The newspaper salesmen sell newspapers reporting England's victory in the Bodyline Ashes

News of the world: papers announce England's win in the Bodyline series

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In bed with the Ashes

The seven ages of all-night cricket

Tim de Lisle |

The central fact about the Ashes, for the cricket lover in England or Australia, is not who's winning or making the runs or taking the wickets, fascinating as that tends to be. It's not even who is staying out too late and getting into punch-ups. It's something far more fundamental: half the time, the action unfolds while you're asleep.

The 2017-18 series has already made history with the announcement that it will include the first day-night Ashes Test. Or should that be the claim? For the fans, every Ashes Test that ever took place has been day-night - day for one of the participating nations, night for the other. The so-called day-night Test in Adelaide on December 2 will actually be less day-night-ish than any of its predecessors, because the second half of the day - so often the tougher, the more decisive of the two - will make comfortable viewing in Britain, starting at breakfast time. For a certain kind of Englishman, settling down to his Test and marmalade, Christmas will have come three weeks early.

But even that gentleman will be in bed for more than half the match, and for most of the series. That's the Ashes for you, turning every fan into a nightwatchman. Somehow, two countries on opposite sides of the world have ended up in a duel with all the depth and desperation of a derby. It is sport's least local rivalry, a never-ending saga that turns Home and Away into Neighbours, with a dash of War and Peace. For the character of the contest, this is magnificent; for the fan trying to follow the game, it's a pain in the arse.

In the beginning was the word. For most of the 135-year life of the Ashes, the only way to keep up with the action was by reading a report in the newspaper. (Note to younger readers: a newspaper was a curated package of all the stories likely to matter to its audience, printed and distributed overnight, consumed by anyone who was curious, and in most cases, peculiar as it may seem, paid for. It had a good run.)

John Thicknesse of the <i>Evening Standard</i> (at right): snappy, not anodyne

John Thicknesse of the Evening Standard (at right): snappy, not anodyne Graham Chadwick / © PA Photos/Getty Images

Because of the time difference, the paper carrying the story of the first day would land on the doormat just as the second day was drawing to a close. The match report would hardly have taken longer to reach the reader if it had been sent by courier. For a journalist, the worst position to be in is when the reader knows more than you do: touring Australia in Bradman's time, or even Allan Border's, a cricket writer on one of the morning papers could get stuck in that hole for weeks on end. Some went to press late enough to squeeze in a rushed report on the first hour of the day, but that merely drew attention to the problem without fully solving it. It made more sense to accept that the day belonged to the evening papers. For about 30 years from 1967, the man to read on a Test in Australia was John Thicknesse of the Evening Standard. To friends and colleagues, he was Thickers, chain-smoker, press-box bookie, card-player and a bit of a card. To readers, he was punchy, colourful and perceptive, able to cover the action at high speed without dishing up the white sliced bread of agency copy. When he died, Frank Keating, who had roomed with him on tour, said his reports had been "an oasis of reality".

To read Thicknesse, you needed to be in London, or nearby. Stuck at boarding school in Berkshire, I used to do a 15-minute walk into the next town to pick up the Standard. These were the far-off days when journalism was subject to geography, so I was one of the lucky ones: cricket lovers in Yorkshire or Somerset had to wait 24 hours for a written report of any flavour. Not that it was entirely a bad thing. It handed the spoils to the more thoughtful writers, those who weren't just taking dictation from the scorecard.

The '60s and '70s belonged to John Woodcock, whose reports for the Times offered both a voice - elegant, gentlemanly, empathetic, never hectoring - and a consistent point of view, full of love for the game without being blind to its faults. Meeting Wooders, the younger cricket writer would find him relentlessly self-effacing, always presenting himself as an amateur ("I'm not a proper journalist, like you"). But it was reading him that taught me the trick that was the most use when I began to write match reports myself: start every paragraph with an event, and use it as a branch on which to hang your opinions. Say what happened, then say what you think of it: the progression is so natural that we barely notice it.

As well as someone to teach you the rules, you need someone to show you how to break them. For the last five years of his long stint, Woodcock had an opposite number who felt like the future of sportswriting. Matthew Engel of the Guardian was one of the boldest choices a newspaper had ever made as its main cricket correspondent - vinegary, irreverent, willing to be scathing, and thus purpose-built to portray the England team of the Botham-Gower era, with its startling ability to swing from the sublime to the ridiculous. People talk about Swanton and Cardus, but, for my taste, the one was too starchy, the other too fruity. Perhaps because I was too young to have read much of them at the time, their reputation seemed greater than their prose. The dream match, the Borg and McEnroe of this game, will always be Woodcock and Engel, the one finding beauty in a straight bat, the other playing shots that weren't in the book.

Ringside: John Woodcock (far left) gets up close to the action on an England tour of India

Ringside: John Woodcock (far left) gets up close to the action on an England tour of India Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

After print, the second medium to put a hand on the Ashes was radio. It took its time: Test Match Special, which feels as if it has been there forever, didn't come into being until 1957, when Test cricket turned 80. But there was a period when, if England were on tour, living in the moment meant listening to the radio. Right up to the '80s, overseas Tests were not shown live on TV, and the 24-hour news channel, mercifully, had yet to come along. So there were only two ways to find out the score when you woke up. One was to jump out of bed, go to the telly, flip over to Ceefax, wait for it to wheel round to page 341, and study the scorecard. This had the advantage of being up to the minute, and there whenever you needed it (a tiny foretaste of the internet), along with the drawback of cramming a day's play into four paragraphs of agency copy, which tended to be all stock phrases and no flavour.

The other way was to have a radio by the bed, set the alarm for the top of the hour, give yourself a couple of minutes of general news in which to come to, and wait for the newsreader to hand over to the reassuring tones of Christopher Martin-Jenkins. CMJ had the knack of summing up a day's play in a way that was balanced without being bland. He could impart plenty of information and yet make it his own with the odd penetrating epithet. His bulletins were just what you wanted on a winter morning: deep and crisp and even. His successor as BBC cricket correspondent, Jonathan Agnew, is just as skilled while being, as the times demand, a little more excitable.

At some point in the mists of time, those bulletins were joined by ball-by-ball commentary. This was great for insomniacs, people on a night shift and early risers, but if you go from being a teenager to a student to a staffer on a morning paper, early rising is not part of your rhythm. I can only remember one occasion when TMS from down under was much use: the Melbourne Test of 1982-83, when the fourth day finished, like the penultimate episode of a TV drama, on a cliffhanger. Australia were 255 for 9, needing another 37 to win the match and seal the series. Their nemesis was not Ian Botham or Bob Willis but Norman Cowans, who had just become the first black Englishman ever to take a Test five-for.

England were firm favourites to grab that last wicket, but Border was still there, along with Jeff Thomson, who was No Mug, and this was just the sort of open goal that England were apt to miss. The fifth day wouldn't have been worth going to if you'd been in Melbourne, but it was just right for the midnight hour: beautifully tense, bound to be brief, and if it was all over too soon, at least England would have prevailed and the Ashes - Botham's Ashes - could still be retained.

Melbourne 1982: a match made for <i>TMS</i>

Melbourne 1982: a match made for TMS © Getty Images

It was the week after Christmas, the dog days when you could do with something happening. I was with my parents and my sister at our cousins' on the North York moors. The cousins barely knew a bat from a ball, but a couple of them, and a husband, sportingly joined the huddle round the radio. Border and Thomson advanced on the target, inch by inch. The agony was delicious. And then: "Botham comes in again, bowls, and Thomson edges it, and he's dropped! But the rebound is caught! By Miller. And England have won by three runs!" It was the closest Ashes Test there had ever been, to be pipped only by Edgbaston 2005.

In those days, television covered England's overseas Tests only with highlights if you were lucky - too little, too late if they were from Australia - and the odd clip at the end of the news. The reporter would never be a cricket specialist, and it always showed: the tone would be preaching to the agnostic, stating the obvious and shedding no light. We needed somebody to show overseas Tests in full. Whether Rupert Murdoch would have been many cricket lovers' choice for the role is doubtful, but he spotted the gap and filled it. And soon another era dawned, as the 1990-91 Ashes series became the first to be beamed live from Australia to England. (I didn't witness a single night of it, because I'd become a cricket correspondent and was there in person, dutifully filing reports that were instantly outdated.) The fans back home were in for a shock, or two: watching cricket with ads, and noisy commentators, including Tony Greig, who didn't let the fact that he had once captained England stop him expressing delight at the fall of an English wicket. But, strange as it may sound, TV coverage wasn't a game-changer, because the game still took place at night, and most fans were still doomed to miss most of it. It would take one more element to make a significant difference: the tapeless recorder, capable of capturing a whole night's cricket.

This development hinged on a cricketing version of the marshmallow test (in which small children were left in a room with a marshmallow, and told that if they resisted it for 15 minutes, they could have two; those who managed it were more likely to flourish in life than those who had a high IQ). For the cricket lover, the deal was this: if you could resist the burning temptation to check the score as soon as you woke up, you could enjoy the ebb and flow of the whole day.

The process was a delicate one, demanding more than mere self-discipline. You had to say "News blackout!" to each of your house-mates in turn. They had to play along, not just by keeping quiet about the game but by not letting a flicker of a spoiler cross their face - no pitying look to hint that England had subsided yet again to Shane Warne. You had to find your way to the recording without stumbling into the live relay of the last overs of the day, or the instant recap. And you had to have a chunk of free time first thing in the morning. If all these planets were in alignment, and England weren't being utterly useless, you could have a great time.

Six hours in a day's cricket, but you only need to watch a sixth of it

Six hours in a day's cricket, but you only need to watch a sixth of it © Getty Images

Somebody once worked out that in a six-hour day of Test cricket, there were only 66 minutes when anything was happening. With patience and application - traits that come easily to cricket fans - you could become adept at using the fast-forward button to hop from one brief flurry of action to the next. You could watch every ball, with a little blur in between to hasten the bowler back to his mark; or you could wait till, say, David Boon and Steve Waugh were well set, and then take a punt and whizz through to the next session, while remaining ready to rewind like crazy if something suddenly went right.

By now, for home Tests, the BBC had handed over to Channel 4, and before long Channel 4 had handed over to Sky. For English cricket these were fateful decisions, fattening its wallet while thinning its appeal. If you have Sky, you get coverage that is thorough and incisive, albeit far too deferential to the dressing-room hierarchy of a generation ago. If someone is less good at commentating than at playing, they are trading on former glories and shouldn't be on your commentary team. Cricket, unlike football, has plenty of ex-players to choose from who can make it to the end of a sentence while holding on to some vague memory of what they said at the start of it. This is an employers' market, not an agents' one, and selection should be just as competitive as it is for a national team - in fact more so, as there are only six or seven places to be handed out. But you can forgive those selectors most things if they keep picking Mike Atherton, who brings the genial demeanour of a man who knows he is a guest in your living room, and Nasser Hussain, who, in a studio stuffed with former England captains, is the only one still working out where every fielder should be, who needs to be bowling from which end, and what the score might be in half an hour if the actual captain doesn't start thinking like Nasser.

For the 40 million people in Britain who don't have Sky, cricket is now something that happens in the background, a quieter version of the drone of Formula One. A Test match doesn't lend itself to a stint in the pub, like football: it goes on too long, and even the connoisseur struggles to predict when it's going to erupt into excitement. But the gaping hole left by terrestrial TV isn't all bad, because it offers space for other media.

Once upon a time it was felt that cricket wouldn't work on the radio because it was too slow. We now know that the opposite is true: some other sports don't work on radio because they're too fast - tennis is breathless, football is impossible to picture. Cricket, with its stop-start rhythm, its one-shot rallies and its lengthy intervals, is made for radio, and lately TMS has landed in a second golden age. If the commentary is less quotable than in the days of Arlott and Johnston, the pace is brisker, the welcome warmer, the tent bigger - at the 2017 Women's World Cup, TMS went to the opening match, between England and India, with a line-up of six women and one token man.

Let them eat cake (and have jolly japes): Christopher Martin-Jenkins (centre), flanked by Fred Trueman and Brian Johnston of <i>TMS</i> 1989

Let them eat cake (and have jolly japes): Christopher Martin-Jenkins (centre), flanked by Fred Trueman and Brian Johnston of TMS 1989 © PA Photos

And then along came the internet, the biggest game-changer of modern times, itching to reshape everything from shopping and dating to the veracity of news and the reliability of elections. Cricket was ahead of the curve, for once, with ESPNcricinfo getting going as early as 1993, which was rather like a newspaper being founded in the 15th century. ESPNcricinfo's scorecards of past internationals, most of them uploaded by anonymous volunteers, stealthily superseded Wisden as cricket's central reference library. But something much broader happened too: after a century or more as a scattering of settlements, the game became a global village. The fan in India now reads some of the same stuff, at the same time, as the fan in England or Australia or America or Argentina.

For those following the Ashes from the wrong side of the world, there was now a way to keep up that was silent and did not disturb their long-suffering other half, if any. When the internet seized its chance and occupied the phone, that coverage could easily be by the bed, weaving in and out of our dreams. England declaring on 551 for 6 and then losing: that had to be a nightmare - oh. To be an England supporter on the morning of December 5, 2006, baggy-eyed and Ashen-faced, was to know the true meaning of the words "It's been a hard day's night."

Ball-by-ball, at first, was bald, and often boring. It assumed that every delivery was of equal interest, when, in any given over of Test cricket, three or four balls will be non-events. This is why over-by-over, pioneered by the Guardian circa 2000 and widely copied since, took off. It ignores the dull bits, or finds amusement in them: it sorts the wit from the chaff. And it uses two of the distinctive properties of the internet - instant delivery and interactivity, so a reader with a point to make can see it on the page within three minutes of putting it in an email.

Writing at web speed is an education, as you can see from the way Will Macpherson and Vithushan Ehantharajah are now making their names, or the indecent speed with which Lawrence Booth went from being one of the bright young things of the OBO to editing Wisden. It's also a thrill, as I discovered when I made the opposite journey and joined the Guardian team in 2016. Clocking on at four in the morning, as England face another hiding in India, isn't a bundle of laughs. But the good days are the most fun I've had as a cricket writer. Having to write a paragraph or two at the end of every over is an interesting blend of privilege and pressure, like sitting an exam in your favourite subject.

The game is now where you are

The game is now where you are © Getty Images

If you've been counting the ages, you will know that this makes six - print, radio, TV news and highlights, live TV, live scores on the web, and OBO. The seventh, in my book, is the one just dawning, in which clips of the big moments go up on Twitter almost as soon as they've taken place. That means you can be in an office or on a train or in the street, and still see some of the game with your own eyes, which could well be another sea change.

But, again, it won't make a big difference to following the Ashes from afar, which is still, for all these developments, all about how much sleep you are willing to sacrifice in order to scratch the itch to stay informed. The other day Adam Mountford, producer of TMS, said in a tweet heralding their winter's coverage: "Sleep is for wimps!" He was joking, or I hope he was, because sleep is actually for the sane. There's a reason why sleep deprivation is one of the tools of the torturer.

