December 14, 2009

England possess the precious nectar of momentum


England have a psychological block when it comes to playing Test matches in the shadow of flat-topped mountains © PA Photos

Only two-and-a-half weeks remain of a cricketing decade that has seen some of the best cricket ever played and some of the worst, and which has witnessed greater transformation in the game than any time since Eve persuaded Adam to join her in a new game she had invented, which involved trying to hit an apple with a snake.

England began the decade as they will end it – in the middle of a Test series in South Africa. In January 2000, England’s first third-millennium Test ended in a pounding, series-losing innings defeat, before they gained a consolation win in the final Test, thanks in large part to (a) Hansie Cronje’s love of high-quality jackets, and (b) Hansie Cronje receiving a rather surprising answer from his "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelet, and acting upon it. Thus began a theme which has recurred on and off throughout the decade − the needless devaluing of Test cricket.

(A couple of trivia questions for you: 1. Who was the first man to bat at 6 for England this millennium? 2. Who was the first England player to etch his name onto a 21st-century honours board?

Anyone who answers both of these correctly without having to look them up deserves a mixture of respect, praise, pity, admonishment, scorn and a commemorative Confectionery Stall silver salver. And a urine test to check for illegal levels of Wisden. Answers at the bottom of the blog).

England begin Wednesday’s first Test in confident mood, hoping that this series will show that the 2009 Ashes win marked the beginning of a period of excellence, as the 2005 victory transpired to mark the end of one. Has beating the Australians papered over the cracks that were evident throughout the summer, or filled them in with the concrete of confidence and painted the Queen high-fiving Len Hutton on top? And was South Africa’s win in Australia a year ago their high-water mark – Ntini is retiring, Kallis creaking, Morkel stagnating, Smith chuntering to himself?

The series is a fascinating prospect, and should be closer than might have expected at the start of the year, when South Africa had just completed a spectacular win in Australia and England were in turmoil after the bizarre, truncated reign of captain Kevin Pietersen. It is England who will begin the series with the precious nectar of momentum in their pockets, although the Ashes suggested that momentum, though much beloved by pundits, players and public alike, means precisely zero, and is barely worth the newspaper/flipchart/stone tablet it is written on.

South Africa may come to regret their foolishness in not locating all four Tests at Newlands in Cape Town. England have played three Tests there since South Africa’s return to international cricket, and been humiliated on each occasion, conjuring some top-level ineptitude out of the seaside air each time. I am not a statistician or a shrink, but it does suggest England have a psychological block when it comes to playing Test matches in the shadow of flat-topped mountains.

However, the official Confectionery Stall prediction for the series (subject to unannounced revision at any point between now and mid-January), is a 2-1 win for South Africa. Unless various things happen which result in a different scoreline. Which is more than possible.

Elsewhere in the Test universe, India wrapped up a commanding series victory over Sri Lanka, for whom this was a sobering insight into a cruel post-Muralitharan universe, albeit one with the fading genius still in it. MS Dhoni’s potent team should go from strength to strength, and confirm itself as India’s best ever Test team. But it won’t, because it will barely play any Tests in the next year.* Why? No reason. That’s just the way Fate decreed that it should be. And by "Fate", I mean "the BCCI". The two are essentially interchangeable these days.

West Indies put on an excellent performance in the drawn second Test against Australia, and Chris Gayle proved again how great a cricketer he could have been – of players who have played 10 Tests or more in this decade, Gayle has the 57th best batting average. Too often he has been the man who has put the “ach” into “underachievement” (to this contrived wordplay even to slightly work, you must say “ach” with extreme frustration, as if you have just put on a slipper only to find that there was a sharpened javelin inside it, or fed your keys to the dog and tried to open your front door with a slice of biltong).

Tomorrow, I will begin my year-by-year personal cricketing highlights of the decade. Thank you for all your comments on the blog and episode one of the podcast (even if, like "jonty", you think I “suck big time”, or like the appositely named "CruelExecutioner", you wish to hurl a rotten orange at me; I fear not the rotten orange, and back myself to tuck it into the leg side for a cheeky single). Episode two should, technology willing, be available on Wednesday.

Answers to the two trivia questions:

1. The first man to bat at 6 for England this millennium was Andy Caddick.

2. The first Englishman on a 21st-century honours board (assuming there was one at Newlands at the time) was Chris Silverwood.

If you don’t believe me, here is proof.

* There is talk of India slotting in two Tests when they host South Africa in February

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