Test cricket January 29, 2010

Mind-boggling England

In fact, the more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that Swann has had an almost supernatural influence on this recent bizzarification of England’s often mundane Test team

Graeme Swann's maverick streak has inspired England to ludicrous heights © Getty Images

Hello Confectionery Stallers. Having had time to digest another intriguing but baffling England series, I have come to the conclusion that Andrew Strauss’s team is one of the oddest in cricket history.

Since the Middlesex Mastermind inherited the team a year ago, as a supposedly steady hand on a confused tiller after the Pietersen Project ended in predictably disarray, England have played 16 Test matches. They have lost only three of these games, but each of those proved unmitigated drubbings by an innings. They have also twice won by an innings, as well as registering three more thumping victories (by 115 and 197 runs, and by 10 wickets). Thrice they have concocted a last-wicket escape with an alchemic cocktail of incompetence and resilience, and once allowed their opponents to wriggle off their last-wicket hook. They lost a series in which they averaged six runs per wicket more than their opponents, and won and drew series in which they averaged respectively six and eight runs less per wicket than the opposition.

This must constitute one of the most ludicrous sequences of Test cricket ever compiled. And yet the team is largely made up of apparently steady, reliable, not-especially-temperamental players, operating under practical, sensible leadership. England are the cricketing equivalent of a church choir who smash up their pews at the end of their gigs before setting fire to the vicar, or an accountancy lecturer whose talks contain subliminal but explicitly lascivious reveries about Queen Victoria.

The skipper and coach Andy Flower may externally give the impression of calm, assured direction, but underneath their focused, frivolity-free exteriors, they are presiding over an England era of barking inconsistency, almost surreal fluctuations, and frankly unfathomable results. The self-styled but militarily-useless ‘army’ of England’s most vocal supporters have long and loudly proclaimed their barminess. Perhaps, over the years, their barmy contagion has worn off onto the players.

Alternatively, it could be argued that this descent into cricketing insanity coincided with the entry to the team of the maverick Graeme Swann. In fact, the more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that Swann has had an almost supernatural influence on this recent bizarrification of England’s often mundane Test team. From his very first over in Test cricket, when he winkled out Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid in Chennai, it was obvious he possessed the capability to bring about the unexpected.

Within weeks, both captain and coach had been overthrown. Since then, the team’s all-round icon, Andrew Flintoff, has retired, its leading batsman, Kevin Pietersen, has been a shadow of his once dominating self, and Swann himself has seemingly ended (for a good while at least) the Test career of his spinning rival Monty Panesar, who had been regarded as England’s best spinner since Derek Underwood.

Thus, a player almost written off as a county journeyman has risen to the top echelons of the world rankings, and become his country’s leading wicket-taker, best-averaging bowler, fastest-scoring batsman and most important (and popular) player.

If all this had happened 500 years ago, Swann would have been sitting on the end of a seesaw waiting to be tried as a witch. If it had happened 40 years ago, we would simply have assumed he was a Soviet agent sent to destabilise the cricketing establishment.

As it is, we can only pay homage to the formidable, unknowable power that Swann has harnessed to take over the England team and remodel it in his own now-sacred image. Is it a Faustian pact – five years of legendary Test success (by off-spinning standards), followed by eternal yips? Time will tell. Or, if you prefer to take a less occultish approach to late-flowering cricketers, you could simply mumble to yourself about the value of bringing rounded, experienced cricketers into your Test side, and announce: “I never thought I’d say this a couple of years ago, but English cricket needs Graeme Swann like a racehorse needs its legs.”

(An alternative school of thought is that the strange patterns that have enveloped England began with the birth of my own son, whose entry into the world on the last day of that Chennai Test − described in an early Confectionery Stall entry − coincided with England subsiding from a winning position as labour began, to a spectacular defeat minutes after he slithered out into the world. Since then, as described above, English cricket has been turbulently nutty. As the boy’s father, this phenomenon keeps me awake at night. I love my son, but I cannot help but ask myself: has he been sent to this planet to turn my country’s Test team weird? He seems like a normal little lad, but then they always do, don’t they?)

As promised in last week’s World Cricket Podcast, here are some Swann statistics.

In the recent South Africa v England series, Graeme Swann took more wickets than any other person on the entire planet (albeit that most of the roughly 7 billion people eligible did not even get the chance to bowl). Swann’s 21 scalps mean that he has passed a barely-noticed milestone – he has become the first England spinner to take 19 wickets or more in two separate Test series since Derek Underwood (who hit the magical, mystical 19-wicket mark three times in his illustrious career).

Swann, the first England offspinner to winkle out 20 victims in a series since Geoff Miller in the 1978-79 Ashes against Australia’s reserves, also became only the third England off-spinner of all time to twice take 19 wickets in a rubber.

Let that sink in for a maximum of three seconds. Now, can you guess the other two?

I’ll have to hurry you.

Jim Laker and John Emburey? Wrong, and wrong. Try again.

No, one of them must have been Laker, surely? No. It wasn’t, try again.

Ray Illingworth? Nope. Not even close.

Lance Gibbs? Doesn’t count, wrong team.

Gareth Batty? It’s your own time you’re wasting.

Jim Laker? Still no.

Vic Marks? Get out of my blog.

You’re out of guesses. The two tweaksters in question are Roy Tattersall and Fred Titmus. (Meaning that Swann is one of only two people in the entire world who has twice taken 19 series wickets whilst bowling off spin for England, and still has ten toes.)

Laker’s absence from this never-before-compiled list (19 wickets not being considered an especially significant series landmark in a sport obsessed with numbers ending in 0) is something of a surprise, given that England’s greatest offspinner famously took 19 in a single Ashes Test, on his way to a ludicrous 46 in the 1956 series. But those 19 immortal Old Trafford scalps constituted more than he took in any other complete series.

There you go, stats fans. Put that one under your pillow, sleep on it, and then when you wake up in the morning, see if the stat fairy has left you a copy of the Playfair Annual. And well bowled Swann, one up on the great Laker. But 11 behind the great Muttiah Muralitharan. Who is level with the great Shane Warne, on 13 19-wickets-or-more series. Admittedly, this is not one of cricket’s keynote statistics. But it is one that you now know. Use it wisely, my friends, and tell it only to people whom you trust.

Two additional Swann In South Africa statistics in case those ones weren’t enough to slake your insatiable Swann-stat thirst:

• His 21-wicket tally was the highest series wickets tally for any spinner in a series in South Africa since Jack Alabaster, the Michelangelo of New Zealand leg spinning, took 22 in 1961-62 (coincidentally, both men’s surnames are things you should not try to eat, allowing for the spelling mistake in Swann’s name); • And it was the third-highest by an England spinner in South Africa since Johnny Wardle in 1956-57, and the highest by any offspinner in SA since Hugh Tayfield’s 37 in the same series.

Wake up. You, the guy and/or girl who was still reading this blog a few paragraphs ago. Wake up. It is now safe to read on.

I will finish with a quick Jim Laker digression... whilst Laker’s playing career finished long before cricket and I first met, via a television set in 1981, he was a BBC commentator at that time. In that summer’s Old Trafford Test, he was responsible for one of my personal favourite lines of commentary, as Ian Botham reached his spectacular century by bludgeon-sweeping Ray Bright for six.

“What a marvellous way to bring up a six,” blooped Laker, mixing the words “six” and “century” in his understandably fevered excitement. This minor verbal slip perfectly encapsulated the pandemonium that Botham had unleashed that day, in a barrage that took him from 5 to 102 in 53 balls (the last 81 of those coming from 36 balls, of which the sweep off Bright was the fifth to clear the ropes).

Reality had departed the cricketing universe, and, bearing in mind (a) that no Englishman had ever hit four sixes in an entire Ashes innings, let alone 5 in under an hour, and (b) that Chris Tavare was making time stand still with a heroically strokeless vigil at the other end, you can forgive Laker for confusing his words. Particularly as he was probably thinking to himself at the same time: “Holy living mackerels, I took 19 wickets in a match here once. 19. In one match. That is absolutely bloody incredible. I must have been a seriously good bowler. High five, Jim? I’ll not leave myself hanging on this one. 19. For 90. Beat that, Ray Bright. Beat that.”

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