Personally, I'll be recording every night and watching it on fast-forward, willing the series to stay alive till Melbourne, as so many haven't. And I will be reading the papers - not so much in print, because the Standard is not as keen on cricket as it was in Thickers' time and the morning papers are still doomed to be a day behind. The web may threaten the livelihood of us journalists, but it has also given us a great deal in terms of reach and impact. When a Test is taking place at the Gabba or the WACA, it plays a crucial part in terms of timing. The match report that used to take 24 hours to reach us now lands soon after the close. Polished analysis, like a bread roll, tastes even better when it's warm from the oven.

In Aesop's fable, the tortoise somehow defeated the hare (which had fallen asleep, probably after staying up too late watching the cricket). To say the written word has won this race would be pushing it, but it still gets on the podium. And it has kept on adapting to survive. The Engel way seemed to be prevailing when the Independent landed on the British news stand in 1986, with Martin Johnson as its cricket correspondent. Where Engel had delivered dry wit, Johnson went a step further, into knockabout humour. "There are only three things wrong with this England squad," he wrote, unforgettably, in his second month in the job, during the warm-ups for the 1986-87 Ashes. "They can't bat, can't bowl and can't field." They promptly won the Brisbane Test - a feat no England team has managed since - and they went on to seal the series in Melbourne. These days, people would have said something about the commentators' curse.

Michael Atherton (far right, first row), with other luminaries of the Channel 4 team, is

Michael Atherton (far right, first row), with other luminaries of the Channel 4 team, is "distinguished by a rare ability to look outside himself and ask a canny question" Tom Shaw / © Getty Images

Soon poached by the Sunday Times to be a general sportswriter, Johnson proved to be a one-off, although there are traces of his gleeful scorn in Barney Ronay of the Guardian. Engel, whose strengths had included a certain detachment from cricket, confirmed it by going off to write about other things and becoming the Guardian's page-one stylist, then a feature writer for the Financial Times. His love of cricket was funnelled into being editor of Wisden - an outstanding one, adding wit without losing weight.

The upmarket papers veered, as a pack, into signing ex-players as cricket writers, which was a mixed blessing, for obvious reasons: they brought more knowledge of the finer points of the game, and less grasp of the finer points of writing. On his day, the player-turned-writer can be extremely effective, radiating authority in all directions, shedding light on ball-tampering or going wide on the crease or fielding at slip to a spinner. But his best position is the sidebar, not the main story. He seldom gets any better as the years go by, because he's a student of the game he's writing about, not of the trade he now finds himself plying. The exception to the rule is Atherton, distinguished by a rare ability to look outside himself and ask a canny question: not since Richie Benaud has such a journalistic mind survived a full Test career. Nor do many ex-players have a distinctive voice on the page, even if they have one on air - the exception here being Vic Marks, whose blend of warm insight and wry humour shows up as well in the Observer, and now the Guardian, as it does on TMS.

On the whole, the press box now belongs once again to the pros - the pro writers, not the ex-pro cricketers. In Australia, the star is Gideon Haigh, an analyst so lucid that sports editors in London have been known to fight over him. In England it's Scyld Berry, who has covered almost every England Test for the past 40 years. He has gravitated from the Sundays to the Daily Telegraph - still, for all its political flakiness, a solid edifice in the landscape of sport - and he uses his experience to read the game with more accumulated wisdom than anyone else, seeing patterns and syndromes, showing that journalism really can be the first draft of history. If I could read only one correspondent, it would be Scyld. If I could read only one colour writer, it would be Gideon.

But the web is a hotel buffet, not a set menu, so I'll also be enjoying columns by Greg Baum in the Melbourne Age, think pieces here and there from Dileep Premachandran, OBO from Rob Smyth and whoever else gets the nod at the Guardian (whose live coverage will be half London-based, half Sydney, making it harder to get a game), and ball-by-ball from Andrew Miller and the gang at ESPNcricinfo, which has long since added a spark of humanity to its superlative score-keeping. For a lifelong England follower, the cricket in 2017-18 may well be disappointing. The writing, we know, will be anything but.

Tim de Lisle has won Editor of the Year awards with Wisden Cricket Monthly and Intelligent Life. He has just published The Connell Guide to How to Write Well