England June 11, 2010

England’s Ashes chances, and a salute to Basil Butcher

An exhaustive stat-studded analysis of Bangladesh’s failings

Basil Butcher: cleverly ensured there aren’t any pictures of him bowling © The Cricketer International

Over the last few days, the roads of England have been inundated with joyous cars sporting flags of St George, the red cross fluttering proudly in the English air in honour of its sporting heroes, as the nation, coming together as one, celebrates its cricketers’ 2-0 series victory over Bangladesh.

The football-obsessed media would have us believe these flags symbolise support for the impending World Cup. They would, of course, be wrong. Football World Cups come around every four years – but there will not be another home Test series against Bangladesh for a decade. The public, understandably, wishes to mark this once-in-a-relatively-short-lived-dog’s-lifetime event. And there is no more potent display of patriotism available to the 21st-century consumer than attaching a small flag to your car window.

In the three previous Tests against England, Bangladesh had, in accordance with their team moniker, fought like Tigers, albeit inexperienced tigers, and when bowling, tigers who had yet to grow teeth. But tigers nonetheless. They had lasted at least 90 overs in each of their six innings, averaged a wicket lost every 11 overs, and when 126 for 0 at Old Trafford, with Tamim Iqbal again tearing into England’s bowlers like a lovestruck teenager into a promising-looking Valentine’s Day envelope, they were well on course to extend their team record of nine consecutive innings of 280 or more.

Bearing in mind (a) that their previous best sequence of 280-plus innings scores was a less-than-world-beating one in a row, and (b) that as recently as 18 months ago they completed a run of 18 successive sub-280 efforts, progress was undoubtedly being made.

It was, therefore, a serious disappointment for all fans of vaguely competitive Test cricket that they then seemingly transported themselves five years back in time and hurled away all 20 wickets in 64 overs (including at one point 11 in 123 balls), fighting like cornered tigerskin rugs as they subsided to a first-innings defeat in a year and a half.

There is an old saying in showbiz, “Always leave them wanting more.” Bangladesh certainly did that, in a frenetic cascade of understandable technical shortcomings and avoidable lapses of attention that was eerily reminiscent of too many of their earlier Tests. It was also spookily similar to England’s rancid capitulations in Leeds, Johannesburg and Kingston within the past 18 months. One of the supposed purposes of Bangladesh’s Test status is for them to learn from better, more established teams. At Old Trafford they demonstrated that they had perhaps been watching videos of the wrong England matches.

Looking ahead to the rest of England’s Test year, they will need more consistent penetration from their bowling attack. They again prospered in favourable conditions, continuing a trend of intermittent threat dating back some years. Since the demise of the 2005 Ashes-winning four-prong-pace-plus-one-prong-containing-left-arm-spin attack, England have struggled to dismiss opponents twice when unaided by conditions or limited opponents (whether they have picked four or five bowlers).

Excluding Tests against Bangladesh and the early-season series in England, they have done so just 10 times in 43 attempts, including just five in 27 overseas Tests (two of which were in New Zealand). This suggests that if they are going to retain the Ashes, they will have to win 1-0, or draw 1-1, and cling on for three or four draws. Bearing in mind that in the past six Australian seasons there have been only three drawn Tests out of 34, this may require Jonathan Trott to extend his pre-delivery routine to heroic levels of time-frittering complexity. Perhaps he could indulge in a full glove-twiddling interpretation of Swan Lake before settling down to face each Nathan Hauritz bombshell, reducing each day to four or five overs. (I am sure that during his Lord’s double-hundred I saw Trott make the bowler wait whilst he checked his emails on his laptop and phoned his gas supplier to see if someone could take a look at his faulty boiler.)

With the Ashes looming, Pakistan’s two forthcoming series against Australia, then England, will be fascinating. All Pakistan series are fascinating. Even if all 30 scheduled days of play were to be washed out, I am sure that some intriguing behind-the-scenes subplots would emerge from nowhere to keep us entertained. And Shahid Afridi is captain. It is not often that one watches cricket primarily to see what the captain does. But this will be one of those rare occasions.

The bans on some key players have already been lifted, and the concern for Pakistan supporters must be that, with the first Test against Australia still almost five weeks away, there is ample time for a new set of bans to be randomly imposed before the Test matches begin (plus at least two changes of captaincy, three major feuds, five retirements and six retirement reversals).

Time for one question and answer from your submissions (more to follow in a few days’ time).

Question (submitted by Themistocles): Inspired by your last piece about Mudassar Nazar, what do you consider to be the most underwhelming feat of greatness?

Zaltzmanswer: Interesting question, Themistocles (and how good to discover that you are alive, well and on the internet, despite having died in 459 BC).

Figures of 6 for 32 suggest a devastating pace blitz or a wily spell of mystery spin on a crumbling fifth-day pitch, not some slow-medium wobblers wreaking havoc amidst the cream of English batsmanship. That Mudassar should have carved those numbers into cricketing history, rather than Imran Khan or Abdul Qadir, who between them took 4 for 178 in 79.5 overs in that innings, is one of those strange quirks that illuminate the annals of the sport.

Mudassar followed up his Lord’s triumph with 4 for 55 a fortnight later at Leeds, his second-best Test analysis – he did not take more than five wickets in any other series in his 13-year Test career. I prefer to think of such unexpected and isolated outbreaks of quality in otherwise mundane careers as flabbergastative rather than underwhelming.

Perhaps the finest example is Basil Butcher’s 5 for 34 against England in Port-of-Spain in 1968. Butcher had been a stalwart of the West Indies batting line-up for most of the previous decade when Garry Sobers tossed him the ball with England coasting along serenely at 370-odd for 5. In that time Butcher had bowled once, nine years previously, a tidy six-over spell of 0 for 17 in Delhi. He was not so much an occasional legspinner as an entirely hypothetical one.

As he stood at the end of his run-up, Butcher must have thought to himself: “I’ve got a round red thing in my hand. What on earth do I do with it now?”

The answer he gave himself was, evidently: “I suppose I’d better take four wickets in three overs.” After dismissing Colin Cowdrey for 148, he skittled the English tail, before bowling Jeff Jones to take his fifth wicket.

One can only imagine the stunned silence in the West Indies dressing room after Butcher completed his spell, as his 10 team-mates stared at him, as if to say: “You should have mentioned you could bowl at some point in the previous 10 years, Basil. You really should have mentioned it.”

Butcher preferred to retain his cloak of bowling anonymity, however. He never took another Test wicket. As individual, unexpected peaks of performance go, this was the cricketing equivalent of Inzamam-ul-Haq hauling himself out of his special chair, slightly stretching what is left of his hamstrings, lolloping towards a sandpit, and breaking the world triple-jump record. Or of George W Bush standing up in front of the UN, clearing his throat, and giving a faultless rendition of the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute.

The fact that Butcher waited so long before revealing his hand makes his feat particularly special. Michael Clarke famously took six Indian wickets for nine runs in 38 balls in his fourth Test, in Mumbai in 2004-05. This, however, merely raised expectations that have never been met (other than when he took out three more Indians in 11 balls in Sydney three years later – excluding these combined schoolboy analyses of 9 for 14 in 8.1 overs, Clarke has tweaked out just 11 batsmen at 70 runs per wicket in 58 Tests).

Butcher, by contrast, skilfully created his extravagant element of surprise by not bowling at all for the previous nine years. And retrospectively heightened it by barely bowling ever again. A work of pure genius.

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