March 19, 2013

Just how bad are Australia?

Not as much as they look at the moment, is the answer, children. Ten irrefutable splodges of statistical truth-telling to get you through the night

"The unstoppable clock of an Ashes megayear is already ticking towards April. The cuckoo will soon bark for the beginning of the English summer, and one of the founding superpowers of international cricket is struggling. Mired in the murky gloom of a run of just two victories in their last ten Tests, and with five wins set against seven defeats since Christmas 2011, they must be casting envious looks across the hemispheres at their ancient foes.

"The team against which they will be scrabbling for ownership of the urn - the kind of battered old trinket that could fetch upwards of £1.25 on eBay - have won twice as many of their last ten Tests, and are roosting on a proud record of nine wins and just four losses in 16 five-day matches since Santa Claus plopped down their chimneys 15 months ago, waiting for an Ashes triumph to hatch into life.

With two back-to-badly-scheduled-back series in the offing, His Excellency Judge Form-Guide has surely cast his verdict. Only one of the two combatants has the taste of habitual victory fresh in their gullets. Only one of the two teams can, when the Test averages of both teams since Christmas 2011 are set against each other, boast five of the six best bowlers, and six of the eight best batsman. There can be only one winner. Australia."

This is an excerpt from a joint press release that fell into my in-tray this morning, issued by the Australian Institute of National Optimism, the English Society For Fearing the Sporting Worst, and the International Foundation for the Selective Use of Potentially Misleading Statistics.

Admittedly there are a number of caveats that need to be added. England might have scored only two victories in their last ten Tests, and flunked their major challenges of 2012, but five of those games have been drawn (four rain-affected, one on a mummified corpse of a pitch in Nagpur), and the two wins were strikingly good ones. Australia, by contrast, had, until their Indian jaunt, won nine and lost one of their last 13 Tests, but they had faced some of the most inept opposition in recent cricketing history, and the one loss had been a soul-sapping one at the end of a series with South Africa that they should have been leading. Since when, they have been chomped in Chennai, hosed in Hyderabad, and marmalised in Mohali.

Of those five Australian bowlers with better averages since Christmas 2011 than any of their English counterparts (other than Graham Onions, who has played only one Test in that time), only one played in the Mohali Test, none has much of a record against England, and all have benefited from some less-than-competent visiting batsmanship in Australian conditions. Of the six Aussies in the top eight Anglo-Baggy-Green batsmen in that time, two have retired, two are bowlers, one is Steve Smith (on the basis of one match), and the other might be comfortably the best batsman on either team, but is also battling with an uncooperative back. And averages, as the old saying goes, are like miniskirts - they only really work with the appropriate figures. And should not be used on their own.

What can we read into all this? Not much. This Australian team is not as bad as a regenerating Indian side is making it look. Nor as good as the 2011-12 disintegrating Indian side made it look. And they have concocted a formidable strategic masterplan. The last time they lost the first three Tests of a series was against West Indies in 1988-89. Their next series was the Ashes in England. They won 4-0, and kickstarted a decade and a half of England-pulverising dominance.

India, for their part, look a far better side than they were three months ago. In fact, they do not just look a far better side, they are a far better side. It helps that they are playing against a less good side than they were three months ago, but the changes at the top of the order, which were more overdue than a forgetful agoraphobic's library books, have been spectacularly successful. Shikhar Dhawan's staggering debut innings, at the age of 27, suggests that India's selectors have shown an unnecessary lack of trust in their own first-class system, akin to Neil Armstrong turning up for the Apollo 11 launch with a homemade rocket he and his wife cobbled together out of an old Renault, some lawnmowers, and a tumble-dryer.

Ravindra Jadeja's bowling has been perhaps unexpectedly successful, and, with the influx of new, younger players, India have inevitably become a more vigorous side in the field. That said, scientifically they could not have become less vigorous in the field than they were against England, when at times it seemed that several of the team were about to hibernate. Greater challenges lie ahead overseas, but the process has at least begun.

