January 4, 2010

Digging negatives out of positives

England deliberately collapsed to the precipice of defeat, in order to be able to hang on for a draw, frustrate the South Africans, and march to Durban with momentum firmly stuffed into their cricket bags

England's nerve-wracking draw in Centurion was pre-planned © Getty Images

Happy New Year, Confectionery Stallers, and welcome to a new year, a new decade (or the last year of an old decade, depending on your decade-defining proclivities). I am firmly in the New Decade camp, and so, I assume, is Jacques Kallis, if only so he can claim to be the 29th member of the highly exclusive club of players who have scored Test hundreds in three different decades.

(I have a full list of these 29 cricketing legends, but will not list them here for fear of antagonising my wife, who is anxious for me not to join the equally exclusive club of husbands who have spent excessive parts of two decades working out things on Statsguru. But a special mention for the great Indian batsman Vijay Merchant, who is the only man in the history of humanity to have scored just one Test century in three separate decades. Throw that little fact into your next conversation at work and see how people react. Hang on, I’m not quite finished with this one yet. If Kallis can somehow muster another five-wicket innings from his creaking limbs, he will become only the eighth bowler to take a five-for in three different decades, and join Kapil Dev as the only player to have both scored hundreds and taken five-fors in three decades. I’m done now.)

So impressive has Kallis been in this series that he must be starting to fancy his chances of becoming the first man to score hundreds in three different centuries – with modern science and training techniques, and Kallis’ unshakeable focus, it is entirely possible that he could still be churning the runs out in 2100.

The new year began well enough for both teams in Cape Town. England were strong throughout the first day, if a little lacking in old-ball penetration, and South Africa recovered with some style from a position where the series appeared to be heading decisively northwards.

After Durban, England fans had woken in the glorious dawn of a new year, rubbed their bleary faces, checked the second-Test scorecard they had printed out and hidden under their pillows, and murmured, “Did that really happen?” It was a performance almost devoid of flaws, and brought about England’s first innings victory over South Africa since 1964 (which itself had been so impressive that the prominent British poet Edith Sitwell felt compelled to die the following day at the age of 77).

One of the unavoidable medical side effects of modern sport-watching is feeling a faint but perceptible sensation of nausea and futility when hearing losing teams, captains and coaches desperately extracting spurious "positives" after being utterly defeated. A team will be walloped like a Victorian schoolboy, then hack away in the mineshaft of humiliation with the pickaxe of desperation in search of some flimsy nuggets of optimism to pass off as the pure gold of progress.

Therefore, in the wake of England’s spectacular Durban victory, I resolved to reverse this modern procedure, and attempt to find some equally spurious "negatives" to take from a magnificent all-round performance, as decisive and complete as any that England have concocted in recent years.

1. Kevin Pietersen’s enduring weakness against left-arm spin. It is almost reaching the stage where, as soon as the big man strides to the wicket, Graeme Smith will not merely bring Paul Harris straight on to bowl, but also tell Dale Steyn to try a few left-arm tweakers when Pietersen is on strike.

2. England’s two under-pressure batsmen, Alastair Cook and Ian Bell, were out in familiar fashion. Old repeated weaknesses resurfaced − Cook nibbled outside his off stump, Bell wafted airily. When will they rectify these flaws? Admittedly, they had both passed 100 at the time and played their best innings for a long time, but still, let’s clutch at these negative straws at this time of unadulterated positivity.

3. Catching. England only took seven catches in the match. That might have been sufficient to win by a colossal margin in Durban, but the statistics show that most Tests are won by teams taking more than seven catches. Strauss should instruct his team not to appeal for lbws, and to avoid bowling batsmen out, in order to improve their catching stats, and thus, their chances of winning future matches.

4. England let South Africa off the hook. Steyn’s last-wicket stand with Makhaya Ntini in the first innings could have turned the game and series. It didn’t, because England responded superbly and destroyed their opponents comprehensively. But it could have done. So, although it transpired not to be a negative, it might have been one if the rest of the game had transpired completely differently.

5. JP Duminy outbowled Jimmy Anderson (3 for 89 versus 3 for 99 in the match). And Steyn scored more runs in the match that Jonathan Trott and Pietersen combined. If that keeps happening, England will lose more matches than they win.

6. Graeme Swann continues to perform alarmingly well. In little over a year, he has gone from being an unfulfilled talent to one of the world’s highest-value Test cricketers. He has become indispensable. If he were to pick up an injury, or accidentally sell his spinning finger on eBay, or be struck by a divine vision, retire from cricket and devote himself to the church, England’s plans would be in disarray.

So, in summary, it wasn’t all good. Nevertheless, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss are proving to be a canny team. On the basis of their Ashes triumph at Lord’s, they had calculated, using mathematics and science, that England play their best only after narrowly avoiding defeat with a desperate last-wicket partnership. Therefore, in the final session in Centurion, England deliberately collapsed to the precipice of defeat, in order to be able to hang on for a draw, frustrate the South Africans, and march to Durban with momentum firmly stuffed into their cricket bags.

(Anyone allergic to spurious statistics please skip the following paragraphs.)

By my calculation, aided as ever by my loyal helper, confidant and soulmate, Statsguru, England have now successfully relied on their 10th-wicket pair to bat them to safety in a Test on six occasions. Their record in the subsequent matches is impressive – four thumping wins (Lord’s and Durban this year, plus an eight-wicket triumph against South Africa in 1998, and a 217-run win over West Indies after their famous Cowdrey’s-arm-in-plaster Lord’s escape in 1963), plus one draw (in Sri Lanka in 2003-04), and one defeat, which barely counts as it occurred in the first Ashes Test of 1968, months after England had clung on for a draw in the final Test of the 1967-68 series in the Caribbean.

You cannot argue with that form-line, and bearing in mind that England had just four last-wicket-saviours in their first 886 Tests, but have since had two in their last seven, I defy any statistician to claim that these narrow escapes were not entirely deliberate. Both, after all, were spectacularly manufactured on dead pitches which appeared to have made a draw inevitable.

I fully expect Graham Onions and James Anderson to bat England to another fingertip draw in Cape Town on Thursday, before Strauss and his men romp to victory in the final Test.

(Statisticophobes may now return to the blog.)

The decade also began well for Pakistan, and in particular for Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Sami, who for differing reasons and in different ways were among the biggest underachievers of the 2000s. Asif’s class has never been in doubt, but how can the Sami who reduced Australia to 10 for 3 with devastating pace and movement be the same Sami who has the second-highest Test bowling average out of the 401 men to have taken more than 40 Test wickets, superior only to renowned strike bowler Sachin Tendulkar (whose batting stats are somewhat superior to Sami’s by way of compensation)?

Australia’s season continues in its curious vein, with just one century in four-and-a-half Tests, and that scored despite Shane Watson’s heroic efforts in Melbourne to get out in the 90s and thus continue his team’s stupendous run of failing to score hundreds.

When most players would have selfishly smashed their way through the nineties towards personal glory, Watson thought only of his team, and prodded and poked for what seemed like days, before finally spooning a dolly to cover on 99, mindful that Australia had lost the Ashes despite scoring eight hundreds to England’s two. Sadly, he had not legislated for Abdur Rauf’s buttery fingers, the triumphant run of 20 unconverted half-centuries was tragically broken, and, inevitably, Australia collapsed in a heap next time they batted.

Next time: The latest and now slightly belated year-by-year highlights of the last decade. (I haven’t forgotten about them. I’m just trying to remember them.) And look out for the next podcast later in the week.

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