Ashes May 21, 2009

History and stats point to Ashes glory for England

Australia are in disarray – they lost their most recent Test, have not won a series in England for eight years, have never won a Test in Cardiff, are bringing a squad with only one front-line bowler who has ever taken a Test wicket in England


Nightwatchman extraordinaire James Anderson has four ducks fewer than Don Bradman at the equivalent stage of his career © Getty Images
 

The announcement of the Australian touring party has cranked up the anticipation levels for the most hyped England series of recent times still further. This is a fortunate development, because the cricketing build-up, in the form of England’s alleged Test series against the supposed West Indies, has been numbingly undramatic, as is seemingly the modern way.

This was a short and not particularly sweet series, with most of the country, almost all of the cricket-watching world, and half of the participants seeming to take little interest in proceedings. England played increasingly well, confidently and decisively, but the overwhelming sensation as the visitors completed their contractual obligation of a second innings was: “What was the point of that?”

England failed to win even a single Test against West Indies for 16 years from 1974. They have just won two in a week and even the players themselves were struggling to look excited about it. There is much talk about the sanctity of Test cricket, but this series felt as special and meaningful as a Las Vegas wedding presided over by an unqualified Elvis impersonator who had lost his costume, wig and glasses in a poker game and was wearing a borrowed hospital smock instead.

The cricket-watching public stayed away in their millions. This was due to a number of mitigating factors, including, principally, that they are not imbeciles. Thanks to the internet, they now have easy access to meteorological records for the Durham area in May dating back thousands of years, as well as the ability to check scorecards from recent series in England and guess what kind of contest the West Indies were likely to provide. Perhaps they were also swayed by Chris Gayle’s pre-match posturing, which, following extensive computer analysis, has now been officially confirmed as the least inspiring team talk in the history of organised sport.

In five full matches since their abject capitulation in Jamaica, England’s batsmen − all of them, together, including Onions and Panesar − have averaged over 60 runs per wicket, with 12 hundreds and 12 half-centuries. This despite their best player, Pietersen, mostly saving his runs for when they are really needed, as is his tendency. They have now proved conclusively that they are good players against mediocre bowling attacks on friendly wickets backed up by fielders with sausages for fingers.

Whether this frenzy of accumulation has ironed out or merely camouflaged previous technical flaws will be revealed in two months’ time. The bowling was encouraging and impressive – Jimmy Anderson could have informed Taylor and Benn in writing several months in advance exactly where and when he was going to bowl those outswinging missiles of perfection to them, and they would still seen their off stumps annihilated. But (and this is a Mike-Gatting-sized but), West Indies are not Australia, and May is not July.

It is certainly unlikely that the Australians, tactical maestros that they are, will make the same mistake as Fidel Edwards, West Indies’ key bowler, in erroneously pinpointing Anderson as England’s key batsman. Perhaps the Barbados Ballista was duped by the Lancastrian’s world-record-breaking refusal to be out for nought – Bradman had four ducks quacking on his career board of shame by the equivalent stage of his career, and had taken 126 fewer wickets, making Anderson statistically by far the greatest all-round cricketer in history.

The upshot of all this is that my five-month-old son has already seen England score more hundreds (twelve) against West Indies than I saw in my first 12 years of cricket watching from 1981. He has also, more surprisingly, seen the West Indians plunder as many centuries (nine) off England’s bowlers as they did in 14 Tests between 1985 and 1990 – so he presumably thinks in his tiny bald head that Gordon Greenidge, Viv Richards and Richie Richardson were significantly worse than Devon Smith, Lendl Simmonds and Brendan Nash. Oh, the folly of youth. One day, I will sit him down and explain with the use of graphs why this is not the case. And he will humour me for a couple of minutes before putting on his Delhi Daredevils shirt and asking me what a Test match is.

History now points unerringly towards a home win in the Ashes – England have always won the urn after demolishing sub-standard opposition in a two-match early season series. Admittedly, this conclusion is based on the rather unscientific single previous example of 2005, but a fact is a fact. When you factor in that this West Indies team is better than the 2005 Bangladeshis, it becomes clear that England are all set to improve on their Ashes performance of four years ago, and win by at least 4-0.

They are, after all, unbeaten in six now, and coming off a run of three consecutive home Test wins. Australia, by contrast, are in disarray – they lost their most recent Test, have not won a series in England for eight years, have never won a Test in Cardiff, are bringing a squad with only one front-line bowler who has ever taken a Test wicket in England, have never won the Ashes with a player called Nathan in the squad, have not beaten the old enemy without a leg spinner for over 25 years, have never beaten England while there has been a black American president, have not won the urn when a Labour government in Britain has been within a year of being voted out of office, and traditionally struggle when a Queen has been on the throne for 57 years (England’s glorious win in 1894-95 will be preying on their minds day and night).

A further incontrovertible statistical truth is that England have never lost a home Test match finishing in May (10 wins, 4 draws), leading to the unarguable conclusion that the ECB should have crammed the entire five-Test Ashes series into this sacred month, to be followed by a 53-match one-day international series to bring the summer to a lucratively rousing climax.

Andy Zaltzman was born a satirist. He has a weekly podcast with John Oliver at The Times

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

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