March 12, 2010

PCB joins surrealist art movement

The latest attack of the crazy virus to afflict Pakistan cricket, and a slew of essential Bangladesh v England facts and stats to enhance your delight in the first Test

When will Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf return? Tomorrow? Never? Yesterday? © AFP

Another week, another dose of the crazy virus runs through Pakistan cricket − their two best batsmen banned indefinitely for bickering like schoolgirls (not the official PCB wording), two more seasoned internationals jettisoned for a year, Afridi on probation for mistaking the ball for a toffee apple, and the Akmals told off for being naughty. All of which will, apparently, “go a long way to arrest the continuing decline of Pakistan cricket and improve the state of cricket in Pakistan” (official PCB wording).

This may appear to the layman to be akin to claiming that chopping your arms off will improve your juggling, but, Pakistani cricket being Pakistani cricket, it might just work.

The PCB, making a bid to be the first sporting body to be fully accepted as members of the surrealist art movement (at least since the days when Salvador Dali was president of The International Melting Hedgehog Tennis Association), emphasised that Younis and Yousuf can be recalled “as and when the PCB deems appropriate”.

Given the consistency of its decision-making, this could easily be tomorrow, or never, or yesterday. It might even invent a new month in which they can play. Or say that there will be certain games in which the banned players are eligible to participate, but no-one else is. Or insist on certain stipulations before they are readmitted – Younis will be eligible to play, but only if he’s wearing a 1920s silk ballgown, while Yousuf will be selected on the strict condition that he agrees to do all the cooking and laundry for the rest of the squad, and reads Salman Butt a bedtime story every night. Afridi can play as long as he’s not in the stadium where the game is taking place, Shoaib Malik has to wear a Stetson when fielding, and the Akmal brothers will face a ban if at any time in the next two years they smile while batting.

Afridi, of course, gets into trouble with the frequency that most people get into their pyjamas. There are rumours that, as a controlled experiment, the PCB once locked Afridi alone in a secret dungeon for a month. When he emerged, the ICC gave him a three-match ban. No-one knows what it was for, but no-one seemed to think it was unjustified.

One can only feel sorry for Shoaib Akhtar – who would have thought it possible that the Rawalpindi Write-Off would miss out on the most explosive disciplinary action in Pakistan cricket history? He must be seething at the injustice of it all. “Why not me?” he must be shouting to the heavens. “What did I not do wrong?”

Clearly, the PCB know Pakistani cricket as well as anyone, and have worked out that cataclysmic upheaval is the most likely means of ensuring success in the imminent World Twenty20. The rest of the cricket world would already have been wary of Pakistan, following last year’s spectacular success in England, and their disappointing recent performances which suggested that an outbreak of form was lurking around the corner. Now, with a brutal cull of some of their leading cricketing icons, a team left leaderless, shorn of experience, and fearing for its future, they will be unbeatable.

I love Pakistan cricket. I love its passion, its panache, its style, its unpredictability, its power and vulnerability, and its superhuman capacity to explode and implode, often simultaneously. It would be nice, however, if its myriad excitements were let loose more often on the field of play than off it.

All of this somewhat overshadowed the heroic efforts of Raqibul Hasan to launch Bangladesh as a rival to Pakistan in the cricketing derangement stakes. Raqibul, 22, shocked the cricketing world by retiring before most of the cricketing world had even noticed he’d started playing. He had been picked in the squad for today’s first Test, and thus must have become the first sportsman in history to resign in protest at himself being selected.

This is a slight inconvenience for the home team, but not as much of an inconvenience as their historic inability not to be soundly demolished every time they take to the field of play.

However, this is be a more competent and confident Bangladesh team than its predecessors. When England last played Bangladesh, in 2005, the tail seemed to begin shortly before the openers walked to the wicket. Now, however, England’s injury-strewn bowlers will face a useful and improving batting line-up. Bangladesh’s batsmen have already equalled their record number of international centuries in a year – six (four in Tests, two in ODIs) – scored by five different players, against England, New Zealand and India. That is as many hundreds against the major international teams as they had managed in the previous four years.

The bowling, however, remains a problem. Bangladesh’s bowlers began this year by skittling (in Bangladesh terms at least) the mighty Indians for 243 in the first Test in Chittagong. However, in their five innings since then, they have seen their opponents declare four times, and the exception being when India’s openers heroically chased down a target of 2 to win in Dhaka.

Since Bangladesh were donated Test status, top six batsmen against them have averaged 58, and scored a century every six innings – which equates almost exactly to Garfield Sobers’ overall Test record. Which either means that every single top six batsman who has faced Bangladesh is as good as Sobers was, or that Bangladesh’s bowlers have been less good than those whom Sobers faced. Probably the latter.

Why then, you may well ask, are England even contemplating starting the match with only four bowlers, two of whom are Test novices, and one of whom was recently injured, as predicted yesterday by no less a source than Cricinfo’s official preview?

It would make close to 0% sense for England to select such a team, particularly given the following considerations:

1: England's strong tail – who, if the predicted line-up of Broad, Bresnan, Swann and Tredwell is correct, all average mid-20s in first-class cricket.

2(a): England have taken 20 wickets in just six of their last 21 Tests...

2(b): And they have bowled their opponents out twice just five times in their 27 overseas Tests since 2005 (28 if you include the 10-ball abandonment in Antigua a year ago, which seems a trifle harsh, as expecting a team to take 20 wickets in 10 balls, at an even-better-than-Waqar-at-his-peak strike-rate of 0.5 balls per wicket, is something even Kim Jong Il would not demand of the North Korean 1st XI) (and in any case England’s bowlers bowled none of those 10 balls).

3: Two of those bowlers have never played an overseas Test.

4: England are much more likely to need tall young fast bowler Finn than not-very-young top-order batsman Carberry in future Tests.

4 (subconsideration 1): Particularly next winter in Australia.

5: Bangladesh have bowled their opponents out twice just four times in their 64 Tests – twice against an understrength Zimbabwe, twice against a sub-understrength ‘West Indies’.

6: For all their laudable and promising recent improvement, Bangladesh have avoided defeat just nine times in 64 Tests – including three wins against weak opposition, plus four rain-affected draws.

7: Anything other than a victory would rightly be considered a failure.

7 (appendix A): And having forgotten to take their captain with them, they simply must win, or Strauss’ sabbatical will look even ruder and sillier than it is.

England should be strong enough to prevail in any case, but playing four bowlers would maximise their chances of not winning.

(As I finished writing this blog, with the game about to start, England announced their team, which does contain only four bowlers, but with Finn instead of Tredwell from the Cricinfo Prediction XI. Therefore, considerations 4 and 4 (subconsideration 1) no longer apply. And consideration 1 is very, very slightly moderated – if England find themselves in need of crucial runs from Swann at No. 10, I expect the ECB to be phoning the PCB for some advice on how to galvanise an underperforming team.)

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