The world's luckiest players, and its favourite
A new Test batting star emerged for England yesterday, to go with the new one-day batting star and new Twenty20 batting star, who also emerged over the last year. Eoin Morgan's highly attractive three-for-the-price-of-one offer has added to the growing competition for places in a Test side that should soon start to impact even on the seemingly undroppable.
The calmness, timing and variety of run-scoring capabilities that Morgan displayed in his excellent and stylish performance bode well for his and England's future, but his innings also illustrated the BruceReidically slender margins that separate the vintage champagne of success from the budget processed grape juice of failure.
A better wicketkeeper than Kamran Akmal (any volunteers? - no previous experience required; candidates should ideally possess their own gloves and, preferably, a willingness either to watch the ball all the way into the those gloves, or to move their feet, preferably both; apply to PCB by next Thursday) would probably have been standing in the right place to catch an edge when Morgan, on 5, played away from his body to another good ball by the brilliant Aamer. He later survived what appeared to be a fairly conclusive lbw appeal when missing a sweep off Shoaib Malik on 35.
Hawk-Eye suggested the ball would have hit the inside of leg stump, but, to compound the umpiring error, Pakistan had blown their two referrals trying to get rid of Kevin Pietersen, who seemed to be busy trying to get rid of himself anyway, as Kamran expanded the range of known methods of wicketkeeping ineptitude by demanding a referral for a rejected caught-behind appeal after a ball that had barely passed within conversational distance of the bat.
Had Morgan been caught on 5, questions would have been asked about his Test-match technique and his footwork against the swinging ball. Had he been given lbw, he would have failed to convert three consecutive 30-plus scores into half-centuries. Instead of proving his Test credentials, he would have raised further questions about them. Instead of delivering under pressure, he would have failed under pressure. Instead of a "magical maiden ton". He capitalised brilliantly on his luck, and some low-grade spin bowling, to kickstart his Test career in spectacular style. Pietersen had plenty of good fortune in his innings, but looked like a man who doesn't play much cricket these days, and did not capitalise.
Luck has always been and will always be a fundamental, and fascinating, part of sport, particularly in batting, where a batsman's bad luck is final (how many centuries would I have scored in my career if I hadn't been unlucky in 99% of all my innings?), and a batsman's good luck can make the different between an unremarkable failure and a career-defining success.
Some examples: Lara, dropped by Durham wicketkeeper Scott on 18, powerdrills his name into the record books by blasting 501 not out. Gooch snicks Prabhakar at Lord's in 1990, but Indian keeper More Kamrans the primary-school-level chance, and Gooch goes on to score another 297 runs. Pietersen at The Oval in 2005, on nought, edges Warne - but Gilchrist's glove deflects the ball away from the waiting Hayden at slip; then after 15, nervous in one of the most pressurised periods of play in all Test cricket, he edges Lee to slip, where Warne fluffs a relatively simple chance. On each occasion, the batsman was, essentially, provisionally out. They had made their mistakes, and were merely awaiting confirmation of their dismissals. Before being reprieved, and capitalising to achieve cricketing immortality.
Pietersen's luck was particularly transformative - it probably won the Ashes for England, and he became a cricketing hero over the course of one staggering afternoon. History shows that he played one of the great modern Test innings, one of the most brilliant and important in England's Test history, an expression of individual cricketing bravery and daring that just about justified a brave and daring hairstyle, and elevated himself to the cricketing A-list. History could have shown that he failed, technically and temperamentally, thus concluding a debut series in which his early promise had faded into a run of costly failures, whilst sporting the most ridiculous haircut in Test history.
Similarly, there must be many of one-, two- and three-cap Test players who ended their careers thinking, "If only that usually incompetent fielder hadn't pulled off that uncharacteristic one-handed diving catch", or "If only that umpire hadn't been certifiably blind". Scorecards do not record luck.
Perhaps 1920s batsman Jack MacBryan would have turned out to be a surprise Test-match great. He had an unlucky Test career. In his only Test, in 1924, it rained for much of the first day, then for all of the rest of the match. MacBryan did not bat. And failed, in his 66.5 overs of fielding, to convince the selectors that he had what it takes to succeed at the highest level. Perhaps they spotted some flaw in his technique whilst he was playing pretend shots in the covers in between balls.
For Morgan, then, the future looks bright. The cream generally rises to the top. But sometimes, it needs a helping upward shunt from the capricious hand of Lady Luck, a fickle woman whose hand can tenderly stroke or unforgivingly spank.
Pakistan have had little luck with umpiring this summer, particularly with lbws, and could have had England in even deeper trouble yesterday. As it was, with Gul and Kaneria off form, only Aamer - fast becoming the world's new favourite cricketer - and Asif applied pressure, and the fragile confidence of Salman Butt's side visibly dissipated. At Headingley against Australia, they seemed to become nervous in the field when it became clear they would have to chase more than one run to win. As it was, Farhat and Azhar nervelessly took them close enough that even a top-quality collective choke could not deprive them of an excellent victory. Their inexperienced top order and dangerously long tail will do well to avoid defeat in this game.
(A quick comment on the Umpire Decision Review System. It seems to me to be unfairly weighted in favour of the batting team. Generally, more appeals are given not out than are given out, so statistically the fielding side has more occasions on which it is likely to want to use their referrals, and are thus more likely to run out of referrals. If a not-out lbw decision turns out to have been fractionally out, it remains not out. If an out decision transpires to have been fractionally not out, it becomes not out.
Whilst this maintains the traditional balance of doubt in favour of the batsman, there is a double punishment when, as happened to Pakistan yesterday, Pakistan referred a not-out appeal, the technology suggested that it could/should have been given out, but only marginally, so the "Umpire's Call" stood.
Thus, Pakistan, despite essentially having correctly referred an appeal that was shown to be out, lost a referral. I suggest that if a team refers and appeal that results in an "Umpire's Call" refusal, it should not lose one of its referrals. I also think the fielding side should have two appeals, but the batting team should only have one.)
(And finally, commiserations to all those who had to watch the Colombo Test match. I can only imagine what you have just been through. It sounds awful.)
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer