June 22, 2010

Wonderful pointlessness, and the dullest Twenty20 team of all time

England’s edge over Australia, Bravo’s feat, the importance of Statsguru, and the answer to the question - who’s better, Steyn or Ambrose?

Two separate Chris Tavare references in this blog, you lucky, lucky things © Getty Images

England and Australia renew a rivalry older than time itself today in a bizarrely scheduled and/or financially advantageous series of one-day internationals, perhaps the least eagerly anticipated England-Australia showdown since the Sydney and London offices of accountancy firm Scraghound, Flude & Prink met for an Ashes year-end ledger-off in 1984.

Nevertheless, with the national football team concocting some brilliantly inventive ways of embarrassing itself, and with the government about to announce an emergency budget that could involve selling all first-born children to the highest overseas bidder in an effort to balance the Treasury’s trembling books, Andrew Strauss’s team has the chance to provide the country with some light relief.

Besides, we can categorically predict that the winner of this series will gain such an insurmountable psychological advantage that they will absolutely certainly win this winter’s Ashes (and do not believe any Australians who try to hoodwink you into believing that the Ashes are taking place “this summer” – the run from late November to early January, which is, in my experience, definitely winter).

It will be a good test of England’s recent improvement in limited-overs form, selection, tactics and recruitment, which all point to them successfully avoiding a repeat of their 2007 World Cup tactics, which seemed to be based on attempting to trick the opposition into thinking they were playing a Test match by trying to score 35 for 1 off the first 15 overs, then praying for rain and hoping the patriotic Duckworth-Lewis method would finish the job.

Having won last year’s Ashes and defeated the Australians in the World Twenty20 final, if England can prevail in this one-day series, they will complete a clean sweep of their oldest cricketing enemy, and therefore, under international law, be entitled to force Australia to become a colony again.

In the Caribbean, another entry in the Encyclopaedia of Pointless Test Matches is being painstakingly inscribed, as West Indies, in a revolutionary inversion of traditional tactics, first pushed for a possible win, before then consolidating to make sure they could not lose. Habitually, teams tend to go through this process the other way round, but one down in a three-match series, and having reached 400 for 4 at a fraction under 4 runs per over, West Indies then took 61 overs (regrettably, that is not a misprint) to score their next 100. In terms of not finishing a job well started, it was eerily reminiscent of when Shakespeare, writing the first draft of Hamlet, fired off three sensational acts of drama, before scrawling, “Acts 4 and 5. Blah blah blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda yadda yadda, bit of a fight, euurghhh, The End.” Before nipping to the tavern to see if Christopher Marlowe had left any manuscripts lying around.

Chanderpaul must have set a new all-time record for slowest progress from 150 to 166 (95 balls, after his previous 100 runs had come off 148, a perhaps unique case of having his eye in, then carefully playing his eye out), whilst Bravo, one of the more stylish batsmen in world cricket, stodged 53 off 215 to register the fourth-slowest recorded innings of 50-plus by a West Indian in Test history.

The only rational explanations for Bravo’s innings are:

(A) Bravo and the traditionally cautious Brendan Nash (114 off 148 balls) had their bodies secretly swapped by a rogue scientist before going out to bat; or

(B) Bravo’s was a tribute innings, part of the official worldwide celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of Chris Tavare’s landmark five-hour 42 at Lord’s against West Indies. I imagine Tavare would prefer to have faced Bravo’s 119 balls from Paul Harris than the 202 hurled at him by Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft. (And maybe a few from Viv Richards by way of humanitarian respite.) The 30th-anniversary festivities continue in Covent Garden today with a three-day non-stop ballet based on the career of Tavare, and a gala dinner at which surviving members of the Lord’s crowd from 1980 tearfully share their reminiscences of watching the innings unfold.

Here, as promised, are some more Answers to your Questions. Well, three Answers to three Questions, because I got a bit carried away with the first one and now it’s past my bedtime.

Question (posted by “Craig lbw bowled Kirsten”): Could you give your Test XI for Insomniacs v your Twenty20 Test team, the sort of match that would have 210 all out (206 overs) plays 250 for 5 declared (32 overs), 150 for 2 (208 overs)?

