Ashes August 24, 2009

A frisky evening with Statsguru

Now that we’ve all calmed down a bit, I have another statistic for you

Now that we’ve all calmed down a bit, I have another statistic for you. And it’s a good one.

A series that has seen England plumb some extremely murky depths ended with a second joyous and outstanding triumph. Broad’s meteoric spell on Friday was supported by superb batting on Saturday, leaving Australia with an unrealistically Himalayan mountain to climb.

Ponting and his men had been bafflingly, unAustralianly passive and negative in the field as England piled potentially crucial extra rocks on top of what turned out to be a 546-run Everest. They set off confidently enough, but Hussey and Flintoff then combined to steal Ponting’s crampons and send him tumbling off the mountain, and then Clarke was unluckily bullocked off it by a passing African rhino in a hang glider (if I may attempt to convey quite how unfortunate he was when run out). It remains a mystery why North and Haddin then chose to hurl themselves down a ravine when there were still technically enough rations to at least attempt to reach the summit. It was a strange way of proving that Australians never give up.

Yesterday was a great day for English cricket, and in particular for Strauss, whose batting and coin-tossing were of the highest calibre, sparking celebrations that, rightly, did not touch the wild exultation of four years ago. For my part, I celebrated with a romantic evening in with Statsguru, and, well, without wishing to go into too much indelicate detail, things got a bit frisky between us, and a statistic emerged. A beautiful, bouncing new-born statistic. And its first words were these:

England averaged 6.49 runs per wicket less than Australia in this series, but still won. This is the biggest runs-per-wicket deficit ever overcome to win a Test series. In the entire history of cricket, the human race and the universe put together. Here endeth the stat.

Let’s all take a couple of minutes to think about that.





Come on, concentrate.





Good. This was the 35th time in 539 Test series that a team has won with an inferior average (and only the second Ashes contest in which the statistically weaker side has triumphed since 1902). Never has that inferiority been greater than 6.49 runs per wicket. The previous record margin was 6.03, when England hoodwinked South Africa in 1998 after narrowly escaping with a last-wicket-remaining draw at Old Trafford. Coincidentally, that was Flintoff’s first series – his career has been bookended by two of cricket’s greatest statistical heists.

So, did England deserve to win the series? Taking the five matches as a whole, perhaps they didn’t. Taking the two sides’ performances in the final, winner-takes-all shootout at The Oval, they probably did. Taking Australia’s first innings failures at Lord’s, Edgbaston and The Oval, they certainly deserved to lose it.

This statistic certainly confirms that this has been one of the oddest Ashes series of all time – two teams equally capable of both very good and genuinely atrocious cricket produced a series that was close overall without containing a single close game. Four of the Tests were massively one-sided (first innings leads of 239 at Cardiff, 210 at Lord’s, 343 at Leeds and 172 at The Oval). Only very briefly at Lord’s was there a match in which both sides had a realistic chance of winning, and this was rapidly snuffed out on the final morning.

All in all, it was a bit like watching a boxing match in which the fighters were punching their own faces as often as their opponent’s, or a two-horse steeplechase in which the horses alternately sail majestically over one fence before ploughing face-first straight into the next without even attempting to get off the ground. Australia ended snout-down in the last, leaving England to prance past them and trot down the final furlong punching the air in delight that there were no more fences left to crash into.

The destination of the urn was ultimately decided by England’s belated competence and resistance in Cardiff, and by Broad’s magnificence at the Oval on a pitch where no other fast bowler made a significant impression.

From the crucial day-four rain in Cardiff to the toss and Michael Clarke’s supernaturally unfortunate run out at The Oval, England had better and more influential luck than Australia, and were certainly holding the right end of the umpires’ collective white stick. But, when the summer was reduced to a single winner-takes-all shoot-out, England produced the series’ best bowling (by Broad) and batting (by Strauss and Trott). And I stand by my previous assertion that the real man of the series, in terms of the player whose contribution proved most influential, was Monty Panesar.

I should also apologise for my assertion in the last blog that The Oval pitch was “an embarrassment”. It was not ideal – could a so-called ‘result’ pitch not be fast and bouncy, rather than crumbly and random? However, on Saturday, almost 400 runs were scored for six wickets (including three slogs and a run out), and four of the first seven Australian second-innings wickets were due to silly, silly batting, and one to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune picking mercilessly on Michael Clarke.

I will post The Official Confectionery Stall Review Of The Series later in the week.

For those who enjoy tables, here is a list of the Top Ten Biggest Runs Per Wicket (RPW) Deficits Overcome To Win A Test Series. Commit it to memory, then destroy it.

A more accurate measure of the extent of cricketing superiority overcoming may be The Heist Percentage – the difference between the sides’ averages as a percentage of the losing team’s average. By this measure, England’s 2009 Ashes win is the 7th greatest heist in Test history – a 15.9% heist, some way off Australia’s burglary of the 1891-92 Ashes, when they filched the urn despite averaging 21.6% less than England. The injustice still rankles today, and clearly motivated Strauss and his men at the Oval. In fact, as Graeme Swann celebrated the final wicket, lip-readers would have seen him screaming the words, “This one’s for WG Grace and his boys.”

There you go. Now I must spend some quality time with the wife. If she sees me looking anything else up on Statsguru in the next month, she’ll start telling me she can’t go on with three of us in the relationship.

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