I fell for cricket in the summer of 1987. I was eight years old and Australia were playing three Tests against New Zealand. In our lounge room in north Perth, I sat on the edge of the couch, and watched almost every ball on our old wooden TV. The only time I got up was for meals, toilet breaks and to delicately adjust the rabbit ear antenna when the picture got too blurry.
David Boon hit 143 to help Australia win the first Test, Border 205 to draw the second. By Boxing Day all they needed was a draw to win the series. But on the last day, wickets started tumbling, until the last two batsmen were Craig McDermott and Mike Whitney. With the sun setting over the MCG, they had to survive six overs.
Whitney was 36 and playing his first Test in six years. He hd scored three ducks in his last five innings. His career average was 5.6. And he was facing Richard Hadlee, one of the best bowlers in the world, who had already taken 10 wickets for the match.
They somehow survived for five overs. Whitney was facing the last six balls. The first ball soared past, and Whitney’s bat flailed like a broken electricity cable in a storm. The second missed the edge by millimetres. But he hung on, until the there was one ball left. Three tests, and 14 days of cricket came down to this moment. As Hadlee sped in, Ian Chappell murmured from the commentary box, “Good luck Whit”.
The ball pitched perfectly on the stumps. Whitney stepped forward and dug it out like his bat was a shovel. The match was saved. The MCG went crazy. And in north Perth I cheered so loud, Mum ran into the lounge to make sure I was OK.
That match taught me to never give up on a contest, to keep watching until the very end, and no matter what happens, never leave your seat. The whole story could shift with a single ball, a dropped catch, a bad decision, or a brave last stand by a 36-year-old bowler who looked like a singer in a pub rock band.
It led to some very long nights watching Australia play on the other side of the world. In 1995 I watched Steve Waugh hit a double century in Kingston, helping Australia win the Frank Worrell trophy for the first time in 19 years. The next year, I stayed up all night to see Australia beat the West Indies in the World Cup semi-final. When Damian Fleming ripped out Courtney Walsh’s off stump in the last over, I cheered so loudly, I woke up mum who delivered a spray more abusive than Bay 13.
I stayed up for the 1999 World Cup semi-final against South Africa, even though I had a university exam the next morning. In the exam, I was such a mess, the girl next to me asked if I was coming down from amphetamines. And in 2005 I made it through every night of the Ashes, culminating in the famous Edgbaston match when England snuck home by two runs.
These days it’s much harder to last whole nights with kids, especially with the two year old’s current method of waking me up, which involves standing on my head. But I couldn’t miss this year’s Ashes series. In the days leading up, I tried to stock up on sleep.
I started very strong, seeing most of the first two Tests. And it all led up to that fourth day of the third Test at Headingley. One of the greatest finishes of all time. One of the best run chases ever seen on a cricket field. And… well…. I slept through it. I went to bed 90 minutes before the end. I don’t even have a good excuse. I was at home. I’d been watching it. I didn’t have work the next day. All I had to do in the morning was take the kids to school, and I could have could have come home and slept.
I still don’t really know what possessed me to get off the couch. The best explanation I have is that I’d had two beers, and was starting to feel tired. Then Jonny Bairstow went, and Jos Buttler was run out. I just felt like we were home.
The next morning at breakfast I flicked on the phone and saw the headlines. Ben Stokes had played one of the greatest innings of all time. Facebook was filled with videos of him hitting the winning runs. On the way to drop my kid at school, every radio station was talking about the Ashes. The first parent I passed in the schoolyard called out, “Did you see the cricket?”. I gave a half-hearted laugh, and lied, “Yeah… Amazing.” Then skulked back to the car, like batsman who’d gone for a golden duck.
For the whole day I berated myself like Steve Smith after he plays a bad shot. All I had to do was hang on for 90 minutes. But just like the Australian team in that last innings, I went to sleep.
In a cafe I forced myself to watch the highlights of that last hour on my phone. Every four and six smashed by Stokes. Every moment Jack Leach cleaned his glasses between balls. The dropped catch by Marcus Harris. Nathan Lyon fumbling the run out. Stokes given not out for a certain lbw. Stokes hitting that four to win the game.
I thought about giving up on this Ashes series. Sitting through the last two Tests would be like trying to finish a book when you’d missed a chapter in the middle. And everyone kept telling you it was the best chapter of anything they’d ever read. But later that day, they announced Steve Smith was back for the fourth Test in Manchester. If Smith has taught us anything, it’s not about the mistakes you’ve made, it’s about what you do after that.
Then I thought about Mike Whitney, a totally unknown bowler, who only played for Australia in 1981 because he happened to be in England when other bowlers were injured. How he took no wickets in his second match, and didn’t play for Australia for another six years. How his next game was that third Test against New Zealand in 1987, where he saved the whole series against one of the best bowlers in the world. And how that match transformed him into a cult hero, who ended up hosting a TV show called Who Dares Wins, where he’d roam the streets offering random people $20 to stick their head into a bucket of spiders (I’m less interested in that part of his career, but it is a remarkable trajectory).
Mike Whitney proved that anything can happen, if you can hang around for long enough. Don’t worry about the last ball, just concentrate on the next ball. The fourth Test starts on 4 September. That gives me a few days to stock up on sleep, fill the cupboards with coffee, and cover the couch in superglue, because whatever happens, this time I won’t leave my seat.