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Greetings Confectionery Stallers, and welcome to the first instalment of the Confectionery Stall’s Ashes result prediction blogs, which will pepper the year from now until the final over of the series.
By the time the action begins in, of all places, Cardiff, I confidently predict that I will have confidently predicted all 21 possible series outcomes. I will therefore be able to march onto The Oval outfield in August as the teams shake hands for the final time, brandishing a print-out of one of these blogs, shouting “I told you so” through a loud-hailer, before being manhandled by over-zealous stewards for attempting to express my historical right to walk on the outfield at the end of a Test series (see sub-blog below).
The last couple of months have given many pointers to what will happen in the Ashes. The difficulty is working out which of these are pointing in the right direction, and which are, like Italian road signs, completely and deliberately misleading. Are England plunging into turmoil, or plunging out of it, with Pietersen stung and invigorated and Strauss bringing wisdom and control? Are Australia really weaker than they have been for two decades, or already rebounding from their entertaining-for-the-neutral slump? Or both?
My suspicion is that England’s messy but rapid bout of blood-letting will benefit the team in the short-to-medium term, which in an Ashes year is all that matters. All the evidence suggests that Strauss is a good captain, but he will need several of his players to break out of their current cycles of not-quite-bad-enough-to-be-dropped tolerability.
He will also require greater consistency from his one world-class batsman – the deposed captain and victim of one of the oddest coups in cricket or any other walk of life. Pietersen has been hit or miss for some time. He has scored an outstanding 7 centuries in his last 18 Tests (since July 2007), but still averages only 47 in that period. He has been out for less than 20 in 13 of these 32 innings, and has no scores between 45 and 94. He has played great innings, but not great series. England will need one from him in the summer, and they may well get it. If he seriously wants to captain England again, he knows the only way he will do so is by (a) behaving himself, and (b) scoring brontosaurus-loads of runs. Perhaps Pietersen’s entire captaincy reign was an elaborate ruse by the ECB to ensure his continued dedication and a crushingly dominant resentment-fuelled Ashes.
(As a possibly interesting statistical appendix to this, Pietersen has on occasion been compared to Viv Richards, and the Master Blaster himself was also not one for destroying his opposition with consistent, merciless unstoppability. After his annus mirabilis in 1976 – six centuries in 8 Tests – over the rest of his career he only once scored more than 400 in a series (446 v Australia in 1988-89), and only once hit more than one century in a series (two, against England in 1980-81). Brian Lara, by contrast, topped 400 in 11 series, and scored two or more hundreds on nine occasions.)
On the bowling front, England’s attack may not be the most consistently threatening, but the Ashes is a home series and since 2005, every single England bowler has a better average at home than overseas (apart from Broad, marginally and unimpressively). Panesar and Anderson both have significantly better records in England, and Harmison, since his breakthrough tour of West Indies four years ago, has averaged 29 at home and 46 away.
Furthermore, if Brett Lee fails to recover from his injury in time, it is probable that they will face a bowling attack with a grand total of zero Test wickets in England. If England can keep it that way for the duration of the series, they will probably win (barring some some overly cautious declarations, some overly jaunty declarations, an encyclopaedia of run outs, or a two-month monsoon) (although with Cook and Strauss opening, regular scores of 450-0 off 210 overs may not be enough to give the bowlers time to force a victory).
Australia’s victory in the Sydney Test has enabled the baggy greens to perch a little less baggily atop the heads of Ponting and his men, and, less importantly, allowed them to retain their position as number-one-ranked cricket team in the world, despite having lost consecutive series to the two best cricket teams in the world.
Cricket’s undisputed number-one-ranked sage, Sir Richie Benaud (his knighthood has been bestowed upon him unilaterally by The Confectionery Stall, in recognition of Sir Richie’s services to brightening my summers from 1981 to 2005), famously stated that “captaincy is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill – but don’t try it without the 10 per cent”. Thus, in my book, cricket captaincy is statistically identical to scientific research, veterinary surgery, piloting an aircraft, and seduction. And it should be noted that Benaud had one of the biggest 10 per cents known to mathematics.
From 1995 to 2007, Australian skippers were blessed with a healthy wodge of the 90 per cent luck portion of the captaincy cake, simply by being able to say to themselves: “I think I should probably put Warne and/or McGrath on now. Yes, Warne and/or McGrath it is. Yup. Lovely piece of captaincy there Mark/Mr Waugh/Ricky [delete as appropriate], even if I do say so myself.”
Ponting, by contrast, now has Hauritz and MacDonald at his disposal. However much of the 10 per cent you believe Ponting possesses, and it is certainly not all 10, it should be remembered that even Michelangelo would have struggled in the Sistine Chapel if someone had snapped his paintbrush in half, and told him to work with a pair of chopsticks instead.
However, with the retirement of Hayden and the injury to Lee, only Ponting remains of the golden era regulars. Perhaps this will help the new generation to play without constant comparisons to the players they are not. Batsmen are queuing up in state cricket, and Johnson and Siddle should be dangerous in English conditions. England may be playing Australia six months too late. After all, Michelangelo would eventually have adjusted to his chopsticks and come up with a half-decent ceiling if the Vatican Painting and Decorating Committee had been threatening to sack him if he didn’t.
The Confectionery Stall’s first Ashes series prediction, then, is England 2 Australia 2. These are currently two reasonable sides, neither as good as they were in 2005. They should be evenly matched, with England perhaps slight favourites due to home advantage.
As an England supporter raised in the 1980s, however, I am pessimistic by inclination, and see the cricketing glass as not merely half empty but also leaking all over my trousers. And thus I am aware that the last time an Ashes series began the sides apparently evenly matched and with England slight favourites, in 1989, England were on completely the wrong end of a seismic, era-defining 4-0 clattering from which it took the team and me 16 years to fully recover. But still, it’s going to be 2-2 this time. As long as the selectors don’t pick 29 different players. And as long as Terry Alderman stays in retirement. And Tim Curtis too.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.