A Mohali stat blast to help you get to sleep tonight. Adults: take up to three stats with a litre of cask-strength whisky to ensure an uninterrupted night of top-quality snooze. Children aged 6-12: take one stat with water, under strict supervision. Children under six should not take cricket stats other than in an emergency, or where no other treatment is available. Avoid contact with the eyes. If you take more than the recommended number of stats, seek immediate psychological assistance. Do not share stats with other users. If symptoms persist, watch some snooker.

Children under six should not take cricket stats other than in an emergency, or where no other treatment is available. Avoid contact with the eyes. If you take more than the recommended number of stats, seek immediate psychological assistance

1. India's batsmen have posted five scores of 150 or more in the first three Tests, the joint-third-most ever in a Test series. Only Pakistan (seven 150-plus innings, v India in 1982-83), and England (six, in the 1985 Ashes), have scored more. Eight teams have previously scored five 150s in a series. The last side to do so: Australia. Against India, in the 2011-12 series. Which must seem a long time ago to the current side, as they counter-debacle India's pitiful efforts in that 4-0 whitewash. India have also become the 11th team to have had four different players reach 150 in a series. Only the 1938 England team have had five century-and-a-half-mongers.

2. Ishant Sharma bowled out Brad Haddin and Moises Henriques in three balls in his 18th over in the first innings. He thus tinkered the timbers more often in three balls than he had in his previous 496 overs in Tests, since bowling Trott at Lord's in July 2011. In the 14 Tests (plus the end of the Lord's game and the beginning of the Mohali match) he had played since then, just one of his 23 victims had been bowled - Michael Clarke at the MCG, in the Boxing Day Test of 2011-12.

3. The Mohali Test was the third ever in which all four openers have scored 70 or more in the first innings. This was the first of those three not to end in a draw.

4. Dhawan and M Vijay were the 14th pair of openers to both score 150 in the same innings, and the second Indian partnership to do so. The previous occasion was when Vinoo Mankad (231) and Pankaj Roy (173) added 413 for the first wicket against New Zealand in Chennai in 1955-56. It was the first time both openers have passed 150 against Australia (a) anywhere other than the MCG, and (b) without one of them being Jack Hobbs. The Surrey Statisticosaurus did so in partnership with Wilfred Rhodes in 1911-12, and with Herbert Sutcliffe in 1924-25.

5. Australia's first innings was the ninth occasion on which four players have scored 70 or more in the same innings, without any going on to score a hundred (and the fifth involving Australia), and the seventh time three batsmen have reached 85 without any of them reaching the cricketing nirvana of a century.

6. Mitchell Starc became the first No. 9 ever to be out for 99 in Test cricket. By way of consolation, he also became the 11th man batting 9 or lower to score 35 or more in both innings of a Test, and the first Australian to do so since 1924-25. Starc also gave Test cricket its first recorded instance of a No. 9, 10 or 11 surviving 100 balls in both innings. He became the first Baggy Green paceman to both bowl and face 200 balls in a Test since Tony Dodemaide, against New Zealand, at the MCG in 1987-88.

7. Jadeja became only the fifth bowler ever to take three wickets in five separate innings in a series, after Ian Botham (1985 Ashes), Malcolm Marshall (v Australia, 1990-91), Stuart Clark (2006-07 Ashes) and Peter Siddle (v India 2011-12). The Saurashtra Southpaw has taken 17 wickets in the series, without taking four in any innings. If he takes three and two, or two and three, in Delhi, he will become the top wicket-taker in any series who has not taken four in an innings.

8. Dhawan's 187 off 174, at a strike rate of 107, was the fourth-fastest 150-plus score by an opener in Test history, after Roy Fredericks' legendary assault on Lillee, Thomson, Walker and Gilmour in Perth in 1975-76 (169 off 145), Virender Sehwag's 293 off 254 against Sri Lanka in 2009-10, and David Warner's laceration of India (180 off 159), also at the WACA, 14 months ago.

9. And a couple from Wellington: England's first-innings 465 was the second-highest total by a team that has lost all ten wickets to catches, behind West Indies' 486 v India in Barbados in 1983. Something for the Wellington duck to ponder on.

10. For the second time in three Tests, Monty Panesar bowled exactly 52 overs in the match, conceded less than two runs per over, and only took one wicket: 1 for 81 in Nagpur, 1 for 91 in Wellington.

And, relax.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer

Comments