Mark Steel: Ashes series are such an awful addiction my family have learnt coping methods
My Ashes: During that 1982 match that England won by three runs I was living in a filthy squat. We huddled around the radio amid the mould
Tuesday 23 November 2010
For some of us the Ashes, especially in Australia, aren't so much a contest as an addiction, or maybe a mental illness. The house could be ablaze, and you'd be wandering through the rubble pestering firemen by saying: "You don't know if Ponting's out yet, do you?" If your partner offers to make love, they know it's on the understanding they mustn't make too much noise otherwise you won't hear whether England have taken the new ball.
Your family learns coping methods, much as they would if you were a crackhead, and if there was any justice you'd qualify as disabled and get a sticker for your car and a ramp in the house.
Last time, I saw the first day's play in a sports bar in central London that was jammed with about 500 people watching Harmison's opening ball in which he bowled it almost sideways, causing a world record for the largest number of people to yell the words "Oh for fuck's sake," in perfect synchronicity.
But the other glorious moment came when I finally surrendered to nature and accepted I'd have to go to the toilet and miss an over. And there I discovered a thing of pure beauty, a line of miniature screens tastefully placed at head height above the urinal so there's no need to miss a single ball. As a rare English delivery passed Langer's bat, a whole line of men, mid-pee, leaned back together as if choreographed and went "Wooo".
Ashes series are like music in their ability to provide a backdrop to your life. I remember the 1982 match when England won by three runs with a shambolic catch, because I was listening with my co-habitees in a filthy squat, huddled round a radio amid the mould while someone experimented by smoking the leaves of a rubber plant. In 1986-87 I was in a council flat, leaving the radio on all night but occasionally falling asleep. But at some level I must have still been following the commentary because I'd have these weird dreams such as making an apple crumble with Allan Border or fighting off a rhino with Graham Gooch and a set of stumps.
My first day in London with my mates but no adults was at The Oval to see Australia reach about 300 for 1, and I followed the dramatic last hours of the 2005 Edgbaston Test in a hotel room on holiday. When Geraint Jones took that final catch there were yells from every room in the building, and for the rest of the summer millions began the day by asking "Did you see the cricket?" It felt like being a scientist who'd spent his life defending a theory, but everyone else thought he was crazy, and now finally he'd proved right, as those who'd derided cricket as a pointless exercise started to follow every moment. But they were right the first time. It is pointless. And that is its ceaseless, glorious beauty.
Which is why the debate about whether we should still put the clocks back for the winter has an obvious solution. Instead, for the next 10 weeks they should be put forward by 11 hours, so we can watch every ball and still get a decent night's sleep.
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