A close test

Some life in this 'Ashes of the Dead'

I am not handling this well. This is the sixth of my seven straight overnight Tests in as many weeks. I'm not seeing much daylight, and the whole thing has started to stress me out a bit.

Also to see my family, I am sleeping in shifts many days, which isn't working. Then when this Test started with rain, that made it worse. I struggled the first day because I forgot which day the Test started. Actually, I forgot which day it was. And so I wasn't prepared, and then it rained, so I spent an entire night trying to stay up against my body's wishes not to watch cricket. And somewhere around the tired, confused, missing daylight, think I just got real jaded.

None of this was helped by the fact I missed most of the Bangladesh win over New Zealand to rest up for a dead rubber. Oh, and the India South Africa series.

Then there is England; they have been rancid, like if a vomit made love to a shit and had babies. They made such a mess of their selections and followed that up by a lack of catching. They got their selections wrong again for the next Test, and then gave up batting entirely in the third.

It felt tedious, inevitable and long. Melbourne was my favourite Test because they fell apart so damn quick. They're probably the only ones watching the Novax Djokovic visa thing and thinking, 'wow, if we'd just done weird shit with our applications to this country we could have been spared the entire embarrassment'.

The only English players who have done well are the ones who haven't taken the field. Ben Foakes is now the world's best keeper, Jofra Archer is even faster than we remember, James Vince is a smooth sex machine of batting and Dom Bess is off spin's first sexual tyrannosaur.

If England hadn't turned up with a similar bowling attack to what they had before, with batting still made of the most highly flammable material on earth, there would have been at least something to ramp up to. But this was destined to be a loss from the moment they came out to fulfil Cricket Australia's contract with broadcasters during a global pandemic.

England's Ashes have been like one of those zombie films where everyone is worried about being eaten by the undead, but in actual fact, the real problems come from those they are locked in the house with. This has been the Ashes of the living dead.

And then after all this, we go to the SCG for rain and a flat pitch. For a dead rubber. If you've ever seen the Davis or Billie Jean King Cup, if the scoreline is over, the dead rubber matches are played out like charity matches but without the fun. They're not even phoned in, some doubles player with a racquet they've borrowed from a friend is puffing on a cigar at the change of ends, and no one in the world gives a shit.

Other sports kill their dead rubbers completely, if you're 4-0 down in the NBA finals, they don't make you perform three more times because they had already booked the court. Not cricket. People travelled on boat to get there back in the day; tickets helped pay for the trip back home, you better believe they were squeezing every last dollar out of this. And we could have changed this, but we had bigger things to worry about, like light-up bails and what colour shoelaces the players were wearing.

Because it is our sport, we also got to finish with a part-time bowler delivering to one of the worst batters in the world. Baseball is cricket's illegitimate child, and their sport is going all-in on making sure the best pitchers are throwing to the greatest hitters. And we just finished one of our most-watched events of recent time, with Jimmy Anderson, famous for being England's losing wicket, and Steve Smith, who hasn't taken a Test victim since 2016. If these two switched places, you'd have to all-time greats doing what made them legends, but cricket fucked it up, so we had two part-timers apologising for being in this mess.

Fuck the best of the best, let's have the shittest versus the least bothered, in fading light, and finish it up with a ball most people in the crowd could have delivered and played.

And then there is the draw. A tie wasn't enough for our sport; we added a whole new element, where no one wins, there is no golden goal, penalties, overtime or nothing. Just handshakes and stale beer. A sport that involves you to be tested physically and mentally for five days only so at the end you can feel unsure about the result and life itself.

It's all there, tiredness, anger, disappointment, ineptitude, pointlessness, and a lack of talent with no one winning.

And I loved it.

Halfway through the day I would have given you money to continue sleeping when it was raining. When Bairstow and Stokes were batting, I would have celebrated like I'd won the US Open if Cummins had said, 'hey, let's shake hands'. If England had done one of their patented collapses at any stage, I would have strutted to bed like I had the skill and determination to win a Test for my country.

But cricket said no, you are going to watch this dreadful team try and not win a match in a series they have already lost.

But, who gives a shit about all those facts, this has come down to nine wickets and 18 balls. Intellectually you can have all your arguments why this is all bullshit. The jaded side of you that delivers pure snark on twitter is all ready to go. But close Test matches touch you in the feels.

This wasn't like the tension of South Africa India match had. This wasn't like the joy of the Bangladesh's victory over New Zealand. But it was close, and a Test match being close has this ability to change you physically. It effects how you breathe and think. And suddenly, all the things you know to be true don't matter, because look how many people they have around the bat. The idea that this is pointless and you should be reading a good book or learning a new language doesn't matter, because there is a silly point for a fast bowler.

It isn't like other close sport; there isn't as much yelling or celebrating. It makes you breathless, every ball builds on the other to form this physical pressure on you, forcing you deeper into your chair. A close test captures you. It makes your imagination try and predict the story. You're part of the narrative of this. And this limbo can last for hours.

The frustration at the first four days of rain, breaks and Australia cruising to an inevitable victory are swept away, because bloody Steve Smith dismissed Jack Leach.

The same Leach that Smith did absolutely not parody after Australia retained the Ashes last time.

And now Jimmy Anderson has to come in again. The man who only bats when England is about to lose something, has to trudge out, again, with his team having let him down, again, and do the job he has at no stage in his career been physically able to do, again.

At the other end is Stuart Broad, who started as an all rounder, made a hundred as the bowlers in question were about to go to jail, was walloped in the head it knocked the batting out of him and plays in such an entertaining way his batting has it's own twitter account.

And Broad is the more competent of the two. I mean, Jimmy Anderson can't play pace or spin. You'd think over 160 odd Tests he'd have worked out at least one of them, even by accident. But no, here is again, doing the job he's no good at, while his nation wakes up expecting to have seen his side already lose.

He's facing Steve Smith, the batter who was accidentally selected for Australia. The leg spinner who became the best batter in the world. The man who lost his job because another bloke put sandpaper on at least three balls. And is now only bowling because there is a time in cricket when we say the light is too bad to play unless you chuck the ball to some bum who's not athletic enough to deliver it fast.

So it didn't matter how tired or jaded I was, because now Jimmy Anderson is facing Steve Smith, and it doesn't matter what time it is, or what came before, or what random set of events that led us here. This has been building all day, and it's an over that feels like it takes an hour, it is actually over in barely more than a minute and nothing really happens.

Yet I live through every ball, I am more awake than I have been in weeks, and these ordinary leg breaks are blunted with a horrendous technique are now the only thing that matter to me. For over an hour everything else has faded away. It doesn't matter that this Test was farcical, dark, wet, stupid and pointless. Because it's close. And a close Test is like nothing else in the world.

A close Test is like living in the moment between the fight and the makeup sex. You could be about to get divorced or about to have the best orgasm of your life. It's the snail on the razor, but also the unexpected Christmas bonus. A close Test is a location we all share, and a feeling we can't quite describe. A utopian version of limbo.

A close Test is falling in love all over again, while knowing it will never last. And not caring one bit. I was not handling this well, and that was perfect.