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The £20 I forked out on a fifth-day ticket for Leeds proved to be one of my less sound financial investments, alongside the purchase of a surfboard made of salt, my bet that a zebra would win the Grand National by 2007, and a contribution to the research and development budget of a company making a sausage howitzer for rapid feeding of crowded school dining rooms.
Was Headingley operating a Nigerian-banking-style internet scam, preying on vulnerable and easily-misled cricket fans such as myself by promising an unforgettable day’s cricket, with England potentially winning the Ashes and adding a new entry to its Top 10 List of Greatest Ever Moments, for just £20 – the price of four £5 notes − when they knew full well that England were planning to collapse like a Victorian lady at the unexpected sight of a gentleman’s danglers? I knew it seemed too good to be true, but I was sucked in and the media were so persuasive I felt I couldn’t turn them down.
In the event, my Tuesday holiday at Headingley transpired to be a fairly dull experience, sitting alone in an ugly, empty stadium with a copy of Wisden, a pair of binoculars and an imagination. However, even trying to pretend England were knocking off 300 to win on the last afternoon proved impossible, and I ended up envisaging a mid-afternoon collapse and Ricky Ponting sprinting around the outfield with the Ashes screaming, “Yes, yes, yes, we’ve done it – we have vanquished the mightiest of the mighty.” To make matters worse, play in my imaginary final day ended late due to bad light and I missed my train back to London.
Even the most ardent positivist in the England camp would concede that the fourth Test was a bit of a disappointment. The prize was within touching distance, but, instead of reaching out and grasping it, England tripped over their own shoelaces, landed headfirst in a bucket, staggered around blindly with the bucket lodged on their head, walked into a plate-glass mirror, staggered backwards, fell over a dog and tumbled out of a 15th floor window.
Nevertheless, as the players of both teams have been chanting with monk-like repetition, it is Only One-All And Still All To Play For, despite Australia’s pronounced statistical superiority (they are averaging 13 runs per wicket more than England, more on which in tomorrow’s statfest of a blog).
Furthermore, looking at History, that most seductive but useless of guides, the best Australia can hope for from this match is a draw. They have never won a decisive Ashes Test without the following two criteria being fulfilled: (1) Don Bradman is in the team; (2) it is the 1930s. Neither of those looks likely to happen at The Oval. Ponting and his men will therefore have to hope that England cannot force a victory.
So, this is it. After all the build-up, the years of waiting, the endless speculation, and the nationwide frenzy of anticipation, finally, on Thursday, Jonathan Trott will make his Test debut. And the 2009 will reach its denouement.
I confess to knowing little about the former South African, but he has a solid overall first-class record and, as a horse for this particular final Test course, has been picked when bang in form, and a loud bang at that. In previous times, the England selectors seemed to shy away from picking new players if they were in form, preferring to wait until they were struggling, and preferably, having to face top-notch opposition, before throwing them in, in an effort to undermine their confidence and self-belief for the long-term. It was a curious tactic, with hindsight.
Bell is lucky to be playing – if Rudi Koertzen had used his eyeballs at Edgbaston he would have had three failures out of three and be contemplating a prolonged period on the sidelines learning not to put his leg in the way of inswingers. But the stage is set for one of the great career-transforming double-centuries of all time.
England need major contributions from players who have failed to deliver them so far, and if they (and especially Flintoff) make a good or even non-cataclysmic start, the crowd, occasion and prospect of another drunken bus-tour around London and a chat with the Queen could inspire them to close the gap in quality between the sides that seemed apparent before the series and in Cardiff, then went AWOL for a couple of Tests, before re-emerging as a chasm in Leeds.
I still think England have a chance of ensuring that their Ashes blimp soars victoriously to the skies on the helium of adrenaline and history, rather than merely Hindenburging into an inferno of defeat at the first opportunity.
The good news for England is that, so far in this series, the performances in one match have generally not given many hints as to how the teams would play in the next. And they will know that, if it is a close game (and let’s hope that it is – there hasn’t yet been a match in this series in which both sides have played well), Australia may start thinking about how they really should have had these Ashes wrapped up and under the Christmas tree by now. And Ricky Ponting may start thinking how the last Australian captain to lose two Ashes series in England, Billy Murdoch in the late 19th century, ended up playing for England less than two years later. No-one could cope with that Bazooka Of Damocles pointing right into his face.
THE CONFECTIONERY STALL OVAL TEST PREDICTION
What the heck. England to win. I don’t really think that, but I’m trying to give optimism a go, just for a change. Flintoff to be knighted at tea on the final day before ripping through the Australian tail to clinch victory. Ponting to burn an effigy of himself on the outfield before going into hiding and being sighted in Argentina some years later.
Brace yourselves for some hard-core Confectionery Stall stats tomorrow morning.
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. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. 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 Cricinfo.