... if Xavier doesn’t get you, Hilfenhaus must. That rhyme doesn't scan as well as when Lillee and Thommo were playing. But still, it's time for the 133rd year in that endless and most important battle of them all in the cricket world: that is, trying to go without sleep for two straight months while listening to our cricketers find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Cricket is a game played in the summer when the grass is growing and the rain is never far away, but somehow for me it's at its most enjoyable in the middle of winter. When you're snug in bed in the dead of night, with snow on the ground and you're listening to a radio strapped to your ear with the volume turned down low and Geoffrey Boycott is burbling along about how 'tha' t'wer roobish. Me flamin' mam coulda played tha' we 'er pinny.'
Most of my fondest cricket memories have come that way. Staying up all night in 1977 to listen to Derek Randall take on Lillee and nearly winning the match single-handed, and then falling asleep at school the next day in every single lesson. I remember Mike Gatting grinding out the dullest century in history for several days and repeatedly waking up after a doze to find he was still on the same score. There was that glory night when I was full of beans and ready for an all nighter only for Warne to bowl us all out in about 20 minutes. And I'll never forget the utter masochism of four years ago where we somehow contrived to find a way to lose a match that even Pakistan with the entire team on retainers from their bookmakers couldn't have lost.
It's not all about the pain though. There are moments of joy at 4 o'clock in the morning. I'm struggling to think of a single one right now, but they do come, as all late night cricket fans know, when you doze off. I remember staying awake until 5 o'clock only to pass out and wake up an hour later to find that cricket's most famous drug-smuggler Chris Lewis had bowled the aussies out. And I have a distinct recollection of dropping off to sleep just before we won the ashes the last time way back in the mists of time when the aussies were embarrassingly bad and our captain could eat more pies than anyone on the planet.
This time round the pundits are all proclaiming that this is our best chance of coming home with the small urn since the days when the current commentators were players, and that makes me worried, perhaps more worried than four years ago when we lost 5-0. Australia always say that they can rely on our management to help them out. Last time Duncan 'jobs for the boys' Fletcher dropped in-form spin demon Monty Panesar for out-of-form specialist number 8 trundler, but all round decent chap, Ashley Giles. And this time the management obligingly sent the team off to build up their cricket skills with a week of tiger-wrestling and dodging machine-gun bullets, ending up with our best bowler breaking a rib falling down a mountain.
And then there's the team itself. This year we've wiped out the Bangladeshis (then again Boycott's mum really could beat them with her pinny) and scraped home against a team of Pakistani bookmakers. Those matches proved we're quite useful against poor teams on our home turf and that to win in cricket you need a good bowling side. On aussie turf we're not so good and I can’t see Anderson reversing his usual pathetic form down-under, or Broad stopping trying to prove he can be more arrogant than his dad for long enough to actually take some wickets. Neither can I see Cook dispelling the doubts about his technique or Pietersen stopping acting like a celebrity to actually do the thing that made him a prima-donna in the first place. Success will depend on whether Swann is allowed to bowl ten one over spells per innings, and perhaps on ten foot Finn keeping his bowling hand hidden in low cloud cover. As for Australia, it does come down to the erratic Mitchell Johnson's form; none of the others seem much use to me, although as a statistics and trivia fan I'm still excited about someone called Xavier playing.
So predictions… I can't make one right now as it's usual in the ashes for the first day to accurately predict how the next 24 days will go. Two times ago Simon Jones tripped over his own feet on the first day and destroyed his career. Last time Steve Harmison bowled the worst first ball in history that not only missed the pitch but missed the next three. So this time, who knows? Only insomniacs, night-shift workers and idiots with radios strapped to their ears while dozing will find out, although as usual I'll predict it'll be 2-1, but I'll wait until tomorrow before saying who'll get the 2.