling and it turns out the Hatfields and the McCoys are all friends now. They even appeared on an episode of Family Feud together in 1979. The Hatfields won.
1.03am: If nothing else, it’s good to see that conditions are holding up. The forecast has been pretty foreboding over the past few days. For the first and only time I’ve added Brisbane as a location in my weather app on my phone. It joins such illustrious company as Madrid, Buenos Aires, and South Shields.
1.06am: Stokes is up and running with his first boundary of the innings. The commentators are discussing how he could have played for Australia in another life. A truly harrowing thought.
1.08am: Et tu, Benjamin? England are in disarray. The talisman is gone. Pat Cummins bowls, Marnus Labuschagne catches comfortably. I’m starting to think an Uruk-hai ambush might actually have been less devastating than these opening exchanges. 29-4.
1.13am: These Australian commentators are smug. Don’t blame them, mind. I’d be loving it too if the boot was on the other foot.
1.20am: Brisbane looks nice, doesn’t it? Might have a look at their tourist information board.
1.23am: Turns out the number one tourist attraction in Brisbane is cuddling a koala at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. Seems like the perfect segue into that story about Kolo Toure refusing to hold one during a preseason tour with Liverpool and subsequently admitting that he hasn’t stroked his own dog in seven years because he’s too scared of it.
1.26am: Well, what do you know? Toure’s marsupial torment went down in Brisbane. Kismet.
1.36am: A fine boundary from Ollie Pope. If England can just keep ticking along, little by little, this might not be as horrendously horrendous as it first appeared. Nathan Lyon introduces some spin into the attack.
1.44am: Full credit to Hameed too, by the way. I don’t want to tempt fate, but he’s done a fairly admirable job as those around him have comprehensively disintegrated.
1.47am: First ball of the 21st over and England bring up the half century. Thus far it’s been an innings that has veered wildly between the mundane and the terrifying, like filling out spreadsheets in the crater of an active volcano.
1.50am: I praise Hameed, six minutes later he comes within a hair’s breadth of getting himself dismissed. Perhaps I should shut up.
2.02am: And that’s lunch. I’m going to break open a bag of pistachios and reflect on the futility of sporting endeavour.
2.05am: Tell you what, Harmie is fuming. Alastair Cook is trying to be diplomatic, but you can tell that he’s a bit gutted too. England might need something special to salvage this.
2.34am: Currently watching a vignette on the mental fortitude required to survive the unique pressures of the Ashes. We’re only a couple of hours in but I think I’m doing alright so far.
2.38am: I feel like Glenn McGrath is looking directly into my soul.
2.41am: The afternoon session is underway. Still feeling pretty fresh, but these next couple of hours could really start to take their toll.
2.45am: Hameed’s gone. I repeat, Hameed has gone. Four balls into the new session and Cummins baits him and he consequently skews one straight into the grasp of a vulturous Steve Smith. A creeping sense of deja vu descends. 60-5.
2.49am: Earlier on, in the innocent hours of the morning session, the commentary team occupied themselves for a good few minutes with a hearty debate about the relative merits of potential fifth test venues and how they could affect the outcome of the series. Not to be that guy, but it kind of already feels like it might end up being a moot point.
2.57am: Pope has just taken a Cummins fast bowl to the flesh of his bicep and it looked like it absolutely wrecked. The effort with which he suppressed the subsequent grimace may be the most impressive thing an England player has done in this innings so far.
3.01am: Jos Buttler comes agonisingly close to hitting a six, but he falls just short and the outfield conspires to prevent him from wracking up a four either. Typically cruel.
3.15am: Pistachios are great, aren’t they? The struggle to prise open the shell, the welcome clash of the salt and those earthy, aromatic undertones - so primal, so good.
3.22am: Big drama… kind of! Starc slings one to Buttler, who comes within a whisker of making contact with his inside edge. Australia are convinced he clipped it and bring up the appeal, but the umpire’s original decision of Not Out stands. The Englishman is a lucky, lucky boy - I was sure he was a goner there.
3.28am: Buttler has shown such a propensity for damage limitation - perhaps the government should see if he’s available to do the breakfast TV press junket in the morning. Drinks, nibbles, games, anyone?
