Decade review December 19, 2009

Highlights of the decade - Part 1


The duo who made Australia tearfully phone their mummies © AFP

Welcome to the official Confectionery Stall year-by-year highlights of the Test Match decade, covering the years 2000, 2001 and 2002. These are my personal selections, and should not be used as unarguable evidence of the greatest cricketing moments of the selected years in any legal cases or political dispute.

Apologies, therefore, if there is an English bias – but not only am I English, most of the cricket I have watched this millennium (especially in the first half of the decade) involved England. And England are, have always been, and will always be, the most exciting cricket side in the universe. I am sure all of you, deep down, would much rather watch Alistair Cook than Brian Lara, Ashley Giles ahead of Shane Warne, and Alan Mullally rather than Wasim Akram.

I am equally sure you all have your own favourite moments of the last 10 years. Maybe some of you are hardcore Boeta Dippenaar fans who insist that the unbeaten 177 against Bangladesh in Chittagong was not merely the highlight of 2003, but also the single greatest achievement in the history of all sport. Maybe there was a particular shot, delivery, catch, umpiring signal, appeal, use of the heavy roller, mispronunciation of player’s name by a stadium announcer, or helmet-kissing, that particularly spoke to your cricketing soul. If so, please share it with us.

2000: England beat West Indies by two wickets at Lord’s In a decade that became notable for mammoth run-scoring on featherbed pitches, sending even the most fanatical cricketing insomniac into a catatonic snooze, this three-day thriller had “19th century” written all over it in gold-plated calligraphy.

Twenty-one wickets fell on the second day, with West Indies skittled for 54 in two hours of maniacal mayhem, with Andy Caddick returning the positively Victorian-era analysis of 13-8-16-5. There followed a nail-nibbling third-day finish as England inched to their first major victory of the Hussain-Fletcher era, against the last remnants of the great West Indian fast bowling dynasty.

Honourable mention: England winning in almost pitch-black darkness in Karachi - Hussain and Thorpe wrapping up victory batting with miner’s lamps strapped to their helmets, wearing glow-in-the-dark safety tabards, and using their innate bat-like sonar to locate the ball. Towards the end, as Moin Khan complained that his fielders could no longer see the ball, and he could no longer see his fielders, Steve Bucknor responded with an admonitory, schoolmasterly look that screamed, “Well, you should have thought of that before you started slowing the over-rate down to 4.3 per hour.”

2001: India’s follow-on victory in the Kolkata Test against Australia This was one of my favourite matches of all time, even though I followed it only by periodically checking the scores on the internet, and had never seen VVS Laxman bat or Harbhajan Singh bowl. This had everything a cricket fan could want in a game – great bowling, great batting, great drama, a historic comeback, and an Australian defeat (for the sake of balance in the world game, of course).

Steve Waugh’s Australians had seemed invincible. Annoyingly invincible. The first Test had resulted in the kind of steamrollering now expected as routine. The second Kolkata Test began as if it would consist of little more than the steamroller reversing back over what it had squished in the first Test, to make sure it was fully flat.

When Laxman walked out to bat after India had followed on, his team were in enormous trouble. When SS Das and Sachin Tendulkar were then out in quick succession, trouble ballooned still further. It seemed a question of whether Australia would have the mercy to wait for a priest to arrive before switching off the Indian life-support machine. A day-and-a-half later, one more wicket had fallen, Laxman, aided by Dravid, had dynamited his name into cricketing immortality, and Australia were tearfully asking the umpires if they could phone their mummies to come and pick them up.

This was perhaps – maybe even probably − the greatest innings ever played. Without question, it was the greatest innings ever played by a batsman who walked to the crease boasting a career average of 27 (it is hard to imagine today’s high-mid-20s averagers such as Dinesh Karthik, Salman Butt, or Daniel Flynn, playing such an innings, even on a computer game, or in their wildest dreams).

Harbhajan spun India to an immortal victory, the baggy greens bagged even baggier, the mystique of Waugh’s men was crushed, and Australia have not won another Test series since. The last bit is not factually true, but still. What a game. If this match is not in your list of highlights of the decade, you are clinically dead inside.

