England in West Indies, 2008-09 February 13, 2009

England's refusal to go large

One of the more curious aspects of England’s unimpressive recent cricket is the amount of criticism directed at the one batsman who has risen above the swamp of mediocrity in which the rest of the top order have been paddling their increasingly leaky rubber dinghy. Kevin Pietersen’s tightrope-walk between audacity and idiocy has polarised opinion like a man painting a bear head-to-toe in Tippex, and has, without question, deflected more searching analysis from those who merit it more. Was his miscued first-innings thwack at Suleiman Benn an irresponsible grab at personal glory or a poorly-executed but tactically-justifiable attempt to dominate a dangerous opponent? Or both? Did Pietersen act like a spoilt child hurling himself into a vat of jelly babies, or like the head of a bird welfare charity putting all the takings from a charity food fight on a 10-1 shot in the 2.40 at Chepstow in an effort to secure a better future for some little orphan ducks? Only Pietersen and almighty Zeus may ever know.

It is, however, an unarguable fact that the Pietermaritzburg Pulveriser regularly fails to batter his opponents into quivering pulverised wrecks, as he is clearly capable of doing. And this is despite having what may well be Test cricket’s best conversion rate for turning 50s into 90s – 19 times out of 27, a marginally better ratio even than the voraciously undismissable Bradman. However, KP’s problems begin as soon as he arrives within 10 of his century. And here comes Dr Statistics to prove it. He’s holding a clipboard, he’s brandishing his stethoscope, and he wants you to pay attention.

In Test history, 80 players have scored 90 or more at least 15 times. Taking their average scores in those innings of 90-plus, Pietersen has the 79th-best record of those 80 players, better only than renowned serial century-flunker Michael Slater. Here is Exhibit A.

So while Pietersen generally succeeds in capitalising on good starts, having done so, he fails to capitalise on that initial capitalisation. His 15 centuries have averaged only 137 – only Michael Atherton of the 59 players with as many hundreds as Pietersen averages lower for his centuries (135) – see Exhibit B. There were, of course, mitigating circumstances for the Lancashire limpet. By the time he had staggered across the three-figure threshold, he was usually at a point of total mental and physical exhaustion after a two or three long days of heroic defiance.

By comparison, of Pietersen’s contemporaries, Ponting’s centuries average 175, Sehwag’s 199 (helped by the fact that his last 11 centuries have been over 150), Kallis’ 214 (helped by a suspiciously large number of not-outs), Sangakkara’s 276, and Chanderpaul’s 278 (also a not-out-assisted figure, aided by the rank incompetence of his tail-enders). And if Pietersen wants advice on how to punish opponents when on top, he should knock on the hotel room door of his England coach Andy Flower, tell him to lift his head out of his hands and stop repeatedly muttering “What have I got myself into?” to himself, and demand to know how he contrived to make his 12 centuries for Zimbabwe average a frankly ludicrous 340.

It should be noted that Pietersen’s figures are damaged by the fact that he has never been remained undefeated scoring a century, and has sometimes sacrificed his wicket when batting with the tail in an effort to secure runs for the team rather than red ink for himself. His is not the record of a selfish player. On the occasions when he has perhaps been dismissed trying to stamp his own distinctive supremacy on a match, it is perhaps because he knows that if he does not do so, with Flintoff out of form, there is not another England batsman who either will or can.

However, after England’s Ashes humiliation in 2006-07, Pietersen himself talked passionately about the need for himself and his team-mates to score big hundreds. They have almost totally failed to do so – of their 28 centuries since then, only four have been over 150, and 12 have been under 110. The frustration and fascination of Pietersen as a batsman is his rare mixture of brilliance and vulnerability. His “that’s the way I play” claim essentially suggests that if he removes the latter, he will lose some of the former. But his ascent to true cricketing greatness will wait until he is able to turn his outbursts of stunning virtuosity into match-determining dominance.

The failure to capitalise on centuries is not Pietersen’s failing alone. England as a team have for some time shown little interest in scoring big centuries. Players seem to lose one or more of concentration, motivation or their general mental faculties once the advertising logo on the back of their bats has been waved at the requisite number of cameras (one of the more irritating and distasteful aspects of the modern commercialisation of cricket – a moment of proud personal triumph debased into a glib publicity opportunity, rather like a husband and bride eating Heinz Baked Beans in their wedding photographs, or a priest reciting the slogans of top whisky companies at an alcoholic’s funeral).

Strauss and Cook both have even worse century-inning averages than Pietersen, and Vaughan and Trescothick were only a little better. Since Graham Gooch’s 333 against India in 1990, the highest score by an England player is Pietersen’s 226 against West Indies in 2007 – the 51st highest score in all Test cricket since Gooch trudged back to the Lord’s pavilion burning with a mixture of pride in his achievement and abject disgust and self-loathing at being bowled by Manoj Prabhakar on a flat track.

Quite why England are so unable to score big is a mystery. No doubt some will their finger of blame at: the advent of colour television lowering our national boredom threshold; or a post-colonial unwillingness to assert English dominance; or the end of rationing; or Kolpak players and Tony Greig; or Gordon Brown and the bankers. It is probably a combination of all of these and more.

Gooch’s innings, incidentally, remains the only English score of 250 or more in my lifetime. Which puts England three 250s behind Zimbabwe. In fact, other countries’ players have notched up 42 such scores between them. Also in fact, since the momentous event of my birth, of the eight major Test nations, England have the lowest combined century-innings average, the second worst conversion rate of centuries in 150s (ahead of New Zealand) and the worst conversion rate of centuries into double centuries. England have averaged one double century every 25 Tests – the other nations between them score one on average every 11½ matches. Perhaps my entry into the world was not the turning point for English batsmanship that everyone had hoped it would be.

(Thanks again to Cricinfo’s Statsguru facility for its invaluable assistance in this blog. I am now firmly of the opinion that Statsguru is not only the greatest sporting statistical aid in the world, but also the single greatest invention in the entire history of the universe. Without it, the research for this article would have taken several years and at least one marriage.)

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