How I rekindled my love for late night cricket

Nothing screams of an unhealthy cricket obsession more than the ‘all-nighter’. The heroic struggle through the wee hours of the morning, as leather smacks willow thousands of miles away. Usually aided by a few cans of caffeine – and in my case often some chocolate – those beady eyes remain prized open, secretly dreading the long day that awaits, but it’s all worth it.

It all began rather harmlessly. England’s triumph in the 2005 Ashes series had captivated a nation, and nowhere was it more apparent than in my grandfather’s living room. A five-Test turmoil that had seen fans and mere onlookers battered from pillar to post,  until Kevin Pietersen’s dashing 158 secured the urn on a dull, yet so bright, September day at the Kennington Oval. I had become quite keen on this cricket lark and went in search of a bit more of it.

Before we had the luxury of Sky Sports in our household – or the hell as far as my mother was concerned – the bellowing tones of Henry Blofeld on Test Match Special had to suffice, not that it was a problem. England were back in action against Pakistan, chasing a seemingly paltry 198 to win the first Test in Multan. The alarm rang – and was quickly suffocated as not to disturb anyone else – at what must have been around 5am, with England ready to resume their chase, requiring another 174 runs with nine wickets in hand.

It wasn’t to be. The now disgraced Danish Kaneria spun the English batsmen into a frenzy, while the Rawalpindi Express, Shoaib Akhtar, blasted through the others with bullets approaching 100mph. The whole series proved to be a disaster, culminating in a punishing innings defeat in Lahore. But it wasn’t all bad. I was introduced to the brilliantly frustrating Shahid Afridi who made a cameo appearance in the second Test.  A boundary-fueled 92 int the first innings was complimented by a horrendous first-ball duck in the second. Brilliantly frustrating. I was soon to learn that was just ‘Boom Boom’, and nearly 10 years on, the schoolboyish excitement is still there when his unmistakable figure bounds out to the crease. Ten years that has seen him pirouette on the pitch, gorge on cricket balls, and act as the talisman for Pakistan’s stirring 2009 World Twenty20 win.

Two years on, in the summer of 2007, was when the vice of cricket addiction tightened. After endless persistence, Sky Sports was finally installed, and I got to enjoy the delights of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, and Sanath Jayasuriya to name three, on a more permanent basis. The glut of Test matches and one-day internationals broadcast needed an audience, and I was only too happy to lend a hand.

It hadn’t taken long for Tendulkar to become my hero. He is to cricket what Shah Rukh Khan is to cinema. Iconic. A legend. Worshipped. Those silky drives and wristy flicks were something more accustomed to Picasso painting, than a cricketer batting.  All that winter I would creep downstairs hoping India had won the toss against Australia, and that Sachin was batting. The typical 4am start meant I could always fit the first half on an ODI in before school, or the first session or so of a Test. Ample time to watch bowlers get slayed on unashamedly batting-friendly wickets.

The reverse series later in the year presented a different challenge. Instead of ‘How early will I have to wake up?’ it had become a question of ‘How long will I have to stay up for?’ The answer ultimately determined by how long my favourites were at the crease. If they were dismissed early I would invariably sulk off to bed, if not, I would just keep going, and going, and going. There was one curveball – to quote our American counterparts – Perth. Wretched Perth and it’s brutal 2.30am start could always guarantee a sleepless night.

Those tireless vigils brought rewards sparingly but the gems were always more precious when they came. A gorgeous century from VVS Laxman outshone Tendulkar’s effort for style as Australia were put to the sword in the 2008 New Year’s Test. Sehwag’s extraordinary 319 in Chennai against South Africa  a few months later was scarcely believable, but India’s remarkable near-400 chase shortly after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks stands alone. Glued to the TV set, I watched as Yuvraj Singh, and of course, Tendulkar, guided India exquisitely to victory on a deadly fifth day pitch in Chennai to the despair of a powerless England. Elated, I went to school, and apparently – although I still vehemently deny it – fell asleep.

Over the past couple of years it dawned that an array of anecdotes wouldn’t quite wash on a CV; I eventually had to knuckle down and muster an education. But last week’s first Test between Australia and India rekindled the joy of cricketing escapism, prompting reflection – hence this article.

Now at university – the greatest agent for procrastination and insomnia bar none – there is plenty of time for cricket watching. The essay I convinced myself I would complete early,  had inevitably been left to mature as if it were a wheel of cheese – they seemingly don’t get better with age.  It was Australia’s first match following Phillip Hughes’ harrowing death. Enacting on his words, I assured myself that each night I would ‘get through to tea’, which was around 5am.

Not that it was difficult – barring the pesky rain on the second day. The cricket was marvellous. David Warner’s twin tons, an emotional century from an ailing Michael Clarke, in addition to a wonderful unbeaten 162 from Steven Smith, Australia’s future. Nathan Lyon’s spin masterclass then led them to a deserved triumph in the dying overs of  the match’s final session. But it was an Indian who stole the show on day five. Virat Kohli.

Gone are the golden days of the Tendulkar-Ganguly-Dravid-Laxman ‘Fab Four’, a new era has arrived. Kohli, playing his first match as Test captain, produced one of the finest five-day performances I have witnessed. A classy hundred in the first innings kept his side in the contest, but it was his second effort that will live long in the memory. Set an imposing but tempting final day target of 364, a vivacious knock on a brutally tough pitch, threatened to pull off one of the great fourth innings heists. A masterful 141 runs from India’s new superstar brought excitement in a way only Test cricket can channel. India couldn’t quite manage it, Kohli’s teammates failing him in a way Sachin’s so painfully did, they fell agonisingly short. It was a match of gradually building drama that only cricket can provide. Eight hours had whistled by before I’d even realised, the all-nighter had certainly been achieved.

It was a match the sport needed and one that reminded me why I became so fascinated with it. Reinvigorated and with a World Cup beginning in two months time, it’s time to embrace those caffeine and sugar-rushed nights once again.

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