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With three weeks still to go before the much-awaited mid-table clash of the hemispheres begins in Brisbane, between Europe’s No. 1-ranked cricket nation and one of Oceania’s strongest teams, attention turned once again to India, and Virender Sehwag’s continuing campaign to make the world’s bowlers wish they had been born in a non-cricket-playing country, as a woman, to parents who disapproved of all sport as a worthless and flippant pursuit, in the mid-15th century.
Sehwag’s eventual dismissal, to a concrete-footed, cross-batted, across-the-line prod reminiscent of a young Alan Mullally, ended another masterclass of twhackmanship from one of cricket’s greatest treasures. The greatest praise, however, must be reserved for Rahul Dravid’s extraordinary display of humanitarianism at the other end.
Dravid is a gentleman. He knew New Zealand’s bowlers were fragile after a testing couple of years, he knew the wicket would offer them little assistance, and he had seen Sehwag bat before. Therefore, Dravid, cleverly using the cloak of supposed poor form, sportingly minimised the trauma of Sehwag’s onslaught by stodge-blocking for a couple of hours, comforting the bowlers like an award-winning priest until the worst was over. Thereafter, he unfurled Chapter 2 of the MCC Coaching Manual, and humanely finished off the job like the master surgeon he would have been if he had been given a scalpel for his fifth birthday instead of a cricket bat.
Australia, meanwhile, have continued their Ashes build-up with another perfectly judged defeat in the first ODI against Sri Lanka. This was clearly part of a wide-ranging tactical masterplan that has included:
1. Striving ceaselessly to engender complacency in the England ranks. This will not be easy in the modern, professional, hyper-prepared age of English cricket, but you can only admire the persistence with which Australia are going about their task, throwing away winning positions like an attractive but committed nun discards Valentine’s cards. The English press have taken the bait, hook, line and over-excited sinker. Will the team be so easily duped?
2. A long-term economic scheme concocted by the Australian government and Cricket Australia, to unnaturally strengthen the Australian dollar, thus pricing out all but the barmiest of England’s Barmy Army from travelling south. Due to UK government cutbacks, the real army is no longer in a position to supply reinforcements or air support to the Barmy Army, who may be reduced to relying on the Territorial Barmy Army and mercenary sports fans from Serbia and Colombia, and disillusioned former members of the French Foreign Legion.
3. Hoping that Nathan Hauritz is hit on the head by a piece of falling masonry, and wakes up thinking he is Bill O’Reilly.
4. Hoping that the falling masonry then ricochets onto Michael Hussey’s head and he wakes up thinking he is Michael Hussey, 2005-2007 version.
A few weeks ago, I outlined the statistics that prove that England (a) will, and (b) won’t, win the Ashes. I will now do the same for Australia, who can be shown to be either (a) a collection of world-beaters about to explode into life, who, with a small amount of luck, would have won the Ashes in England and drawn an away series in India; or (b) a ragtag baggy-green band of has-beens, haven’t-beens, crocks and losers barely fit even to try to spell the word Bradman.
Part (A): The Indestructible Ricky Ponting And His Fearsomely Invincible Ashes-Scalping Band Of Warriors, set to extend a record of one defeat in their last 13 home series, and 19 wins in their last 26 home Ashes Tests.
Simon Katich The supernaturally awkward-looking left-hander may look like he is playing a different sport in a different universe to David Gower, Richie Richardson or Mark Waugh, but Katich has a better Test average than any of them. Until the recent India series, he had averaged over 40 in all 10 series since his 2008 recall, in which time he had an average of 54. Also bowls wrist spin. Since June 1993, Australian wrist spinners, collectively, have taken 239 English wickets at 24. Admittedly, other Australian wrist spinners than Katich have taken 238 of them. But the point stands. He is basically Bradman and Warne rolled into one.
Shane Watson Since his recall as a makeshift opener during the non-victorious 2009 Ashes, Watson has averaged 50.44, making him a 16% better Test opening batsman than Mark Taylor and 53% better than Victor Trumper. You cannot argue with a statistic like that. Because if you did, the statistic would run away and hide. But this one would stand its ground like a man: Watson has reached 50 in 46% of his innings in Australia’s top order (batsmen 1 to 5). Only two batsmen can better that. One is Bradman, with 52%, although if he had played in the modern era, his figures would have been considerably worse (on the grounds that he would have been initially very old, and, latterly, dead). The other is Darren Lehmann (46-and-a-bit%). The new, improved, post-recall Watson can also chuck a bowling average of 24 into the teapot. He is basically Bradman and Warne rolled into one.
Ricky Ponting Unquestioned member of Tasmania’s All-Time Greatest XI, nominated for ESPNcricinfo’s all-time Australian XI (ahead of Greg Ritchie, Trevor Chappell and even Garfield Sobers), a giant of the modern game with career averages of 54 in all Tests and 60 in his 79 matches at home. Ponting averaged 12 in his first home Ashes, 52 in his second (up by 40), and 82 in his third (up by 30). He will therefore improve by another 20 to average 102 in this, his fourth. The last time he tried to regain the Ashes, he began the series with 457 runs in two Tests, treating England’s bowlers like a hungry lion devouring a bucket of zebra-print hot dogs. Look out England, the baggiest of all the greens has statistics on his side, and statistics are more powerful than God, as the Pope himself must surely acknowledge, privately if not publicly.
Michael Clarke Averaging 54 since being dropped five years ago, Clarke might have been officially awarded Australian Cricket’s Least Threatening Face Since Kim Hughes at the International Sporting Intimidation Foundation’s recent Hall of Shame Awards (surprisingly defeating Nathan Hauritz), but Clarke can waggle an Ashes average of 55 in England’s direction. No England batsman can waggle anything close to that back at him. (Apart from Trott, who has only played one Ashes Test, an insufficient waggling sample).
Michael Hussey Despite his recent slump, Hussey can still boast a career average of 49 – better than any England player to have made his debut since Ken Barrington in 1955 (other than the still-early-in-his-career Trott). He has also been building up his confidence by going to sleep in pyjamas embroidered in solid gold thread with his averages in all home Tests (62) and in the 2006-07 Ashes (91). He wakes up every morning, folds his pyjamas neatly, puts them under his pillow, and mutters, “I’m not finished embroidering you yet, Mr Jim-Jam.” Was averaging close to 100. Now chips in with occasional useful knocks. He is, therefore, basically Bradman and Warne rolled into one.
Marcus North The most devastating batsman in the history of Test cricket. Once he passes 21 (10 innings, five hundreds, four more innings over 67). As soon as those first 21 runs are out of the way, he basically becomes a more reliable version of Bradman. Also a better bowler than Warne (based on best Test figures at Lord’s – 6 for 55 versus 4 for 57).
Brad Haddin A significant improvement on the painfully run-of-the-mill Adam Gilchrist. If you only take the last two-and-a-half years of Gilchrist’s career (average 30, to Haddin’s 38). Haddin also lines up 44 boiled eggs on his breakfast plate every Sunday morning, representing his average in Tests in Australia. He then draws an England wicketkeeper’s face on each one, and says, “I’m going to have you on toast,” whilst telling his wife and son that England’s wicketkeepers in Australia have, between them, averaged 20 in the last 35 years.
Mitchell Johnson Bowled like a distressed haddock in the 2009 Ashes, and still took 20 wickets (more than any English bowler) at a not-nearly-as-shambolic-as-you-would-expect-and-better-than-Brett-Lee-ever-managed-in-an-Ashes-series average of 32. If he even bowls as well as psychologically well-adjusted haddock this time round, he could cause major damage. Has taken 84 wickets at 25 in his 17 home Tests. Aerodynamic face could prove useful in warmer conditions.
Nathan Hauritz The lynchpin of Australia’s Inculcating Complacency strategy, Hauritz exudes the fearsome threat and intensity of a soldier. Unfortunately, the soldier in question is a small rectangle of buttered toast, not a hollering, scimitar-toting warrior. But Hauritz took 29 wickets in six home Tests in 2009-10, at an average of 26, and had a better average than Swann in 2009. He averages 34 with the ball and 25 with the bat in Tests, compared with 50 and 16 in other first-class cricket, making him 50% better at international cricket than normal cricket and thus, statistically, the greatest big-game player in cricket history. Probably.
Ben Hilfenhaus Top bowler in terms of wickets (22) and average (27) in the 2009 Ashes, and averages a 19th-century-style 14 in home Tests. Albeit in only one match. Against West Indies. In previous Ashes series in Australia, England have had problems with bowlers possessing Hilfenhaus’ two main characteristics as a bowler − he swings it, and he’s Australian.
Doug Bollinger A strong if belated start to his Test career has brought him 49 wickets at 23 in 11 matches. Glenn McGrath’s first 11 Tests brought him 34 wickets at 33. If Bollinger plays another 113 Tests like McGrath, and maintains the same statistical superiority, he will end his career with 836 wickets at an average of 15.2. Charges in like a vengeful Halloween pumpkin seeking retribution for having its flesh ripped out and replaced with a cheap candle. May scare Ian Bell.
So, it appears that England have absolutely no chance, and should regard a 4-0 defeat with a freakish thunderstorm saving them in the fifth match as a national triumph. Or should they? Tune in next time to find out why Brigadier Stats says that Australia are heading for the mother-in-law of all whoopings.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.