Before the Sprinkler: six hours of torture at the hands of Brad the Impaler

There must be somewhere more comfortable to watch an Ashes than a freezing student shithole above an Indian restaurant in Euston. But that fate befell Nakul Pande who shivers at the memory, one made worse by the interminable company of a grizzled Australian wicketkeeper – and a reminder that 2010-11 wasn’t all plain sailing.

It is often said that the English have no national myths to speak of – no Aeneid, no Mahabharata, no Washington and the cherry tree. Even King Arthur is a Norman import. The English, they say, have no myths.

This is, of course, bollocks. English myths are so potent that they can be recalled with a single phrase: Grace. Bodyline. Typhoon’ Tyson. Botham. Gower. 2005. And the most recent great addition to the pantheon, 517-1.

In those four numbers, the story is told. Alastair Cook, so recently on the verge of career oblivion, and Jonathan Trott, hero of the Oval in 2009, blunting the Gabbatoir’s killing blades; Kevin Pietersen majestically laying to rest the ghosts of Adelaide past; 98 all out and Ricky Ponting losing his rag one last time at the MCG; the shattering of Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris (whatever happened to them, eh?); and the final humiliation, the Sydney Sprinkler. 24 years of being ground into the red Antipodean soil brought to an end, sparking a brief and now rather embarrassing dance craze.

But before all that … the horror.

In the early hours of November 25, 2010, I was sat huddled in a dressing gown and two jumpers in a freezing student shithole above a South Indian restaurant near Euston, headphones plugged into the radio stream on my laptop so as not to disturb my flatmate, who while fond of cricket was even fonder of sleep. (No, it was not Hendo.)

I shivered as Andrew Strauss cut the second ball to Mike Hussey (more of him soon) at gully. I made more coffee while Cook led a fitful recovery, with Trott and Pietersen unable to convert starts. And when Peter Siddle took his birthday hat-trick leaving Ian Bell able only to turn a shambles into a disappointment, the scent of deja-vu hung heavy in the air in which I could by now see my breath.

A day of not-really sleep, and I was ready to go again for day 2, stronger coffee and warmer slippers at the ready. Australia had survived the previous evening’s “nasty half hour”, and Shane Watson and Simon Katich made a solid start. I considered bed, that tempting but fatal misstep familiar to all would-be overnight cricket followers.

Thoughts of slumber were banished as the Australian middle-order crumbled in a heap. When Marcus North poked Graeme Swann to slip for 1, there was half a chance of England taking a lead into the second innings.

And then, reader, the long waking nightmare began.

Being beaten up by Mike Hussey is one thing. He’d been doing it to practically everyone since his belated Test debut; while no Damien Martyn, he was mildly pleasant to watch, especially through the covers; and as Australians went didn’t seem a terrible chap.

But there is a grating, nails on a blackboard tortuous quality to being beaten up by Brad Haddin. Most wicketkeepers are irritating, and many bat in a way seemingly designed to drive opposition player and fans to distraction. But Haddin is enough to make even an Ashes neutral such as I consider painting my face with a St George and learning the words to Jerusalem.

Brad Haddin: almost as painful as a pole up the Jacksie

It was made worse by knowing that I was inflicting this upon myself. No-one was making me follow every play-and- miss, every squinty half-grin, every top-edge cut for four. Nothing else induces Stockholm Syndrome like Test cricket on the radio, and by the time day two had blearily merged into day three with an intervening period of horizontality that it would be an insult to call sleep, my willingness to sacrifice everything to my captor had become a perverse source of pride.

I had got this far, damned if I would miss a ball now. Balls blurred into overs blurred into spells. Time lost all meaning. Space shrank to a small space around me and my laptop, an island of faint warmth in a becalmed and featureless sea. I began to truly appreciate what the Ancient Mariner had been banging on about for stanza after stanza. I passed the time by emailing TMS ever-more arcane stats about Pietersen and left-arm spin.

I have seen the highlights, I have seen the scorecard, and I know I listened to it at the time. But here’s the thing: I have no clear memory of Haddin being athletically snaffled by Paul Collingwood after over six hours of flicking cricket and the notion of joy itself repeatedly with a wet towel. I felt no elation, no relief, no sense of the release I had been granted. I was numb, and not just because of an architect’s lax attitude to cavity wall insulation.

Reader – I cracked under torture. I told Haddin what I thought he wanted to hear, but he kept on hitting me anyway, and I cracked. Brad Haddin broke my brain, and it took a Bedford- born farmer and a bald fidgety South African to put it back together.

England may have escaped the Gabba, but thanks to the events that took place there, a part of me will forever haunt a frozen broom cupboard above a South Indian restaurant near Euston.

It may be that the enormity of Cook’s deeds, and the shattering emotional blow of what happened when that team finally disintegrated on the next Australian tour (Apocamitch Now and all that) shall obliterate Haddin’s attack on taste and decency from the mythic canon.

But I shall remember, always.

Broadcast Schedule

England v West Indies 2024
ENG v WI 3rd Test, Edgbaston
26th July to 30th July
Start time: 11:00 am BST