Honourable mention: Brian Lara in Sri Lanka. In the 2000s, as in the 1990s, Lara swung between untouchable mastery and perplexing vulnerability, like a champion trapeze artist trying to impress two women sitting on opposite sides of a circus tent, a career pendulum that made him the most fascinating, compelling cricketer of the modern age.

In Sri Lanka late in 2001, against Murali and Vaas at their peak, he swung the right way. As his team sank to a 0-3 whitewash, Lara scored 688 runs at 114.66, in one of the greatest displays of sustained excellence in defeat that cricket has witnessed. The rest of the West Indies between them managed 852 at 15.77. Take out Sarwan, and that average drops to 11.12. Seldom can the margins of defeats have been reduced with such individual, defiant brilliance.

2002 I have already outlined my 2002 highlight in my latest podcast, involving a very silly crowd at Lord’s and the numbers on the jackets of two stewards. It was what cricket is all about.

Clearly, no actual cricket could match the splendour of that sun-smooched afternoon at Headquarters, but the on-field highlight of the year was:

Nathan Astle’s H-bomb of a double-hundred against England in Christchurch. Two hundred and twenty-two off 168 balls sounds spectacular enough. But Astle had pootled to his hundred off a relatively pedestrian 114 balls. Then, with the match all but lost, kaboom. 121 more runs off 54 more balls, including 12 fours and nine sixes. All this from a man who a year previously had scored 141 off 408 in nine hours. Against Zimbabwe. This was an innings that redefined what was possible in a Test match. England’s bowlers wore the expressions of scared teenagers in a low-budget horror film, as the prospect of the most spectacular defeat in Test history loomed.

As a curious footnote, having hit those nine sixes in 54 balls (and 11 in total in the innings), Astle faced another 3107 balls in four more years of Test cricket, of which he sent only four over the ropes, and none of the last 2736 balls spread over his last 26-and-a-half Tests. But, in mitigation, Neil Armstrong did not reach any particularly impressive altitudes post-1969, and no one complains about how his career tailed off. “Oh well done, Neil, you’ve climbed a tree. You’ve lost your edge.”

Honourable mentions to: Shoaib Akhtar’s spell in the Colombo Test when he demolished Ponting, two Waughs, Gilchrist and Warne in 15 balls, all without having to resort to fielders: three bowled, two leg before wicket. Not even Shoaib’s most ardent fans would claim he has consistently made the most of his prodigious natural gifts. But if he’d bowled those 15 balls at Bradman, he would have got him out at least three times. That is not a fact, but it must be close to being a fact.

Michael Vaughan’s batting. For six glorious months he batted as if Hobbs, Hammond and Hutton had been reincarnated in one player. For the rest of his injury-blotched batting career, there were flashes of majesty, interspersed with periods of striking mediocrity, like a Mozart reduced to writing advertising jingles. Melodious advertising jingles, admittedly.

Next time: 2003 up to however far I get up to. I’m nipping off to France with the family for a couple of days, where I would imagine the potentially gripping denouement to the South Africa v England first Test is headline news, and crowds of feverishly excitable cricket fans are gathered in bars, drinking absinthe, smoking Gitanes, and arguing in an agitatedly gesticulative manner about whether or not Paul Harris is an unheralded genius trapped in the bowling action of a village trundler.

Finally, here’s a stat for you: the highest Test innings played by Virender Sehwag in which he has scored at slower than a run every other ball is... wait for it... 13. Only 19 times in his 123 Test innings has Sehwag scored at less than 50 runs per 100 balls – 10 ducks, eight single-figure scores, and that mind-numbingly tedious 13 off 29 against South Africa in his second Test, in 2001-02. I used to be quite satisfied if I reached double figures in the first 10 overs of a village match. I am honoured to be a member of the same species.

(And as a footnote, regarding some feedback comments on when the decade ends, I am aware that, technically, the millennium began in 2001 and the decade ends at the conclusion of 2010, but no one would claim that the year 1990 was in the 1980s. Would they?)

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