October 19, 2010

What connects Jimmy Anderson, Murray Bennett and Julius Caesar?

The fact that they all star in this blog, of course

The major cricketing news in England of late has been the fact that Jimmy Anderson may or may not be struggling to be fit for the first Ashes Test, after he may or may not have cracked a rib whilst being possibly punched or hypothetically not punched by someone who either was or was not a team-mate, in what may or may not have been a boxing match, on what may have been an extremely important team bonding camp in Germany or may alternatively have been grown men mucking around in a wood because they don’t really have proper jobs. The camp may or may not prove to have been either “great fun, and the main reason we won the Ashes”, or “a miserable, pointless, and knackering exercise and the principal cause of our humiliating 5-0 defeat”. Or neither. The details remain sketchy. The England team seems to have been firmly bonded anyway, even without yomping through some fields or toasting Ricky-Ponting-shaped marshmallows round a campfire whilst singing rude songs about Peter Siddle.

Whatever proves to be the case, it is safe to say that Anderson’s injury only happened because of the invention of air travel. If England had had to take a six-week boat trip to Australia, we can assume that the bonding camp would have been rendered redundant, and Anderson would not have been injured trying to recreate the Rumble In The Jungle. He might have been eaten by a whale instead, but the long voyage would have given him ample time to recover.

I heard Matt Prior interviewed on the radio about the team jaunt, and when asked what happened, he claimed that he is not allowed to give details of exactly what the squad were doing. It is hard to imagine why the ECB felt compelled to commit the players to silence on the issue. Perhaps it is a straightforward administrative issue – perhaps no one in government has ever found the time to downgrade the level of secrecy required for any British operation in Germany since the early-to-mid 1940s.

Perhaps the activities might reveal points of weakness the Australians could exploit in the Ashes – “Right, boys, we know Alistair Cook turned out to be very good at abseiling, so let’s keep a tight off-stump line for the first 10 overs and hope he gets bored and tries to abseil down something.” Perhaps the skills learnt could prove crucial at important stages of the series – “... and, Richie, it looks like Strauss is asking Finn for one final effort to break this partnership, and the young Middlesex paceman looks confident”; “Of course he does, Bill, let’s not forget Finn now knows how to light a fire by rubbing sticks together and how to kill a reindeer with his bare hands. Marcus North can hold no fears for him now.”

Many in the press have criticised the ECB for sending the players on the camp, and for making them punch each other’s lights out whilst on it (could they not have hired a couple of Doug Bollinger impersonators instead?), but, in mitigation, who knows what injury Anderson could have suffered had he been tucked up safely at home. He could have been run over by an escaped steamroller in Lancashire, or fallen into a vat of custard whilst visiting a local food factory, or tumbled out of a window whilst playing all-in caged Scrabble. It is best that England players’ injuries are administered centrally these days. There are rumoured to be plans to take the squad on a DIY course next week, in the hope that someone will hit Kevin Pietersen round the head with a plank of wood and concuss him back into form.

Of course, there are other things happening in the world of cricket than minor injuries to England players several weeks before the Ashes begin. Bangladesh’s impressive ODI series clattering of New Zealand was welcome and auspicious. As Oscar Wilde once famously wrote, “To win one ODI against a major cricket nation may be regarded as fortune, to win two looks like signs of genuine improvement, and to spank a decent New Zealand side 4-0, without your best batsman, whilst three times defending chaseable totals, suggests that, come World Cup time, with home advantage potentially all way to the semi-final, Bangladesh could be a real threat to anyone.”

Good luck to Darren Sammy as the new West Indies captain, a role that seems in recent years to have mostly involved administering contractual squabbles and occasional outbreaks of cricket. Sammy wrote on his Twitter feed that he will face the challenge “with God at his side”, although even the Almighty would struggle to turn the current team into world beaters (whilst, even at his Biblical best, God would have been lucky even to get a place in the starting XI in the 1980s).

Here, as promised, following on from last week’s blog about Tendulkar’s impossible struggle to overtake John Traicos and Dave Nourse in the Fewest Tests Missed In A Career Lasting Longer Than 20 Years Challenge, here is a table of the 20-year-career Test players and the percentage of possible matches that they played in.

Dave Nourse: 45 out of 45 Tests between 1902-1924 (100%) John Traicos: 7 out of 7 Tests between 1970-1993 (100%) Garry Sobers: 93 out of 100 Tests between 1954-1974 (93.0%) Sachin Tendulkar: 171 out of 185 Tests between 1989-2010 (92.4%) Syd Gregory: 58 out of 75 Tests between 1890-1912 (77.3%) Mushtaq Mohammad 57 out of 76 Tests between 1959-1979 (75.0%) Jack Hobbs: 61 out of 91 Tests between 1908-1930 (67.0%) Imran Khan: 88 out of 139 Tests between 1971-1992 (63.3%) Colin Cowdrey: 114 out of 195 Tests between 1954-1975 (58.5%) Frank Woolley: 64 out of 110 Tests between 1909-1934 (58.2%) George Headley: 22 out of 45 Tests between 1930-1954 (48.9%) Wilfred Rhodes: 58 out of 120 Tests between 1899-1930 (48.3%) Bob Simpson: 62 out of 149 Tests between 1957-1978 (41.6%) Freddie Brown: 22 out of 113 Tests between 1931-1953 (19.5%) George Gunn: 15 out of 87 Tests between 1907-1930 (17.2%) Brian Close: 22 out of 245 Tests 1949-1976 (9.0%)

Some notes on this for those of you with a not-particularly-busy day/week/life in the offing: Dave Nourse’s son Dudley played 34 of 35 possible Tests in his 16-year career, from 1935 to 1951; between them, therefore, they recorded a 98.75% attendance rate over a combined 38-year career, making them, statistically and unarguably, the father-son combination least likely not to play in a Test Match if there was one available in which to play. Even allowing for the fact that the Incredible Test-Playing Nourse Family were lucky enough to predate the age of squad rotation, this suggests that there may be an as-yet undiscovered gene that determines propensity to play in all possible Test matches.

Further support for this theory comes from the Zaltzman family. I have never played in an available Test match, nor has my father (yet; making him one of the few remaining South-African-born Englishmen not to have played Test cricket), nor did his father, nor his father before him (Lithuania having not yet, at that late-19th-century stage, been awarded Test status [and even if they had been, the chances of them selecting a Jew would have been remote]).

George Headley played all 19 of West Indies’ Tests from 1930 to 1939, then captained them in their first post-war game in 1948, played in Delhi later that year, then kicked back for a while, perhaps dreaming of one day playing for the Stanford Superstars like his heroes Sylvester Joseph and Daren Powell, before a late and unsuccessful 1954 recall in his mid-40s against England brought his batting average sliding still further downwards from its pre-war 66 to its final resting place of 60, but more importantly gave him eternal membership of the exclusive 20-Year Test Career Club.

Later in the same series that Headley belatedly bowed out of Test cricket, Garry Sobers bowed into it. He played 85 consecutive Tests, from his second match in 1955 until 1972. He was a good cricketer. Anyone who attempts to persuade you otherwise is probably trying to steal money from you. Ignore them and report them to the relevant authorities.

Bobby Simpson took a 10-year break after his first retirement in 1968, before clambering out of his cosy baggy green bed and claiming to be serving his nation in its hour of Baggy Green need by leading a Remnants Of Australian Manhood XI during the Packer Shebang. In reality, he just wanted to become just the second Australian in the 20-Year Test Career Club.

(There are rumours circulating in cricket circles that mid-80s three-Test spinner Murray Bennett is looking to launch another comeback and join Simpson and Syd Gregory in The Club, 25 years after his last Test appearance. Bennett’s manager, the Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel, who lists Matt Damon, Conan O’Brien, Tim Zoehrer and Martin Scorsese amongst his other clients, claimed: “Murray has unfinished business at Test level, and the current weakness of Australian tweaking means that this should be a no-brainer for the selectors. If they pick Bennett, I can pull a few strings and get them Robert de Niro to open the batting in the Perth Test. I have total faith in Murray Bennett’s ability to single-handedly win the 2010-11 Ashes – that is why he is the only left-arm spinner I represent. I’m going to make Murray Bennett a worldwide megastar.”)

And to finish this week’s ramblings, here is an illustrious chain of cricketing debuts for you: on Tendulkar’s debut, the opposition captain was Imran Khan, who on his debut had bowled to Colin Cowdrey, who had played his first Test alongside Bill Edrich, who debuted against Don Bradman’s 1938 Australians; the Don’s first Test was against an England team containing Jack Hobbs, whose opposing opener in his first Test was Victor Trumper, who made his debut in WG Grace’s last international. On WG’s first-class debut, he dismissed Julius Caesar. He did. Don’t look at me like that. He got Julius Caesar out. Twice. Here’s proof. He would probably have got Genghis Khan and Charlemagne out too, if they’d been playing. Julius Caesar’s first major appointment in public life was as the High Priest of Jupiter in Rome in 84BC. Jupiter was King of The Gods. And a very useful swing bowler and hard-hitting middle-order batsman. And a real success with the ladies. The Imran Khan of his day. And even Jupiter would have struggled to dismiss Tendulkar in Bangalore.

That is all.

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