India October 8, 2010

Why Laxman's career proves England are better than Australia

Lancashire’s VVS Laxman set England on course to win the Ashes with a match-winning and potentially series-turning innings for India against Australia in Mohali , a performance of classically Lancastrio-English cricketing resolve, fit to set

Lancashire’s VVS Laxman set England on course to win the Ashes with a match-winning and potentially series-turning innings for India against Australia in Mohali, a performance of classically Lancastrio-English cricketing resolve, fit to set alongside this nation’s great Ashes-triumphing performances of recent times, such as Pietersen’s 158 at The Oval in 2005, Botham’s 1981 mega-heroics, Australia’s top-order batting in 1985, and Kerry Packer running World Series Cricket at the same time as the 1978-79 series.

Laxman, alongside Ishant Sharma (who must now surely have inked himself into England’s line-up for Brisbane on November 25), saw Indiland home in a breathtaking late rearguard after Australia’s useless, impotent and morally inept seam bowlers had fortuitously scythed through the Englian top order.

The Baggy Greens, despite being only 0-1 down in the seven-match series, have now surely proved that they will never win a relevant cricket match again – any half-decent team would have appealed more convincingly for leg-before against Pragyan Ojha when just six more runs were needed to lose, and only a fracturing side staring into an abyss of imminent nothingness would have allowed their substitute fielder to narrowly miss the subsequent run-out attempt. Ricky Ponting’s best hope now is to avoid a 7-0 whitewash, and attempt to resign with his dignity and batting average still at least partially intact.

From an environmental point of view, it is a deeply regrettable shame that the obvious formality of England retaining the Ashes for the third series in a row after their triumphs in 2005 and 2009 will have to proceed to satisfy advertisers and spectators, at a cost to the planet of innumerable pointless aeroplane flights, when a ceremonial handing over of the Ashes to England captain Mahandrew Singh Strauss on the steps of Buckingham Palace would surely be more appropriate.

I’m confused.

I apologise if I have taken a slightly Anglo-centric view of the Mohali Test, a modern classic that fluctuated mesmerically amidst outstanding individual performances, crucial injuries and curious umpiring, and which featured one of the most dramatic single deliveries in cricket history. It is hard to think of a more incident-packed ball than Johnson’s to Ojha in the final over – if it was possible to score four for two off one ball, India almost did it. Australia should have taken the last wicket, then could have taken the last wicket, but instead gave away four of the required six runs, and lost a couple of balls later.

For those who missed it, Billy Bowden’s magic umpirical sonar apparently detected an edge that eluded the rest of the cricketing universe before Ojha’s pads diverted the ball from catapulting middle stump into the Punjab skies, whilst the batsman, perhaps momentarily deranged by the pressure and excitement of (a) the occasion, (b) there actually being an adequately sized crowd at a Test match in India, and (c) not being 100% lbw, set off for the most non-existent quick single in cricket history, as the Australian 12th man, Smith, hoved in on the ball and hurled it within centimetres of stump-splattering victory, only to see the leg-side fielders, similarly distracted by the heart-befuddling tension of the moment, admiringly watch his hurl scoot to the boundary for four decisive overhurls.

Perhaps the only individual balls that come close to matching it are the last ball of the 1999 World Cup semi-final, when South Africa finally choked harder than Australia in one of the great simultaneous choke-offs in sporting history, and the penultimate ball of the tied Test in 1960-61, when Grout was narrowly run out by Hunte’s sizzling throw from the boundary as he scampered for what would have been the winning third run. But to have two near-wickets and a boundary must be a first.

The finale of the Brisbane tie remains the most dramatic over in Test history – it began with five minutes remaining of the match, and Australia requiring six runs with three wickets remaining. There then followed, in just seven balls: five runs of varying degrees of luck, one catch, one dropped catch, one missed run-out, and two run-outs (both preventing the winning run, the second sealing the tie with a direct hit from midwicket). Plus one dot ball when not much happened. Something for everyone. One can only imagine how the average modern-day commentator would have relayed the action – presumably with a cocktail of window-shattering decibels and spontaneous combustion.

Mohali, a superb Test match throughout, gave the world the latest of Laxman’s sporadic masterpieces, innings of sublime perfection that have punctuated his oddly inconsistent career. English fans have never seen the Hyderabad Hyperstylist at his best. He has a worse Test average against England (34) than, amongst others, Russel Arnold, Boeta Dippenaar and Paul Reiffel (the 1990s version of Garfield Sobers). Against Australia, since 2000, Laxman averages 62, comfortably outperforming, amongst others, Russel Arnold, Boeta Dippenaar, Sachin Tendulkar, and every other batsman in world cricket.

Laxman’s career alone therefore proves, if proof were needed, that England are 82% better at cricket than Australia, and will certainly win the Ashes by approximately 3.22 Tests to 1.78. Unless Hauritz steps up a couple of gears, or Swann gets injured, or Australia’s superior flat-wicket seam-bowling proves decisive, or the innate class and home experience of their ageing batsmen outdoes England’s seldom consistently high-scoring line-up, or it is not uncharacteristically and unbrokenly cloudy for seven weeks, or Peter Siddle develops an unplayable googly, or England’s selectors panic and recall the late Wally Hammond in the vain hope he can repeat his 905 runs of 1928-29, or this happens, or that happens. Tough series to predict.

Meanwhile, as we English and our cricketing media obsess about the forthcoming confrontation in Baggy Greenland, the world’s current and former No. 1 nations bring their irritatingly short two-match series to a conclusion in Bangalore. In the frequently indigestible smorgasbord of an international cricket schedule that is force-rammed down the throats of the world’s fans, this is a rare case of underkill, like Federer playing Nadal over one set, or Usain Bolt taking on Tyson Gay in a 40-metre sprint, or Kiefer Sutherland starring as Jack Bauer in a new series of 9.

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