Zaltzmanswer: I covered the Insomniacs XI a while ago in my All-Time Dullest XI, but here instead is a Least Appropriate International Twenty20 side, comprising some of the slowest batsmen and most expensive bowlers in international cricket’s great history (and comprising only players from the pre-Twenty20 era), to take on a World XI in a Twenty20 match:

1. Bruce Edgar. You cannot argue with statistics, particularly not statistics as conversationally aggressive as these ones: 1814 ODI runs at a strike rate of 49 (more than 1000 runs more than anyone else scoring under 50 per 100 balls in the format); and 1958 Test runs at 32 per 100.

2. Sunil Gavaskar. Included purely on the basis of his legendary 36 not out off 175 as he led India’s chase in reply to England’s 334 for 4 at the 1975 World Cup. India fell tantalisingly 203 runs short of victory with only seven wickets in hand. A work of perverse majesty. In mitigation, limited-overs cricket was new and unfamiliar, but if the great man adapted to Twenty20 with similar obduracy, he could be relied upon for a solid 12 not out.

3. Chris Tavare. First name on the team sheet. Ignore the fact that he was a very effective limited-overs player at county level. He’s still the first name on the team sheet. Could he carry his form in Tests (strike rate 30) and ODIs (48) into the shorter format? Yes. Yes he could.

4. Kepler Wessels. An ODI strike rate of 55 is not great, but the aura of dourness that accompanied the South-African-Australian-South African-again grindmeister whenever he took the field would be of great use in Twenty20. Could also chip in with a few expensive and unthreatening overs (ODI economy rate of 5.33).

5. Mike Brearley (capt). The lowest run rate of anyone who has scored 300 ODI runs – 45.53. It would be fascinating to see this captaincy genius finesse his way to victory in a Twenty20 game with this team around him.

6. Mark Dekker. Zimbabwean blocker with truly Tavaresque run-rate numbers allied to handily low average. Could share fifth-bowler duties with Wessels, but would be looking at least to double his ODI economy rate of 5.01.

7. Brendon Kuruppu (wk). Although his Cricinfo biog states that he had “a reputation as a one-day slogger”, his ODI strike rate of 51 suggests that this reputation was no more founded on fact than the rumours that Michael Holding is a woman, or that Steve Waugh catalogues every egg he ever eats and keeps the shells in a special locked vault, in which he sleeps at least three times a week. Also responsible for a 13-hour Test double-hundred.

8. Ian Salisbury. England’s greatest legspinner of the last three decades, narrowly ahead of Mike Atherton. Guaranteed to keep the boundary stewards in fear of their safety whenever he bowled in internationals, and a usefully slow lower-order batsman too.

9. Henry Olonga. Operatic anti-Mugabe hero is out on his own as the most expensive ODI bowler with more than 50 wickets to his name. His run rate of 5.79 puts second-placed Dilhara Fernando (5.19) to shame, and he also scored his very few Test runs at under 25 runs per 100 balls.

10. Devon Malcolm. Although the very-occasionally-devastating quick man ended with a relatively respectable Test economy rate of 3.35, much of this was due to bats being too short to reach his jauntier deliveries, and you feel that Malcolm at his worst could be spectacularly expensive in Twenty20. He might blast out a couple of wickets, but would more than make up for that with his old-style ineptitude in the field.

11. Heath Davis. New Zealand tearaway is one of only three bowlers to have taken 10 wickets in ODIs and gone for more than a run a ball. Reports suggest mid-90s Kiwi wicketkeepers still need counselling after attempting to stop his errant missiles flying away for four byes more than once an over.

QUESTION (posted by “kgvenkatesh”): Who is the better bowler, Steyn or Ambrose? My vote goes to Ambrose, he can bowl anywhere on any wicket.

Zaltzmanswer: Steyn. His record-breaking strike rate and millennium-leading average put him on the way to becoming a truly great fast bowler, alongside the best of any era. Ambrose, however, although a dapper batsman and neat wicketkeeper in his 11 Tests for England, has understandably never bowled in international cricket, and his one over of first-class bowling did little to suggest that he could eclipse Steyn’s achievements.

QUESTION (posted by “Mick”): Do you think you could present a good case for Statsguru to become the first World Heritage-listed website?

Zaltzmanswer: Yes. As far as I am concerned, Statsguru is of equal significance to human culture and progress as the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal and the works of US rock leviathans Whitesnake put together. In my mind, it is already listed. It may also become the first sport-statistic-calculating website to be cited in divorce proceedings. I hope not, but there are, unquestionably, three of us in the relationship now.

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