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The Ashes scoots rapidly towards its denouement, with the fourth Test beginning today just under a month after the first. Both sides may be wondering whether they will ever again bowl the other out twice without serious meteorological assistance. And both may think that it is in their interests to club together and purchase a cloud machine.
England may be pondering whether or not they will still be allowed a bus parade and some New Year’s honours if the crowd keeps booing Ricky Ponting. Or if they grind out a 1-0 series win.
Ponting himself may be contemplating the inevitable consequences of becoming the second Australian captain after Billy Murdoch to lose two Ashes series in England – i.e. playing for England, which is what Murdoch found himself doing 18 months after his 1890 Ashes failure. An intriguing prospect, particularly with the next Ashes in Australia 18 months away, should Ponting prove able to displace Ravi Bopara from the England line-up.
The prospects for Headingley have been extensively discussed by far worthier keyboards than mine, so instead of wrongly guessing what might happen over the next five days, I present the first batch of nominations for the Confectionery Stall 2009 Ashes Mid-Series Awards.
CONFECTIONERY STALL MAN-OF-THE-FIRST-60%-OF-THE-SERIES
The new Botham. Anderson has the priceless ability to take wickets with good balls and, more importantly, bad ones. He plucks stunning catches out of the air like an unusually athletic seal snaffling a particularly rapid herring. And he is a flamboyant batsman willing and able to clatter good-length balls to the cover boundary. All he needs is the occasional cigar, a slightly less honed tummy, and some ducks, and the similarity will be complete. Please, England, just don’t spoil him by making him captain.
Panesar is, or at least should be, a live candidate for the Man-of-the-Series gong. His 7 not out was the most influential single performance of the rubber to date, just sneaking ahead of Mitchell Johnson’s opening spell at Lord’s.
Paul Collingwood, Anderson and Graeme Swann all contributed to the rearguard, but they could have been expected to perform as they did on a friendly wicket. For Panesar to play out 40 minutes in any circumstances, with barely a droplet of alarm, could not have been predicted. If cricket is now more about momentum than cricket, Panesar has been the key player thus far.
Harshly criticised for his some of his less certifiably correct decisions, Koertzen has valid excuses for most if not all of his so-called mistakes. When he apparently gave Michael Clarke out in the first innings at Edgbaston, he was in reality merely joining in with a Mexican wave.
When allegedly giving Ian Bell not out LBW to Johnson when it appeared that the batsman’s L was about as B his W as is physically possible, it was because Koertzen had spotted that the scalding Birmingham sun had melted the varnish on the bails, welding them together in an unbreakable union. Had Johnson’s surprise perfect inswinger managed to avoid Ian Bell’s shuffling limb, it would have knocked middle stump out, but left the bails in place. As Hawkeye failed to show.
(It should also be noted that, when England desperately needed Koertzen to keep giving people out on the grounds that they were nearly out, he started getting some close decisions right. He received minimal credit for this – such is the lot of the Umpire.)
(And what a set-up by Johnson – an entire two Tests of near unbroken garbage just to maximise the surprise of that one ball to Bell.)
DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE SERIES
Fans of the New South Wales nurdler would have been hoping and expecting to see a series of Gary Kirsten-like crabby accumulation, and would have been delighted with his century in Cardiff. Since then, however, he has concocted an array of recklessly macho and carelessly loose shots for which he would have been roundly slammed if he had been a player with a reputation for recklessness or carelessness.
One of the most intriguing questions to emerge from the series so far is: how many Test runs will Phillip Hughes score in his career? He currently has 472. The answer could be anywhere between 15,000 at the higher end, and 471 at the lower. Many factors will decide this, including whether or not Test cricket dies on the vine, whether Hughes volunteers for a manned mission to Mars, whether he stops hitting short balls into the hands of fielders, and which performance was more indicative of his future achievements – this Ashes, or the series in South Africa, when Hughes scored more runs against a better attack in tougher conditions.
But he’s brewing something. I can feel it. (But then I could also feel Geraint Jones developing into a top-6 specialist Test batsman. We are both still waiting.)
This has been an interesting and often exciting series despite the surfaces, which, to the untrained eye (e.g., either of my two eyes), have been almost indistinguishable from each other, and provided a stupidly tough examination for the bowlers, but a relatively facile quiz for the batsmen.
There have been two circumstances in which the bowlers have dominated – (1) when the ball has swung; and (2) when the batsmen have taken collective leave of their senses. The tension and rarity of a close Ashes series has camouflaged the drab nature of the pitches. If this is the future of Test cricket, however, it will need more than pink balls to keep people interested.
More nominations to follow tomorrow. Please make your own nominations too. Each of the winners will receive a commemorative Confectionery Stall bag of dried apricots, personally signed (on receipt of a stamped, addressed envelope).
Australia are still vulnerable to swing. They have dealt with it with the practiced expertise of a crocodile delivering a baby. England have been little better. Whoever gets the better of the clouds could win. The weather forecast is quite good. It could be a draw. England may miss Flintoff – medical science has kept him going in the series. Forty years ago, he would have been humanely put down by now.
I think Australia’s bowlers might click in this match, especially if they pick four front-line quickies. The Confectionery Stall insulates itself from disappointment with pessimistic predictions – Australia to win in four days. (I have a ticket for the fifth day.)
England, however, would be happy with a draw to leave Australia having to win at the Oval − Australia have never won a decisive final Ashes Test without Don Bradman in the team.
FACT OF THE DAY
If England can pull off a shock first-day win (which no team has managed to do in first-class cricket since 1960), they will become the first England team to win the Ashes inside a month since 1890. Australia have pulled of this remarkable feat of Speed Urn Acquisition three times this decade.
To achieve this, England’s best tactic would be to insert Australia, bowl them out for 70-odd, cut loose for 25 overs, declare on 180-3, then skittle the Aussies again for 80 to win by an innings. This is, admittedly, a high-risk gambit. But history beckons with a brightly glowing finger.
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. 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 ESPNcricinfo.