3.32am: England reach 100 in the 37th over. Buttler has made a considerable difference. He’s survived by the skin of his teeth at times, but his arrival has altered the complexion of this one… slightly.
3.45m: The real winner in this first test might actually be my dog, who usually sleeps in the hallway but who has been allowed into the bedroom for one night only so that she doesn’t have to go through this ordeal with me. Think my girlfriend is secretly delighted with the switch.
3.49am: Buttler dismissed. Starc does him with a searing delivery and Carey gathers again. England’s mid-order salvation has gone. Thoroughly glum and running low on pistachios.
4.02am: What a moment for Cameron Green. He lures Pope in with a smart ball, and the batsman can only respond with a hasty top edge. Hazlewood produces a superb catch coming in from the boundary and the young Aussie has his first ever test wicket. A begrudging well done to the lad. 118-7, England reeling.
4.05am: If it wasn’t for the fact that he’s taller than your average redwood, you might be forgiven for thinking that Green was about 12 years old. He’s a babyfaced Goliath.
4.09am: This is utterly doleful. Ollie Robinson goes for a duck. Wickets falling like fenceposts in a hurricane now. Cummins wheels away in celebration once more.
4.14am: Maybe the real Ashes are the friends we make along the way.
4.18am: Chris Woakes has just hit three fours in succession and I had to pinch myself to make sure I hadn’t finally drifted off to sleep. Can confirm I had not.
4.29am: England are on the brink. Cummins to Mark Wood, Marcus Harris catches with ease. 144-9. Insert mild expletive here.
4.30am: Harris’ haircut is a sight to behold, mind. And that’s coming from a man who’s trim, or lack thereof, makes him look like Jasper Carrott.
4.38am: England: all out. My optimism: all out. Pistachios: all out. 147 runs, Cummins takes a fifer. Perhaps not as dreadful as it could have been, but still pretty dire.
4.46am: BT Sport keep airing this one advert for their Europa League coverage with a heavy metal band singing about how “Thursday nights are Europa nights” and let me tell you, I’m going to be humming it for days.
4.48am: Plenty of vamping going on in the studio now. Harmie is talking about growth spurts.
4.50am: This is starting to fall somewhere between an episode of Gogglebox and self-imposed solitary confinement for me.
4.55am: Hold the phone. The covers are on and there’s a storm a-coming, according to Glenn McGrath, who is in real danger of doing a Mary Poppins judging by the ferocity with which the wind is whipping at his umbrella inside the Gabba. Looks like that could be it for the day, but we’ll see.
5.05am: Matt Smith has just described the conditions in Brisbane as “wet and wild”, but honestly, that’s putting it mildly. The rain is torrential, there’s standing water on the pitch already, and the sky looks like Zorro’s cape. I’m no meteorologist, but I think that’s us done.
5.30am: I’m calling it, folks. We haven’t cut back to Glenn in a while so presumably he’s been washed away, the Gabba is starting to look like the Lost City of Atlantis, and back in the studio we’re marching assuredly into the realm of filler content sporadically interspersed with highlight package recaps. Bed beckons and I might actually get some shuteye in before the sun begins to rise over the People’s Republic of Gateshead. Lucky me. I guess every cloud does have a silver lining, even if the cloud in question is 10,000 miles away
So, what have we learnt? Well, as they do with punk music (trust me) and animals that could kill you for no apparent reason, the Australians look to have a distinct advantage over the English when it comes to test cricket. I think deep down, we all knew that was the case, but those disastrous opening exchanges out in Brisbane earlier tonight probably confirmed many people’s worst fears. England have a big old mountain to conquer if they are to win this series.
We’ve also learnt that Steve Harmison is a top bloke, and that Kolo Toure is scared of his own dog.
But, most importantly, I, personally, have learnt that the Ashes - even when things get a bit abject and the wickets are tumbling like Slinkys down a staircase - are well worth abandoning logic, decorum, and sensible sleeping patterns for. I’m converted. Hooked, even. I want that tiny terracotta urn to come home with “Rooty” and the boys more than I ever could have imagined I would this time yesterday. It’s not going to be easy, true, but nor is anything worth having.
And remember everyone, if you take nothing else from this sleep-deprived ramble, it’s that “THURSDAY NIGHTS… ARE EUROPA NIGHTS”.