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Hello again, Confectionery Stallers. Break out your picnic baskets, don your sombreros, and ring work to tell them you’re feeling a bit ill and will be off sick for the next six months − the English domestic season has begun.
Admittedly, it began yesterday in what traditionalists would vociferously bark was (a) the wrong month, (b) the wrong country, and (c) the wrong weather. And, most unarguably, (d) with the wrong ball – as Gubby Allen would no doubt have said about the pink curiosity that has been used in the March sunshine in Abu Dhabi: “Never play cricket with something that looks like a prescription drug elephants might take for long-standing digestive problems.”
At least the season began with the traditional number of people taking the blindest bit of notice. The county cricket season, like middle age, is something that creeps up on the consciousness gradually, imperceptibly, almost furtively. Some seasons pass by almost completely unnoticed – there is still little concrete proof that the 1998 domestic summer actually happened. The schedule generally splats indecipherably onto the calendar as if it had been typed onto an orange and hurled by an unusually irate chimpanzee.
All this before the commemorative highlights DVD of England’s triumphant victory in Bangladesh has even been released, or the avalanche of ghost-written player diaries has hit the shelves. Whether The James Tredwell Story will sell as well as the Freddie Flintoff tomes that flew into Britain’s bookshops at the speed of agitated light in 2005, remains to be seen.
Tredwell’s first-Test substitute appearance – a formidable one-handed diving catch seconds after trotting onto the field of play – merits a chapter in itself. Not all subs make such an impact. I once played in a match in which the opposition loaned my team a fielder to cover for a latecomer. The substitute took a fine catch to dismiss his own captain, then hurled the ball in the air, whooped with delight, and started high-fiving us, his temporary, surrogate team-mates. Which suggested that all was not harmonious in the opposition dressing room.
England duly completed their almost unavoidable 2-0 series win. On the scale of great human achievements, this ranks some way below Beethoven’s symphonies and the plays of Shakespeare, and some way above balancing a pencil on your head for 15 seconds without it falling off, or making a sandwich. It was fine. Not great, not bad.
The pitches were difficult for bowlers and spectators alike, and Bangladesh have the strongest batting line-up in their short and unglamorous history, but England should nevertheless be a little concerned that their seam attack finished with comfortably the worst-ever collective series average (40.70) against Bangladesh.
But the Tigers’ bowling “attack” is still, by Test standards, cannon fodder, and England were startlingly cautious at times, as if nervously trying to defuse a loaf of bread. In the second Test, they scored the third slowest team innings of 350 or more against Bangladesh, featuring two of the five slowest ever innings of 50 or more against them (Tim Bresnan’s careful 91 came in a creditable fifth, and Jonathan Trott’s study in passivity was second only to Nasser Hussain’s achingly constipated six-hour 76 in Chittagong in 2003, an innings that had the physio sending out bags of dried apricots to loosen things up.)
For the home team, the dream of winning Test matches (without the aid of civil war in West Indian cricket) remains distant, but their batting, and pancake-flat pitches, suggest that the goal of at least emerging with occasional draws is now achievable. In Dhaka, they recorded their highest match aggregate, and saw four players pass 50 in an innings for only the second time.
No. 8 was a particularly fruitful position for Bangladesh, with scores of 79, 36, 59 not out and 28. It has been a vintage millennium so far for Test No. 8s, who have averaged close to 23.5, 15% above the figure for the previous millennium (which itself had smashed the preceding millennium’s record).
Much of this improvement is due to Daniel Vettori. Now promoted to No. 6, Vettori has completed his transformation from useful tailender (averaging 16 in his first 46 Tests), to fully qualified batsman (averaging 42 in his last 54). His bowling average, interestingly, was 33 in that first period of his career, and has remained 33 ever since, as he has mutated into the Wilfred Rhodes New Zealand cricket had been waiting for ever since, well, ever since Wilfred Rhodes was born in England and failed to emigrate to New Zealand.
Vettori can lay an almost legally binding claim to being the greatest No. 8 in Test history. He recently overtook Shane Warne as the highest scorer at that position of all time, with 2072 runs at an average of 42 – higher than the career Test averages of, amongst others, Mark Waugh, Dilip Vengsarkar, Herschelle Gibbs, Andy Zaltzman, Alec Stewart, Lalit Modi (sue me if it’s not true), Chris Gayle, Marilyn Monroe and Monty Panesar. He has also scored three centuries and 13 half-centuries batting at 8, both records. And, to prove that he is not a specialist No. 8, he also holds the record for most runs scored by a No. 9 (1075). The man is a true allrounder.
An all-time XI of highest scorers in each position reads as follows: 1. Gavaskar, 2. Hayden, 3. Ponting, 4. Tendulkar, 5. Steve Waugh, 6. Steve Waugh, 7. Gilchrist, 8. Vettori, 9. Vettori, 10. Waqar Younis, 11. Muralitharan.
A strong team, certainly, but whether Vettori and Vettori could combine effectively as a spin-bowling partnership is open to doubt, and there may be an awkward personality clash between the two Steve Waughs, particularly when one (the captain) asks the other (the vice-captain) to open the bowling.
It seems that the end may be nearing, however, for another Kiwi tail-end stalwart. Chris Martin has served New Zealand nobly with the ball, but he has served humanity heroically with the bat. In an age of increased professionalism and coaching, Martin has clung to his batting ineptitude with the pride and dedication of a true imperfectionist.
He has hit 12 fours in a decade-long Test career, amassing 84 runs at an average of 2.15. No Test batsman has failed with such bloody-minded persistence, an inspiration to those of us who can only dream of playing international cricket, but who can secretly (or publicly) reassure ourselves that, if we played 56 Tests, we might not take the 181 wickets Martin has notched on his bedpost, but we would have a fighting chance of scoring at least 85 runs.
Meanwhile, in the IPL, well, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what is going on. I have tried to get into it, readers, but I have failed. Yesterday, I switched my television on, and within five minutes I had seen David Warner reach a hundred and clout some sixes, David Hussey take an extraordinary boundary-defying catch, some pretty women dancing around with almost authentic enthusiasm, and at least 150 different logos. But I still cannot force myself to care genuinely who wins, or why. Possibly because of the logos.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.