Pakistan in England 2010 August 21, 2010

Cook does a Michelangelo

Deprived of Statsguru, Andy Zaltzman relies on hecklers at his comedy act to update him on cricket scores

Pity me, Confectionery Stallers, for I have been locked away in Edinburgh at the Festival with no internet access in my flat. And no internet access means no Statsguru. It is incredible to think, in this day and age, that a man can be forced to live without Statsguru for more than 24 hours without the law or the human rights brigade intervening and righting this obvious wrong, but such is the life I have been leading. A life devoid of purpose, hope, meaning and, above all, statistics.

My one-man show in Edinburgh runs from 4.20pm to 5.40pm, roughly, and has more than once coincided with major flurries of wickets. At my show yesterday, a minute in, I received one of the oddest but most informative heckles of my stand-up comedy career, when an audience member, unprompted shouted out: “Alistair Cook has made a hundred.” As a comedian, I am well used to being heckled with personal abuse, or brusquely phrased criticisms of my act. Being furnished with a point of cricketing information was a rare treat. On went the show, during the course of which six England wickets fell. The show went well – if the game is still active at 4:20pm today, I may deliberately do the worst show possible, just to see if that makes England play better.

This has been a brilliant Test match, garlanded with outstanding play, intriguing subplots and tidal fluctuations, the kind of game that makes you want to fly a light aeroplane around your neighbourhood trailing a banner reading “I Love Cricket”.

The series had previously contained passages of brilliance, but the drama that is generated by bowler-dominated Test cricket was undercut by the knowledge of Pakistan’s dismal vulnerability with the bat. Werewolf films would be less scary if you knew in advance that the beast suffered from a fatal congenital heart defect.

Now, visibly maturing and reinforced by the craft and steel of Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Yousuf, and with Kamran Akmal having jettisoned the gloves made of live baby eels that he had been using earlier in the summer, Pakistan are poised for a second Test victory of their compelling, undulating summer. “Poised for victory” of course, has a slightly different meaning for this Pakistan batting line-up than it does for most cricket sides.

Watching the highlights on Thursday, a couple of Azhar Ali’s back-foot drives made me put my cup of tea down and tap the table with my fingers in appreciation, his weeks of largely unsuccessful struggle blossoming into a potentially match-winning innings of style and stature.

Alistair Cook played his finest Test innings, which rivals Collingwood’s Edgbaston hundred against South Africa two years ago in the contest for the Best England Hundred By A Player Facing The Selectorial Chop In A Critical Match Situation 2008-2010. Cook, I thought, should have been dropped for this Test. His run of just-about-adequate form against the stronger international teams stretches back to the 2006-07 Ashes, camouflaged by healthy, century-laden hauls against Bangladesh and West Indies which have bumped up his average in that period from low-30s to low-40s. He had fully earned a “rest from the front-line”, but the selectors have proved to be amply justified in not granting him one.

Bearing in mind that England’s batsmen have not faced a bowling attack of this all-round quality for some time, and have been unsettlingly exposed by it regularly during this series (as were the Australians in July), Cook’s innings becomes even more impressive.

England thus remain vulnerable should one of their openers be injured, out of form, abducted by aliens, overwhelmed by a sudden desire to give up cricket in favour of accountancy or the priesthood, or otherwise indisposed, but Cook’s innings has resolved matters for the foreseeable future. His Ashes record suggests that Australia will not exactly be quaking in their baggy-green boots at the prospect of having to bowl to him, but perhaps this innings will mark a turning point.

His decisive approach and strokeplay were in notable contrast to the tentative proddings of his recent performances (which were also in notable contrast to his much improved technical performance in South Africa last winter (which was in notable contrast to his tentative proddings of last summer’s Ashes)). The innings that first brought him to the attention of the broader English cricketing public was a double-hundred in a day for Essex against the 2005 Australians, so he has clearly possessed the ability to dominate. It has seldom been unleashed in Test cricket, where, after his stellar start, he has – without, until this summer, properly failing − serially underachieved.

This excellent, surprisingly stylish hundred may prove to be a springboard for the remainder of his career – after all, Michelangelo had painted many rather drab, humdrum ceilings (largely in a bland, neutral creamy colour) before he nailed the Sistine Chapel, and went on to become 23-time Italian All-Round Art Champion. This is not true, but the point stands.

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