The losing XI (and back-up)
Having sought the assistance of Big Mama Stats to prove why England will definitely, decisively and unarguably win the Ashes, I will now ask her to prove that Andrew Strauss and his men are heading for a definite, decisive and unarguable pulping.
(Please do not read this piece in isolation – I realise that, without the context of Part One, this might look like gratuitous numerical hatchet job on a highly successful team. But still, numbers are numbers, and they deserve their say as much as the other great tools of sports punditry, such as experience, perception, gut feeling, rampant jingoism, selective memory, blind optimism and/or pessimism, and, above all, guesswork.)
THE ASHES-LOSING ENGLAND XI, 2010-11
Strauss Deceptively inconsistent throughout his Test career, for one who is outwardly as unflappable as a granite pterodactyl’s wing. Strauss seems to have a bizarre and inexplicable fixation with averaging between 24 and 26 in series of longer than three Tests – he has done so in five of England’s last seven such rubbers.
These include the last two major series, in South Africa and at home against Pakistan (in which his highest score in eight matches was 54), and his previous tour of Australia, on the supposed 2006-07 Ashes, when he allegedly averaged 24 if Australia claims are to be believed. He has not scored a century for 13 Tests, and only one in his last 17.
As a captain, he masterminded England’s 2009 Ashes triumph by sitting in the pavilion in Cardiff quietly wetting himself whilst Anderson and Panesar held on for a draw, then skilfully led his team to a drawn series in South Africa by doing the same thing twice more.
Cook Too often bats as if he is trying to befriend the slip cordon, his legs, arms and bat moving like frantic passengers at a busy station all heading for different trains. Averages just 26 in 10 Ashes Tests, and, since the start of the last Ashes tour, in 36 Tests against the top-seven ranked Test nations (i.e. excluding Bangladesh and West Indies), he averages just 33.
Trott The Cape Town Compulsive Twitcher averaged just 29 in his only previous winter of overseas Test cricket, as his game melted down like a dead zebra’s ice cream on his return to the country of his birth.
Pietersen Here’s a question for you: What do Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen have in common? Is it: (a) they were both born in South Africa; (b) when they eat a fishfinger, they both nibble the top corners off first to make it look like a fish cricket bat; (c) neither of them has read War And Peace, start to finish, in the original Russian; (d) they were both shortlisted for the role of Tim Curtis in the forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster The Savage Blade, the $150-million biopic of the former Worcestershire and England opening batsman (in the end, the part of three-Test wonder Curtis was given to Vin Diesel, with Kiefer Sutherland as county team-mate Stuart Lampitt, and Scarlett Johannson as England chairman of selectors Petra May); or (e) they have both averaged under 26 in England’s last two major series?
It was a trick question. The answer is of course: all of the above. In his last six series, over 16 Tests, Pietersen has averaged 35, with no centuries, and has plinked only five sixes from his once explosive bat. He is far from the dominator he once was. He hit 32 sixes in his first 18 Tests, but has crossed the ropes just 21 times in 48 matches since then, whilst his scoring rate has dropped by 20%. Pietersen needs to regrow his successful, almost unstoppable 2005 badger hair. It was a source of strength and inspiration for him, and fear and confusion for the Australians.
Collingwood The glue holding England’s batting together has been decidedly unsticky of late – he has posted six single-figure scores in his last eight Test innings. In his last 17 Tests, he has scored just one century and averaged a sedate 37. In the eight Ashes Tests since his Adelaide masterwork (“The Sistine Chapel ceiling of Durhamite batsmanship” – The Durham Weekly Sprout), Collingwood averages a Brearley-esque 23.
Bell The Flamethrower Of Eternal Justice averages a piddling 25 against Australia in 13 Tests, dreamy cover drive or no dreamy cover drive. The latter, in most of his Ashes innings – Eternal Justice has trousered a scarcely believable 14 single-figure scores in just 25 Ashes innings.
Could be vulnerable to verbal attack. On his last tour of Baggygreenland, the Australians, masters of psychological intimidation that they are, sledged him using techniques they had clearly learnt from CIA terrorist interrogators – they teased him about looking a bit like someone from a film. “What works in Guantanamo, works at the MCG,” explained captain Ricky Ponting, as he scuttled off to try and put an orange jumpsuit on Alastair Cook.
Prior As a wicketkeeper, his handling skills were once compared to those of a baby-hating midwife. This is not true, but the point stands. As a batsman, in his 14 Tests against the three highest-ranked teams of recent years (Australia, India, and South Africa), Prior averages 26, with no centuries.
More pressingly, Prior, about to make his first trip to Australia, will be fretting bucketloads about his future career prospects. England have changed their wicketkeeper in four of their last five Ashes tours. The last five keepers to don the gloves for England in Australia for the first time have never played Test cricket again after the end of that series – Rhodes in 1994-95, Hegg in 1998-99, Foster in 2002-03, and Jones and Read in 2006-07.
Alec Stewart in 1990-91 is the last England gloveman whose career was not ended by his first Ashes tour, and that series was also the last England jaunt to Australia that did not signal the total annihilation of a wicketkeeper’s Test existence. Even then, established first-choice Jack Russell was jettisoned after three Tests, and was in and out of the team for the rest of his battered-hat-festooned career. Furthermore, in 1986-87, Jack Richards kept wicket in all five Tests as England triumphed. He was promptly dropped for the first Test of the following summer, played only three more times, and never passed double figures again.
Since Alan Knott, England’s wicketkeepers in Australia have averaged 20.66 in 45 Tests, with one century and five fifties, all whilst crawling along at a fraction over two runs per over. In summary, Australia is a bad place for English wicketkeepers.
Swann Is Graeme Swann: (a) the world’s most valuable all-round cricketer who holds the key to England’s Ashes hopes; or (b) a fortuitous chancer who has buffed up his bowling average against some of Test history’s most inept batting line-ups? It’s another trick question. The answer is (a), with a bit of (b) thrown in. Swann averaged 40 with the ball in his previous Ashes series, and, against the higher-ranked Test nations, averages close to 36. He averages just 15 with the bat in his last 11 Tests, with a highest score of 32.
Broad The man who puts the “petulant” into “often needlessly petulant” has seldom produced for England overseas – he averages 37 with the ball and just 14 with the bat in away Tests (compared to 32 and 39 at home). He has not taken five wickets in an innings since that Ashes-winning apparent breakthrough at The Oval in 2009, and has never averaged more than four wickets per game in a series.
Anderson Could win the Ashes single-handedly. If they were being played in cloudy conditions in England, with Pakistan’s batsmen playing for Australia. Sadly, that is a big “if”. Perhaps the biggest “if” since Rudyard Kipling started projecting the titles of his poems onto the skies above Gotham City. The Ashes will not be held in England with Pakistani batsman. Not this year. Anderson has taken just 17 wickets in eight Tests against Australia, at an average of 56. Over his whole career, in overseas Tests, he has taken 52 wickets at an average of almost 44.
Finn Struggled to take wickets in his two previous overseas Tests, against Bangladesh, and tends to leak runs – his economy rate is 3.77 in Tests, 3.61 in first-class cricket. Finn is tall. Martin McCague was tall. He once bowled one of the worst opening spells in Ashes history. Logically, therefore, Finn will definitely do the same.
Finn has taken fewer Ashes wickets than, amongst others, Len Hutton, Uzman Afzaal, Ranjitsinhji, and Alan Igglesden (and I guarantee that is the first time in human history that those four names have appeared in the same sentence). Finn can play the “lack-of-opportunity” card as hard as he likes, but the fact remains that he has taken the same number of Australian Test wickets as actress Julie Christie, controversial former professional pope Pope Pius XII, my wife, Diego Maradona and 1997 England one-cap left-armer Mike Smith.
Morgan His brilliant array of strokes will not be of much use if his technical flaws against seam bowling continue to rear their indecisively-fiddling-outside-off-stump heads. He has scored just 103 of his 257 Test runs against pace, and been dismissed six times by quicks (compared to 154 runs for once out against spin and dobblers).
Davies He could become the first English-born wicketkeeper to make his debut for England since James Foster in 2001 – the previous five England-born glovemen to debut for England since Alec Stewart (Foster, Read, Hegg, Rhodes and Blakey) have, between them, averaged 19 with the bat in careers lasting an average of seven Tests.
Also, see Prior’s entry above for the fortunes of England’s wicketkeepers in Australia. In addition to that list of woe, of England’s reserve wicketkeepers on Ashes tours, Gould (1982-83) never played in a Test match at all, Tolchard (78-79) never added to his four caps, Taylor (70-71 and 74-75) played one Test in New Zealand at the end of the 70-71 tour then waited seven years and a Packer revolution for his next. Going further back, surprise first-choice AC Smith never played another Test after the 1962-63 tour, back-up keepers Keith Andrew and Arthur McIntyre played only one Test each after their tours 1954-55 in 1950-51 respectively, Paul Gibb never played again after the 1946-47 tour. Nor George Duckworth after 1936-37. Dodger Whysall played just once after 1924-25. Arthur Dolphin never played after 1920-21. I’m boring myself now. The point is: Davies should fake a serious illness if he wants to have a future as an international cricketer.
Bresnan He struggled to hit the ball off the square or take wickets in his Tests against Bangladesh; expensive and unpenetrative in ODIs this summer; has had a poor first-class season for Yorkshire. No current reports of anyone in the Australian squad waking up in the middle of the night sweating and screaming, before clambering into their parents’ bed, and asking, “Mummy and Daddy, is it OK if I sleep in your bed again? I’ve had another nightmare about Tim Bresnan.”
Panesar He has spent much of his recent international career on a learning curve. Unfortunately, that curve has been heading downwards. He averages over 40 in his most recent 22 Tests − the reincarnation of Ashley Giles himself, but with the useful batting and fielding having gone AWOL during the changeover. Monty averages 44 in 17 overseas Tests. His batting has never kicked on from the promise shown in that one straight drive he hit in Perth four years ago that had critics excitedly hailing the new Garry Sobers. And he fields as if he has read the wrong instruction manual, but refuses to back down.
Tremlett He has taken little over three wickets per match in county cricket over the course of his career. The last time England took a temperamentally suspect giant fast bowler to Australia, the first ball of the series almost killed second slip.
It all looks very, very bleak for England. If you ignore the last blog. And it all looks fantastic if you ignore this one. Statistics are a fickle mistress. I think it will be a close series. Two-all. Or 5-0 either way.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer