Every two years, my love for cricket deepens just a little more. Two years is a long time to wait, but it’s finally here again: over the course of this summer, England and Australia will meet for a 25-day battle stretched out over several weeks. Most people find the idea of a day-long cricket match ridiculous, but a game devised by the most eccentric race on earth simply has to take it all a step too far. There are several forms of cricket these days, which means some games only last two or three hours, some last one sunny Sunday, and some, called Tests, last whole long weekends of four or five days. The Ashes are the most prestigious Test there is. Back in 1882, Australia won against England and rubbed it in with a newspaper obituary announcing the death of English cricket. Its ashes, most likely a burnt wooden bail that was used in the game, were taken to Australia in a little urn. Way to stretch a metaphor there, and also, seriously? But it turned out to be a good marketing trick if nothing else, and all Tests between England and Australia were referred to as The Ashes from that point. Whoever defeats the holder of the Ashes gets to take a little urn home. Cute.
The Ashes have always been a big deal, and they get awarded the full five days for each test match, of which there are five. If a match finishes early, the last day may be scrapped, but it usually takes that long. Each team gets two innings, and since there is all the time in the world (it certainly seems like that some days), play can be quite a long drawn-out affair with few runs scored per over. Unless, of course, a little-known bowler finds his magic spell, or a batsman gets tired of waiting and smashes all batting records. This is the magic of The Ashes, and it happens every time. Of course, there are still plenty of days of very slow progress, and yes, boredom. Who couldn’t love it?
Being an Australia supporter isn’t easy these days. Most famous players are now retired, and although there are plenty of young men to follow them, very few have played consistently well. There’s no outstanding batsman who can be relied on for a high score, and all too often, Australia are out for just not enough runs. It’s looking good for England and their more consistent players. The other problem is getting to actually watch any of the action. Sky has the rights, and I would have to starve my children if I was to afford their sports channels. Apart from actually going to one of the matches (and risking picking a boring/rainy day), the alternatives are as follows:
- Check your phone. There will be updates, maybe even over-by-over reports, and there are many cricket apps. But most likely there will be bad reception, not enough battery life and no wi-fi anywhere. Day One of the first test was one of those days. The magic was happening everywhere, my favourite Aussie got five wickets, and I was walking through a Cornish village trying to find a pub with an outdoor screen. There wasn’t one. But the joy when your phone finally has reception, and you realise your boy has just taken two more wickets. Priceless. Your cricket-hating husband, meanwhile, is mentally filling out the divorce papers.
- Watching the highlights on TV. One hour! That’s how much they give you once play has finished for the day. One hour of quickly assembled highlights. This leads to a weirdly disjointed Ashes experience because it’s not meant to happen at this speed! Give me a break! Why are you not showing the maiden overs? But on that second day, the magic happened, and a 19-year old number 11 (the place traditionally given to those who have other strengths than batting) scored 98 runs to keep Australia’s hopes up. It was like a movie. His mum was there! The EMOTIONS!
- Obsessively following one of the many over-by-over commentaries online. This is often more fun than watching because it’s interactive, with emails and text messages being sent to the commentator and swiftly included in the report. Discussions about pretty much anything ensue. Day Three of the first test was all about shoes in the workplace, the use of the word “laconic,” and overrated famous people. It wasn’t about the cricket much, which was great, because that day it consisted of England batting over after over after over to very slowly assemble 300 runs. I was on a five-hour car journey, leaning back in the passenger seat with a working phone. It made a probably quite boring day of cricket fun.
- Watch half-legal online streams. There are many, many people in Asia more obsessed with cricket than me. They make it happen. The connection may be crap, and there will be pop-ups in front of the players’ faces, but you get to see The Ashes for a few minutes! It’s awesome. You then go back to reading the over-by-over reports, because the Sky commentators are annoying, and you don’t want to be illegal. Still, you saw it. And Day Four actually shaped up well, with Australia finally doing some decent batting.
- Test Match Special. This is one of those English institutions you just don’t criticize. It’s cricket on the radio, which sounds about twice as boring as cricket on the TV, but apparently the commentators are the best, and it’s the silences and plops of well-hit balls that make it special. Me, I can’t even concentrate on audio books, so this sends me to sleep immediately. When The Ashes are played in Australia, the games are played at (our) night, so I have fallen asleep with the radio next to me. It’s very bizarre waking up every few hours trying to work out what must have happened while you were gone.
On one of the hottest days in England for several years, I spent Day Five with the Guardian’s OBO. It was the most fun. It has often been remarked that cricket brings out the best in writers, and it looks like this: “JAMES ANDERSON IS A MENSCH! He hits the pitch hard, and the ball grips and deviates off the seam, kissing Starc’s edge and homing into the dry, poreless hands of Alastair Cook. [...] Australia are in a hole, here, and James Anderson is heaping dirt on their pretty little heads like a lunatic.” After four days of fun and games, Day Five finally gets things done: it all boils down to the simple equation of scoring a certain number of runs (as set by the other team’s total) versus bowling ten players out before they reach that target. Australia had a target of 311 runs, and lost by 14 after a controversial decision. Grrrrrr, but ah well, we’ll get them next time. There are four more Tests, after all.