December 2, 2017

England never ever lose eight away Test matches on the trot

Also, not everything in the '60s was sexy

"Thank you for not sleeping" © Getty Images

1. When you have a quarter of million people over five days attending a showpiece of Test cricket, it is a good idea to remember not to install a pitch with the ebullience and joie de vivre of a valium-infused concrete traffic bollard
There is much to organise when hosting a public event for hundreds of thousands of people, from ensuring that there is enough ketchup for everyone's hot dogs to protecting the crowds from being savaged by rogue packs of escaped dinosaurs. It is perhaps understandable, therefore, that amid the logistical strain, the MCG forgot to order a cricket pitch for use during the cricket match. The cricket therefore took place on a morose slab of drably unchanging pointlessness.

Generally, a pitch should suit one or more of the following groups: (a) batsmen, (b) bowlers, and (c) spectators. Ideally, all three. This somnolent 22-yard sausage hit zero out of those three targets, and only a trio of impatient inside edges off short balls in Australia's first innings gave the Test some cricketing intrigue.

This was the first time in 137 Tests in Australia, dating back to the New Year's Test of 1994, that both teams' bowlers collectively have returned both (a) an economy rate under 3 per over (it was 2.75 in this Test), and (b) a strike rate over 90 (96.8). Even allowing for the match situation dictating Australia's defensive second innings, this signifies a pitch that did not suit attacking batting, or attacking bowling, or the human eyeball.

It was a pitch so tedious as to turn a bowler tidying up the cricket ball in full view of the umpires into a ball-tampering controversy. It transformed David Warner into Gary Kirsten, Steven Smith into Shtevenarine Shmithderpaul, and Alastair Cook back into Alastair Cook. After their now traditional bad first session, England bowled well - certainly, well enough and full enough to make their failures in the first three Tests even more annoying than they already were - and took 14 wickets in 215 overs.

A good drawn Test match can be one of life's most engrossing pleasures. A bad drawn Test match is a deep irritation, especially in these times, when cricket is locked in an intense struggle for its future with its fiercest rival, cricket.

2. England never, ever lose eight consecutive overseas Tests
The MCG draw prevented England setting a new national record of eight consecutive overseas Test defeats, sparking scenes of wild public revelry, firework displays and all-night partying throughout the nation, a day and a half after the match finished on the morning of 30 December. To some, the sight of thousands of people out on the streets drunkenly celebrating a draw, as 2017 ticked into 2018, was unwelcome - a cricketing nation with the resources available to the ECB, and a team containing the quality and statistical weight of Cook, Root, Anderson and Broad, should probably be achieving rather higher goals than not losing eight overseas Tests in a row.

As it is, England have now gone ten Tests away from home without a win, for only the fourth time in their Test history.

For those concerned about the declining effectiveness of Test teams away from home, this is the 59th Ashes series of four or more Tests. The away side went winless in just eight of the first 52 (England in 1920-21, 1946-47 - in both of which they had the reasonable excuse of being a little bit on the nationally tired side of things after a World War - 1958-59 and 1990-91; Australia in 1905, 1926, 1953 and 1977). If England lose or draw at the SCG, it will be the fourth of the last seven in which the home team has remained unbeaten (after 2006-07, 2013, and 2013-14).

3. England have not entirely cracked the How to Dismiss Steve Smith conundrum
Smith has faced 1258 balls in the series, and been out four times. Of the 65 players who have faced 1200 deliveries in a series (where balls faced have been recorded), Smith's rate of dismissal, at once every 314 balls, is currently the fifth best. The list is led by Geoff Boycott, who was out three times in 1223 balls in the 1977 Ashes (once per 407 balls). Alastair Cook's 2010-11 series (240 balls per dismissal) is in 11th place.

The MCG draw sparked scenes of wild public revelry, firework displays and all-night partying throughout England

Even if Smith bags a king pair in Sydney, he will still be 16th on the list. Spare a thought also for Australia's bowlers in 1928-29, who bowled 2521 balls to Wally Hammond in the five timeless Tests, 499 more than any other batsman has faced in a series. (In all, Australia bowled 5116 balls [852.4 overs] to England's top three, while taking a wicket once every 30.3 overs. The 14 bowlers used by Australia to flog themselves to exhaustion on the thankless pitches of that series have all, understandably, since died.)

4. Alastair Cook's MCG timing was simultaneously sublime and terrible
In his record-breaking MCG megaknock, Cook timed the ball probably as well as he has ever done in a Test innings, pinging the leather all around the wicket as his feet, head and bat moved in a rare harmony, seemingly precision-calibrated to the millisecond. Unfortunately, and much to his personal frustration, the innings itself was timed five weeks later than would have been ideal.

If he could have spread those 244 runs over the three first innings in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, this series would have been very different. If Mitchell Starc had spread his injury over the first three Tests, that might have helped England too.

This was only the seventh of Cook's last 33 half-centuries that he has converted into a century, dating back to the start of the 2013 Ashes, a series in which he averaged only 27 but made three highly influential scores between 50 and 65. Three of these hundreds have been scores over 230. Cook's statistics are a museum of curiosities. It was a grand innings, but one that, like Anderson's brilliance in the second innings in Adelaide, heightened the sense that England have thoroughly ballsed this series up. This is not to say that they could or should have won, had their key players performed at the most important moments. But they could and should at least have lost by considerably smaller margins.

5. Not everything in the 1960s was sexy and exciting
Drawn Ashes Tests have become something of an endangered species. The MCG was the first since the 2013 Oval Test that ended in nail-biting if uncomfortably contrived drama, and only the 12th in the past 14 series (encompassing 71 Tests since 1993). By comparison, in five Ashes series from 1962-63 to 1970-71, there were 17 draws in 26 Tests.

After two Tests of that 1970-71 series, England had drawn 24 of the 28 overseas Tests they had played since 1964. The liberation and excitement of the 1960s did not permeate all areas of global life.

This Boxing Day Test was the first drawn Ashes match in Australia not to make it even as far as the start of the fourth innings since the 1965-66 series, when there were two three-innings draws, to add to the three such stalemates in the 1964 rubber in England, as cricket strove to set unmatchable world records for Largest Number of Spectators Simultaneously Snoozing at a Sporting Event (later broken in a specially-arranged event for the British children's TV show Record Breakers in 1983, when a one-off best-of-125-frame snooker match between Eddie Charlton and Cliff Thorburn was slumbered through by 400,000 people at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). (That event may not have actually happened.)

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

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