Cowards.

You think I’m not nervous writing about the 2005 Ashes? You think I don’t understand the responsibility? If you’re over 50 there is another contender. Of course there is. You’ve got Botham, 1981 and all that: commentators checking out of hotels early, olden-days folk listening to the wireless in traffic jams, Willis’ locks steaming in, Botham’s huge arms, Botham’s sixes, Botham’s cigar. Botham. If you’re under 15, then fair play, you’re all about Stokes and Leach, and good luck to you. Anything in between though and there’s only one summer for you: 2005. No ifs. No buts. And my experience of it, as a rookie comedian, was as follows.

When you’re a cricket fan, your summer is defined by the Test match itinerary. Similarly, when you’re a young comedian, your summer is defined by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. When you’re both, things get blurry. August starts to stretch, quite palpably, at the seams. It squeaks. If it’s an Ashes summer, the problem becomes bigger. And if it’s the greatest Ashes contest of all time, you’re done for.

I was there with my sketch group. We were called Cowards and comprised of four men, two of whom wore blue shirts and two of whom wore pink. Doesn’t sound great, but listen, we sold out our 52-seater most days, so we were doing something right. Lean and mean, we were a four-pronged attack. Flintoff, Harmison, Hoggard and Jones, if you will. We all knew our jobs. We wanted it. To say we were fired up when we arrived at Waverley Station barely covers it. Off the train, heaving the stench of hops into our lungs, marching to our digs. Cup of tea. Channel 4 on. Roll Mambo No 5.

The first Test was already done and dusted by the time we’d left London. Ashley Giles was still being compared to a wheelie bin as we unpacked our understated props. A chef’s hat here, a tutu there. I had somehow snared tickets to the final Test at The Oval but that just made me feel sick. That rubber was already looking dead as ice-cold catfish. McGrath had sliced us apart at Lord’s. We were done for. Rolled over by an Australia at the top of its game.

No one wanted to say it, but this had 5-0 written all over it. I say no one. McGrath said it a bit, if asked. England had dropped Graham Thorpe, brought in a tall South African with a white bit in his hair. We’d been outplayed. We eyed up Edgbaston nervously. August looked grim. A bleak atmosphere cloaked our technical rehearsal. And yet…

Four days later, we’d won the second Test and all was rosy again. I say won – we still had to clean up a couple of wickets on the final morning but, yeah, basically won. The festival was in full swing by then and we were bleary eyed as we peeled ourselves out of bed and settled in to watch the remaining Aussies get knocked over. After that we would set to work, tweaking our jokes, honing our timing. But, half an hour in and Brett Lee’s prodding had turned to occasional whacking, and we shut the hell up.

We listened to Richie. We drank coffee. We prayed. Did everything we could to will a wicket. People facing the wrong way on sofas, our director making toast and bellowing, TV off, TV back on. It felt like our whole month depended on that morning. Kasprowicz hits the winning runs, we might as well go home now. His stumps get crushed, we win the Perrier. Our destiny dangled by a thread in Birmingham. And then, finally, Flintoff’s on his haunches, giving Lee a nice pat on the helmet and our month is up and running.

Cowards.

It’s sad to think that this series was Test cricket’s last big terrestrial TV moment. It’s sad they threw that away. Everyone was at cricket’s altar that morning. Praying silently into the free-to-air air. Cricket on Channel 4, what a gift. But of course we couldn’t be sat in front of every ball. We had a sketch show to perform each day at 4.45pm. On the stroke of tea we’d meet in the Pleasance Courtyard, the spiritual epicentre of the fringe. Breeno, our director – a kind of Liverpudlian Duncan Fletcher – would sit the four of us round a picnic table. And as the Zimbabwean Fletcher rounded on his four, herculean fast bowlers, so our one piled into us. Probably the same notes, too. Quicker! More accurate! Discipline! Those people have paid to see you! Be brave! Hold a good length, Gilchrist’ll lose patience! I’d like to say that my mind was on the show. I’d love to. But you try focusing on a sketch about a magic hat when you know England have just lost Trescothick cheaply and Gillespie’s got his gander up.

The glorious narrative of the Test series put our 55-minute show to shame. For us it was a selection of 18 three-minute sketches. They were knitted together by blackouts and covered the core themes of beekeeping, hot-air balloons and Sir Steven Redgrave. No ambitious overarching themes. No simmering subtext. Zero backstory. Back in England stories emerged and interwove. McGrath – thank God – trod on a cricket ball. Flintoff was having “duels”. It ebbed, it flowed, we picked off sessions where we could.

I was watching Mark Watson’s epic “24-hour show” as Ponting dug in to save the Old Trafford Test, asking for scores, bemoaning Punter, involuntarily playing hook shots. It sounds disrespectful to Mark, but believe me, he was keeping across it, too. When Ashley Giles threw off his wheelie bin to win at Trent Bridge, I was in some squalid performers bar, stood with other addled comedians, living every forward press, cheering every run. Older, wiser comedians invested in portable transistor radios. You peered at scorecards through windows. The safest thing though was not to leave the flat. The city was flooded with comedians that summer – your Tim Vines, your Miranda Harts, your Ross Nobles – and I’m sure they were fantastic. But, to be fair, I wouldn’t know. And I have zero regrets about watching 400 Simon Jones deliveries that month while eating Tunnock’s in a high-ceilinged lounge.

Edinburgh finished. I arrived at The Oval with us 2-1 up. For me though, this is a footnote. I loved watching KP swatting 158 as if he were clearing his kitchen of wasps. I loved seeing “Warney” fumble the ball to the ground, logging it there and then as my “I was there” anecdote for any dinner parties I might get the nod for. I loved nervously squeezing my plastic pint glass as Paul Collingwood MBE put together his 10. On paper, that should have been the highlight of my summer. But the highlight was something different. It was the way in which Tests #two to #four spread like custard through my Edinburgh that will stay with me forever. The greatest sporting summer bar none, hundreds of miles away from the action, catching it when I could. Cricket was sliding in between the crevices and, unlike ‘Warney’, any chance I got, I took it.

This is an article from Wisden Cricket Monthly. Get £1 off the latest issue, available as a print edition (use coupon code GSN36) and all major digital formats (discount automatically applied). Series 4 of Tim Key’s Late Night Poetry Programme is out now on vinyl.



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