A brushing of elbows, and debutants on the trot
After a painstaking 98-year reassessment study following the botched triangular series experiment of 1912, neutral Test match cricket returned to England yesterday. It was, according to those who were lucky enough to see both Syd Gregory’s Australia play South Africa almost a century ago, and their modern-day baggy-green descendants take on Pakistan, much improved from its previous incarnation.
It was a compelling opening to the series, with everything you could want from a Test match – some good batting, some bad batting, some outstanding swing bowling, a bit of decent legspin, a bit of less decent legspin, a couple of influential umpiring bloopers, a couple of rampantly irritating bouts of going off for bad light, and perhaps the most minor piece of argy bargy in the history of all sport, as Ricky Ponting and Mohammad Aamer lightly brushed elbows.
To the untrained eye, this could easily have signified the beginning of an outbreak of Scottish dancing, but fortunately the umpires were on hand to ensure a full-blown ceilidh did not break out – there is simply no place for it in Test match cricket. Ponting, an inveterate dancer, was understandably irritated, and left the field visibly chuntering his displeasure to the umpire that his trademark Strip The Willow had been cut off in its prime.
Aamer’s opening spell was prodigious. He could have had all of the top three Australian batsmen out lbw, but ended up with none. Katich should have been given out, Ponting could have been given out, and Watson was being given out but escaped because he had the good sense to deflect the ball into his stumps and be out bowled instead (thus depriving Umpire Gould, the first English umpire to stand in a Lord’s Test since umpires were deemed to have become so universally and flagrantly patriotic as to be utterly untrustworthy, of his moment of finger-raising glory).
Katich escaped for no discernible reason – Gould claimed to have heard and/or seen an inside edge, in which case Katich’s bat must have invisible wings stretching a good eight inches beyond the visible wood. The only other conceivable explanation why the umpire did not despatch the self-proclaimed Elvis Presley Of Stepping Across To Cover Off Stump And Deflecting The Ball Into The Leg Side, after his extremely Australian leg interrupted a delivery that was heading towards the middle of the middle of the middle bit of middle stump, was that Gould had been playing with a ouija board before the start of play, and had been told that the ghost of Gubby Allen would pop out from under the Lord’s turf and headbutt the ball away before it hit the wicket. Thus the benefit of the doubt was given to the batsman.
I can, without jealousy or hyperbole, state definitively that Aamer is a better bowler than I was at his age (notwithstanding my then career-best spell of 2 for 35 off four overs of occasionally reachable legspin). His mesmeric opening spell was later supported by a hypnotic burst of platinum-quality trundle by Asif, a masterfully skilful and crafty onslaught of 80mph dobblers that broke both ends of the Katich-Clarke partnership, almost dismissed North three times in three balls, and thus exposed Australia’s untested middle order.
Paine and Smith, in their first Tests, were doomed to failure – not by the excellent bowling nor the helpful conditions nor the pressure of their own expectations, but by the sheer weight of statistical history. This was the first time Australia had picked debutants at both 7 and 8 since their first Test against Sri Lanka in 1982-83, when Roger Woolley and Tom Hogan proudly donned their baggy greens for the first time, and then collectively failed to trouble the scorers. Largely, in fairness, because Australia declared on 514 for 4. This however, merely spared them from inevitable actual failure.
Fourteen times since their first Test in 1876-77, Australia have sent out a brand new 7 and a previously unseen 8 in the same Test, and between them, in their debut innings, they have now scored a not especially grand total of 318 runs in 26 innings at a piddling average of 13.25. The top score of these was Clarence “Nip” Pellew’s immortal, unforgettable, era-defining 36 in the first post-Great-War Ashes Test of 1920-21. (Feel free to use this fact in your next attempted seduction. I cannot guarantee it will lead to success, but it will certainly elicit a reaction of some kind.)
Australia’s coaching staff has clearly not been checking their statistics. If they had, they would surely have split the two debutants, sandwiching them around a more experienced player to divert the unstoppable hand of cricketing inevitability from slapping them both back to the pavilion.
Assuming they bat according to the listed scorecard, Pakistan will also launch two players into their debut Tests back to back in the batting order. Umar Amin and Azhar Ali are listed to bat 3 and 4, making this already historic match even more historic – it is the first time Pakistan have had their numbers 3 and 4 making their debuts together since the entire Pakistan team made their Pakistan debuts in Pakistan’s debut Test against India, in Delhi in 1952-53. So this is the first time they have chosen to play a Test with an uncapped 3 and 4.
In that game in 1952-53, Israr Ali and Imtiaz Ahmed scored 1 and 0 respectively in the first innings, so Umar and Azhar will be desperately hoping to set a new national record for most productive joint debuts by a 3 and 4.
It is a risky, and almost unique, selection. They may develop into one of the all-time great 3-4 combinations, but, currently, their joint total of 0 career Test runs and 0 lifetime Test centuries, cannot match up to Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf’s Test total 12,600 runs and 40 centuries. But the unusualness of Pakistan’s selection is revealed by the fact that this will be only the 27th time in the entire history of the human race that a Test team has had debutants at 3 and 4. Here is proof, courtesy of the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful Statsguru.
Bear in mind that, of the previous 26 such occasions:
Ten were in a team’s first ever Test match, when debuts are largely unavoidable; seven more were whilst Queen Victoria was still alive; one was in 1907, the year Picasso painted Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, and ace Russian science whizz Ivan Pavlov was messing around teasing dogs with bells, so the world was understandably a little confused; four more occurred whilst Hitler was still largely viewed by the world as a jaunty curiosity; and two only happened due to the use of a night-watchman.
That leaves only two other Tests since the Second World War in which numbers 3 and 4 have debuted together. The first was when England sent a shadow team to India in 1951-52, and the second when Sri Lanka, in just their sixth Test match, against New Zealand in 1982-83, decided to start all over again and throw seven debutants into the Test arena at once.
(Incidentally, a brand new opening partnership is almost as rare – 28 occurrences, the most recent being last year, when a commercial dispute led to West Indies having to ask if anyone in the crowd fancied a game against Bangladesh.)
This shows how reluctant teams have traditionally been to throw two completely unproven players into the top order together. But in mitigation, not many Test countries have been piecing a team together after speculatively banning then unbanning a large wodge of key players, and not many Test teams have had Shahid Afridi as captain. It sounds crazy, but it might just work. Unless the ball keeps swinging, in which case, it probably won’t. It all adds to the ceaseless fascination that is Pakistan cricket, and it is a delight to see them play just their tenth Test on these shores in the last 18 years.
I will be back shortly with some thoughts and stats on Murali, and if you have any questions for the next Confectionery Stall Q&A, please leave them in the comments section below.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer