Ashes July 16, 2009

Interesting positives from Cardiff

Ah, the joys of youth

Ah, the joys of youth. I spent most of the Cardiff Test feeling like a teenager again – in that it was harrowingly reminiscent of the 1989 and 1993 Ashes cloutings that England received. History, it seemed, was repeating itself like senile old biddy historians have always assumed it was. As the Australians tortured England’s bowlers and the English top order disintegrated more crumblily than a packet of dry biscuits in an earthquake, there cannot have been an England supporter who did not think at some point: “That’s that for the next fifteen years then.”

At lunch on the final day, I sat down with my wife and children and desperately attempted to write a list of positives for England take from the match. My family contributed little of use. My baby son seemed unwilling even to talk about it, so traumatising was the action unfolding before his seven-month-old eyes. I racked my brains, but did not make much progress beyond: (1) No-one died, (2) Worse things happen at sea, and (3) Shane Warne had taken fewer wickets than he had in any Ashes Test in England (or Wales) since the Oval Test of 1989. England have finally worked out how to play the Master Leggie – make sure that he (a) has retired, and (b) is in Las Vegas playing Poker. With hindsight, it now seems obvious.

However, the last-day heroics of Collingwood and the tail saved England’s extremely streaky bacon, and papered over some alarmingly seismic cracks in their performance. Looking on the positive side, ultimately time deprived England of the chance to push for victory. If only this had been a timeless Test – no side in the world would have fancied chasing an awkward 30 or 40 to win on a wearing sixth-day pitch.

It was an excellent end to a patchy Test. The wicket was consistently dull, offering minimal assistance to any bowler even on the final day. Only 25 wickets fell, and by my calculations, well over half of these were attributable more to batting error than bowling excellence.

England must therefore be congratulated for thinking not of themselves, but of the paying spectator and global TV audience, and making an exciting game of it – without their potent cocktail of carelessness and ineptitude in their first innings and a half, the game would have been a stultifying draw, rather than a nerve-clattering one.

Saving the game was a fine achievement, but on such a comatose surface, manoeuvring themselves into a position where defeat seemed inevitable was arguably even more remarkable.

England’s footwork in general was in an entirely different league to the Australians’ – some of it would even have been frowned upon in the West Kent Village League. Cook is a particular concern. He showed that the two main flaws that were apparent since the last time he faced Australia are still in fine working order.

It was notable that Pietersen, so roundly criticised for playing what was generally deemed a silly and needlessly aggressive shot in the first innings, received scant if any praise for playing no shot at all in the second. Hypocrisy on the part of the media? Perhaps. I would argue that he was too negative in both innings, and needs someone to say to him whatever it was that Vaughan said to him at lunch on day 5 of the 2005 Oval Test.

Certainly, if Pietersen had played the shot Prior concocted from the Encyclopaedia Of Wrong Shots, he would have been pilloried on pages 1-6, 23, and 45-56 of all national newspapers. It seems that he will always be a cricketer who does not merely split opinion, but who takes a chainsaw to it and goes Texan.

The rest of the top order owes Collingwood a strongly-worded thank-you letter. The Durham Defier added to his growing album of critically important innings, and even had the presence of mind to plink a catch to gully with the job nearly but not quite complete. Thus he further dented Australian confidence, by giving them the opportunity to try − and fail − to take the tenth wicket in the final 69 painfully tense balls. Monty Panesar’s bowling average of 34 now matches that of Garfield Sobers, and his batting is clearly starting to catch up as well.

If England had lost, such was the Australian dominance in every facet of the game apart from strategic glove ferrying, it would have been almost impossible to envisage Strauss’ men winning the series. As it is, the evidence on display in Cardiff suggests that it remains difficult to picture it, but, with a dose of imagination, a strong whisky and a blow to the head, it is possible. Unless they improve far and fast, however, if England want to take an open-top bus ride around London in August, they will have to queue up with the tourists and pay for it themselves.

So England managed to put themselves on the road to recovery. However, at Lord’s they must now endeavour not to swerve off it into a ditch at the first available opportunity. To do this, they must overcome the Hand Of History, which is flipping them an enormous bird and telling them they have no chance. England’s last Ashes win at the home of cricket occurred when Iran was still Persia, when Hitler was still considered to be in the ‘jaunty curiosity’ category by most of the world’s leaders, before briefs (closely followed by their rogue cousin, y-fronts) had revolutionised the world of underpants, and when Elvis Presley’s mummy was still waiting to feel the future King of Rock’n’Roll’s foetal hips gyrating provocatively in her womb for the first time.

Furthermore, if you wanted to have seen England win two Ashes Lord’s Tests, you would have to be the oldest man, or in the top ten oldest women, in the world – First World War veteran Henry Allingham, now aged 113, was 16 days old when WG Grace rumbled down the pavilion steps to lead England to a six-wicket victory in 1896. To put this in further context, there were still people alive at that point who had fought in the Battle of Waterloo. It is fair to say, then, that should England tear up both the history book and the form book, even the MCC members might muster a celebratory twitch of their collective moustache, if not quite a full whooping, shirts-off, chest-thumping, egg-and-bacon-tie-windmilling pitch invasion.

The Official Confectionery Stall Lord’s Test Prediction (Rough Version): Draw.

The Official Confectionery Stall Lord’s Test Prediction (Detailed Version): England 834-2 dec. Australia 103 all out and 23-9 (rain stopped play).

On second thoughts, it might be closer than that. I’ll stick with a simple ‘rainy draw’ forecast.

I will post again soon with some thoughts on the sad but inevitable retirement of Andrew Flintoff, a cricketer who has transcended his statistics, and, from 2003 to 2005, was touched all-round greatness; and the Official Confectionery Stall analysis of the 12th-Man-And-Physio Farrago, which brought England and Australia closer to war than anything since Bodyline.

Last Saturday’s episode of ‘Yes It’s The Ashes’, my Ashes comedy show on BBC Radio 5 Live, is available here.

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