Sleepless (in seat L)
A gentleman dozing in the sun is a popular image of the cricket spectator. The image conveys the tranquility of the sport, or less generously, that it is a game that moves so slowly that sleep takes hold of the viewer.
With England playing in New Zealand, and the guts of the day’s play happening after my bedtime, I am reminded that cricket has caused me more sleeplessness than sleep. I can pinpoint the very first night that my rest was disturbed by cricket: 30 December 1982 – day five of the fourth Ashes Test.
England began the match two down with two to play. The Ashes, held since 1977, were in serious jeopardy. Australia had won the second and third tests of the series, its fast bowlers providing the more effective attack. But the fourth test was thrillingly equal, from first innings to the final margin. The four innings fell within a range of just 14 runs. Australia had been set 292 for match and series victory. Advantage through their innings swung, just as the whole match had. 39-2.. 171-3.. 219-9. The chief protagonist of this middle-late order collapse was England’s young fast bowler, Norman Cowans (a surprise quick tour pick), who took four wickets in the fourth evening, on his way to 6-77 in the innnings.
Australia began the final day, me in bed listening to Test Match Special, on 255-9. Allan Border and Jeff Thomson were half-way towards the target for their final wicket partnership. I was tired and downhearted. England didn’t seem to be creating any chances and the runs were ticking away. I neither wanted to listen nor to switch off. After seventeen overs, Australia had closed to within a boundary of victory. I think it was CMJ commentating (do correct me) who described Botham’s delivery to Thomson, which went something like this .. edged to Tavare.. he’s dropped it.. no it’s caught by Miller. My hair prickled, I wanted to shout. I was exhausted. I couldn’t sleep.
Twenty years later, another England victory left me agitated and sleepless. The first test at Christchurch was played on one of the first ‘drop in’ pitches – i.e. cultivated elsewhere, and slotted into the ground for the match. This novel approach to groundskeeping turned upside down one of the constants of first class cricket: pitches deteriorate as a match progresses, making run-scoring increasingly difficult. This characteristic became apparent on day three as England’s sixth wicket pair, Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff, set off on a partnership at odds with the low, slow scoring of the first two days. England, the radio pundits said, would manage with a lead of 250, which they were 80 short of at the fall of the fifth wicket. Fifty overs later and the lead was 460.
New Zealand were eventually set a target of 550. I went to bed with New Zealand down a few wickets and many hundreds still to get, but batting with some verve. Restless through the night, I tuned in to hear commentary as breathless as I can remember. Nathan Astle had run amok, and with Chris Cairns, a lame last wicket partner, were making the most audacious assault on the England attack. Boundaries followed boundaries. England’s attack was hapless – short balls pummelled over midwicket alternated with full balls launched straight. It was humiliating, but futile, so great was the target. Twenty minutes later, the flood untrammeled, the commentators began to consider an England defeat. Then, with the suddenness of all wickets, it was over. Astle out for 222 from 168 balls; a ‘tainted’ victory, I felt, so badly caned were England’s bowlers. Heart-racing, my night’s sleep was over.
Anxiety about my own play has from time-to-time cost me sleep. Only once have I been not out over night. Even with a fifty to rest my head on, I
slept poorly that night (uneasy lies the head that wears the lid – except I didn’t and never have worn one). The next day, my timing had gone and I slapped my way to a (still) personal best 90.
I have had an even more intimate case of cricket-induced sleeplessness. As a teenager, I played whole-hearted Sunday village cricket with the flotsam and jetsam of my Chiltern Hills village. One Bank Holiday weekend, the club steward chucking us out, we decided on some night-time japes. A visit to the churchyard was mooted, but rejected in favour of sleeping on the square, protecting the pitch for the Bank Holiday Monday’s fixture. The skipper, his girlfriend and three players headed for the middle. There we spread duvets and bedded down. I have endured some scratchy, almost painful innings, but I have never been so uncomfortable in the middle. The joking ceased, somone slept, the skipper and his girlfriend began rolling the pitch and I borrowed some car keys and tried sleeping in a VW Beetle’s passenger seat.
There is one occasion in my career when cricket and sleep fed upon one another. On tour in the south-west with my college old boys team in the early 1990s, our two fixtures were split by a rest day. While the bulk of the team opted for a round of golf, the captain and I (protecting our batting techniques from golf’s seductions) set out on a walk that took us along the south coast to Lyme Regis. In a churchyard above the harbour we found a bench and sat soaking up the late summer sun. Important context is that the day before, I had batted through most of our innings to help secure a draw against the much stronger team from Axminster, keeping out a young quick bowler seeking his hundredth wicket of the season. As relevant is that I had undiagnosed sleep apnoea. So, like a retiree at a county out-ground, I dropped off, almost mid-conversation. When, twenty minutes later, I blinked awake, the captain was eyeing me warily. I apologised. He asked if I knew what I had been doing. I braced for embarassment. He laughed and said I had been mumbling over and over again, “Get forward, get on the front foot, get forward…”