England's stagnant batsmen
I woke this morning with an increasingly unusual feeling in my cricketing belly – one of genuine anticipation. This emotion, of course, has almost been successfully and completely excised from the cricketing calendar by the powers that be, as they pile wodge upon wodge of increasingly indistinguishable contests on top of each other, crammed into the few remaining crannies of time available.
Furthermore, as a die-hard lover of the five-day game, Test matches increasingly seem to me to be tagged on as a regrettable but contractually essential precursor to an interminably tedious one-day series, which would be forgettable were anyone able to take enough notice of it in the first place for its existence to register in their brain before being lost into the swamp of time and the ICC rankings.
However, hearing the words “Sabina Park” on the radio instantly conjured up childhood memories of listening to terrified English commentators describing even more terrified English players in the terrifying heyday of the Caribbean pace attack, and of trying to work out if the resounding clonk I had just heard was leather on bat (unlikely), leather on stump (likely), or leather on nose (probable).
This is a series that possesses that rarest of cricketing commodities – rarity. It is only the second time in the last 11 years that West Indies have hosted England in a Test series. (Admittedly, when the two sides reconvene for a hastily-arranged two-match series in England in May, minutes after concluding business in the Caribbean, and seconds after some of the players have returned from briefly adorning the non-business end of the IPL, it will be the third time in five years that the two have met in England, it will begin almost before the and looks set to smash all records for Least Eagerly Awaited Test Series Of All Time.)
There are other factors adding to the excitement. Under their new captain Strauss, England are entering a new dawn, albeit with the same players who have boldly woken up on its last few new dawns, stretched, pulled back the new curtains, calculated the minimum allowable performance to avoid being dropped, hit the snooze button and settled down for a well-deserved lie-in, whilst Owais Shah sits alone in the breakfast room, picking at his corn flakes with an increasingly irritable spoon.
England should win, although, hopefully, not quite as easily as in recent series between the two, if only because of the height of their bowlers – the most successful bowlers in the Caribbean recently include Harmison, Nel, Clark and Shabbir Ahmed – and because deposed skipper Pietersen appears to be in vengeful mood, like Anne Boleyn after her husband had had her head chopped off, only with his head still attached to his central nervous system, and therefore more able to act on his anger than the young church-schisming temptress of Kent and England. This is all dependent on someone concocting a method of dismissing Chanderpaul, who is arguably now the single most important player in world cricket, as well as the oddest.
A few statistical pointers:
The Lara Effect
Chanderpaul averaged 44 before Lara retired at the end of 2006, but a Bradman-embarrassing 104 since then. The team’s next best two batsmen have also posted more impressive numbers since the great Trindadian swished his spectacular bat for the final time. Both Sarwan and Gayle averaged 38 before his retirement; they average 45 and 44 respectively since.
In their last 16 Tests, Steve Harmison averages 47, Fidel Edwards 32, and Jerome Taylor 31. Harmison does however average 24 in 12 Tests against West Indies.
Since 1980, England’s specialist spinners in the West Indies have taken 53 wickets in 6 series at an average of 49.70.
England’s stagnant batsmen
Excluding Pietersen (50) and Flintoff (32), five of England’s current top 7 have career averages in the low 40s. However, their recent form is less impressive.
Cook: career average 42. Last 19 Tests: 36. First 17 Tests: 48. Strauss: career average 42. Last 24 Tests 37. First 31 Tests: 46. Bell: career average 41. Last 21 Tests: 36. First 24 Tests: 45. Pietersen: career average 50. Last 20 Tests: 45. First 25 Tests: 54. Collingwood: career average 42. Last 24 Tests: 37. First 17 Tests: 48. Flintoff: career average 32. Last 12 Tests: 24. First 60 Tests: 33. Prior: career average 40, but excluding century-spanking debut, has averaged 33 over 11 Tests.
(And not forgetting Vaughan: career average 41. Last 22 Tests: 33. First 60 Tests: 44.)
The statistics speak for themselves. Exactly what they are trying to say is not clear, and the selectors almost certainly are sticking their fingers in their ears and humming the Test Match Special theme tune to themselves, but they are certainly speaking.
Possible interpretations of their utterances include:
- “These boys have been operating in the comfort zone of undroppability for too long.”
- “Moores was really, really adequate.”
- “They still haven’t got over the 5th day at Adelaide in 2006.”
- “If at least two or three of you don’t swing your career curves upwards again, you could lose this series.”
Finally, an apology. To Jack Russell. I have lain awake over the last few nights tormented by feelings of guilt and anguish that I have perpetrated a grave injustice by including the Gloucestershire genius in my World’s Dullest XI. His sublime glovework alone should have rendered him beyond consideration, let alone selection, and his batting provided far too fascinating an insight into the curious psyche of a tatty-hat-wearing painter-cricketer. Selectors often make mistakes – I am prepared to be the first in history to admit my error in public.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer