June 15, 2016

The anti-surpassing record, and the Cookie Monster

In an unsatisfying England-Sri Lanka series, some unsatisfying numbers were achieved. At least England's captain got to go berserk at the end

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In January 1879, as England's cricketers mulled over a chastening ten-wicket walloping at the MCG, their Nos. 3 and 4 would no doubt have been waiting nervously for the team's high-tech performance analysts and backroom coaching gurus to talk them through their costly failures in both innings. They would have dreaded being confronted with the MCC official artist's etchings of their dismissals. They would have trembled at what marks the press-box hacks would give them out of ten, or whether they would feature amongst the Five Things People Had Learned from the match. Alexander Webbe, the young Middlesex batsman, and Lancastrian legend Monkey Hornby, had mustered 4 and 2 respectively in the first innings, and 0 and 4 in the second.

"Ten runs between us," Webbe would have wept inconsolably in his corner of the dressing room, his dreams of becoming a 100-cap legend evaporating before his almost-24-year-old eyes. "Never mind," Hornby would have said, drying the tears from his cheeks with his barely used pads. "I'm sure soon enough some other pair of losers will come along and break our record-settingly useless performance as the worst ever Three-Four combination in the entire history of English Test cricket."

"You're right, Monkey," Webbe would have agreed, the dead weight of failure gradually lifting from his 19th-century shoulders. "This is only the third Test in history. I'm sure loads and loads of England top orders will be just as statistically dismal as we have just been. Put it there, partner."

"Damn straight, Webbatron. Let's go to Honkytonks and get badonkadonked."

As the two colleagues raucously high-fived their blues away and headed off for some recuperative dance-floor antics, little could they have known that England wouldn't have a more unproductive Test from its Nos. 3 and 4 until the third Test against Sri Lanka in 2016.

What Ken Barrington would have looked like with a tattoo sleeve © Getty Images

Nick Compton and Joe Root (1 and 3) in the first innings, followed by Root and James Vince (4 and 0) in the second, finally consigned Webbe and Hornby to the history books. Not the most widely studied history books, admittedly. Unpublished history books, most likely. Eight runs - the smallest contribution to the national run-coffers ever made by the three and four on England's batting scorecard. Webbe and Hornby's ten-run flop had been equalled, again at the MCG, in 1958-59, when Willie Watson and Tom Graveney followed a pair of first-innings ducks with 7 and 3, as Alan Davidson and Ian Meckiff rubbled a mighty-looking England XI. But it had never been surpassed. Or, more appropriately, anti-surpassed.

This was probably a good Test in which to lay that historical microstat to bed. Sri Lanka are in the midst of what some are calling a "rebuilding phase", but which appears to be closer to placing an advertisement in a trade magazine asking for architects to submit first drafts of their preliminary designs. They improved markedly in the latter half of the three-match series, suggesting that, had the "Adjusting to English Conditions" phase of the tour been scheduled for before the Test series, rather than during and after the Test series, we might have seen a more competitive and rewarding rubber.

Unfortunately, they were, in effect, 2-0 down after one-and-a-third matches of the series. A less injured bowling attack would have helped, too. And some less incompetent fielding. And fewer Jimmy Andersons in the England team. And Angelo Mathews recapturing his 2014 majesty, despite having now borne the burden of captaining a losing side for an average-deadening length of time. And umpires not having to guess whether the back of a bowler's foot is or isn't a few millimetres the wrong side of a well-scuffed line several metres away from a not-especially-sensible angle while preparing to lift their head and refocus their eyes within fractions of a second.

All in all, it was a somewhat unsatisfying series. England, having failed to secure their traditional early-summer series win in both 2014 and 2015, achieved what they were expected to achieve, still looking like a team with some world-beating elements and some deep flaws. Anderson, refreshed by a few months' break, honed by a few weeks' build-up, unencumbered by ODI duties and schedules, was mesmerically good. Jonny Bairstow rode his good fortune like a champion jockey. Alastair Cook was Alastair Cook. Apart from for 15 minutes on Saturday, when he was something else entirely, possibly some form of indecipherable modern art installation that started thwacking sixes over midwicket and trying to scoop cricket balls into its own face.

Alex Hales proved that he is the new Jack Hobbs - the only previous English opener to reach 80 three times in a series without scoring a century. Hobbs did so in South Africa in 1913-14. He converted ten of his subsequent eleven 80s into hundreds. Ken Barrington is the only other England player to end a series with no centuries and three 80-plus scores, so Hales is in august statistical company. Barrington, like Hales, did so before he had made a Test hundred, in a dominant home series win against a technically ill-equipped Asian touring team (India, in 1959), so assuming Hales continues to follow the great Surrey batsman's example, he can look forward to hitting 20 Test hundreds and averaging 58. And to playing some of the dullest innings in cricket history.

"What do you think, guys? Lego's interested in sponsoring us" © Getty Images

Others to have achieved this high-achieving near-miss treble include Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Steve Waugh and Rahul Dravid, who converted only one of his first nine Test 80s into three figures.

The only player to post four 80s in a century-less series is the Golden Age Australian Clem Hill, who famously scored 99, 98 and 97 in successive innings in the 1901-02 Ashes, then finished the series with an 87. An appropriate 99 years later, Michael Slater averaged 53 in a five-Test series against West Indies in 2000-01, when he scored no centuries but reached 80 three times; he averaged 46 in the 1998-99 Ashes, in which he made three hundreds. Thanks be to Stats.

Nuwan Pradeep bowled impressively without setting the scorebooks on fire. He did, however, almost carve a small niche in cricketostatistical history - but for umpire Rod Tucker's twitchy no-balling arm denying him Hales' wicket, Pradeep would have become the first bowler ever to have bowled out (i.e. hit the stumps of) a Test team's Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the same innings.

As it was, he was just the fourth ever to tinkle the timbers of England's Nos. 3, 4 and 5 in the same Test innings (Root, Vince, Bairstow), after Ewen Chatfield of New Zealand, at The Oval in 1986 (Gower, Lamb, Gatting), Mohammad Nissar of India (Lord's 1936; Hammond, Leyland, Worthington), and Australia's Charlie "Terror" Turner, at Lord's in 1888 (Peel, Read, O'Brien).

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jonathan_E on June 15, 2016, 21:47 GMT

    When Cook was injured, Hales and Compton became - however briefly - the first England opening partnership of two right-handers, since Vaughan opened with Key in 2002 - an incidence which also came about only as a result of injury, in this case to Trescothick who had to miss three matches.

    The previous time two right-handers were selected to open together for England was Atherton and Ramprakash, in the first half of the 2000 home summer against Zimbabwe and Windies, again as a temporary measure due to injuries to other openers.

    Before that, a single test in 1999 saw Atherton open with Darren Maddy, again because of injury - this time to Mark Butcher.

    Atherton and Stewart opened together for the last time (of many) during the 1998-99 Ashes: but by then were no longer the regular opening pair thanks to the emergence of Butcher - who batted at 3 for the 4th test. This was last time England had a right-handed opening pair without a preferred left-handed opener being injured.

  • hypocaust on June 15, 2016, 14:55 GMT

    Alastair Cook (nine times) and Alex Hales (twice) are the only England openers in the post-Strauss era to survive beyond the fall of the fifth wicket in more than one innings. Joe Root, who made it once is the only other to have batted that deep into the innings during that period.

  •   Cricinfouser on June 15, 2016, 12:07 GMT

    "bowled out (i.e. hit the stumps of)" Cheers for clearing that one up

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