Mirror, mirror, who'll win the Ashes?
With the world’s top eight-ranked Test nations all in, or soon to be in, action, I sat down in front of a mirror and interviewed myself about the current spate of Test cricket.
Confectionery Stall Hello Andy, thanks for talking to The Confectionery Stall.
Andy Zaltzman It’s a pleasure. A lifelong dream fulfilled.
CS It’s all happening on Planet Test Cricket. The unofficial quarter-finals of an as-yet-still-non-existent World Championships – top-ranked India against eighth-placed New Zealand, world Nos. 2 and 3, South Africa and Sri Lanka, against sixth-ranked Pakistan and seventh-ranked West Indies. All whetting the appetite for one of the all-time classic mid-table confrontations – fifth-ranked Australia against their statistical nano-superiors, fourth-placed England.
AZ What? Are you telling me, and the rest of the English media, that this is not the ultimate clash of the two greatest teams in the history of cricket, with the eyes of the universe fixed immovably on it?
CS It’s fourth against fifth. Out of, basically, 8.
AZ Well, can you perhaps explain why, given that Australia (340) and England (312) have both won more than twice as many Tests as any other nation, they are not ranked 1 and 2?
CS I think it’s because the rankings don’t take into account how good teams were in the 1890s.
AZ I prefer to look at the big picture. It’s One versus Two.
CS Let’s start with batting. If it has been a good month for fans of engagements in the British royal family, it has been an even better one for the world’s batsmen.
AZ Sure has. What is going on with all these triple-hundreds in Test cricket? Correct me if I’m wrong, but Chris Gayle’s against Sri Lanka was the ninth in just 380 Tests since May 2002. There had only been eight in the previous 44 years and 1148 Tests.
CS You are wrong. You meant there had only been only eight triple-centuries in the previous 44 years and two months and 1149 Tests. But your point basically stands. Three hundreds are being scored at a breakneck rate of one every 42 Tests. Instead of once every 143 Tests in that 1958-2002 period you keep prattling on about.
AZ Crumbs. If that rate of increase in triple-hundreds continues, by the year 2643, roughly, every single Test innings will be a triple-hundred.
CS It’s what the advertisers want. This millennium has been like the 1930s all over again, but less so – there were five triple-hundreds in just 89 Tests, all of which lead inexorably in 1939 to the start of the most devastating conflict in the history of the world. The ICC needs to clamp down on big scoring, or the world at large could suffer.
AZ Are you claiming that, if South Africa had not declared with AB de Villiers on 278, the world would have been shunted closer to Armageddon?
CS Yes, I am. Can you prove otherwise?
b>CS Point proved then. De Villiers and Morkel posted the 21st tenth-wicket century partnership in the history of history. Harbhajan and Sreesanth put up the 20th just a week before.
AZ So you’re telling me that almost 10% of all 100-plus last-wicket partnerships have been scored in mid-November 2010, whilst, as all schoolchildren know, there were only two such stands between 1903 and 1952 – the same number as there were World Wars in the same period.
CS Precisely. So a lack of century last-wicket stands is clearly linked to global war. De Villiers apparently asked his captain to declare even earlier than he did. So by deliberately avoiding scoring a triple-hundred, and by coaxing Morne Morkel to play his part in a 100-partnership, de Villiers has made himself hot favourite for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
AZ Wow. What a man. The Henry Kissinger of South African batsmanship. Have you got any more statistics on rates of high scoring in modern cricket?
CS Yes. But I’m not telling them to you now. You’ll have to wait for another blog.
AZ Oh shucks. That’s ruined my week.
CS Good stats come to those who wait.
AZ Hey, here’s a question for you. What do the three Test double-centurions of November 2010 – Gayle, McCullum and de Villiers − have in common?
CS Do they all…
CS Are they all pre-op transsexuals?
AZ Not that I know of. One more guess. I’ll give you £50,000 in non-sequential banknotes if you get it right. Don’t tell the ICC.
CS Did they all endure prolonged century-less spells earlier in their careers, all beginning in 2005 and lasting for more than 20 Tests? At a guess, I’d say Gayle did hit a ton for 24 Tests from April 2005 to December 2008, McCullum didn’t trouble the honours board for 26 games between August 2005 and March 2009, and de Villiers specialised in single- and double-digit scores for 23 Tests in the two-and-a-half years to January 2008.
AZ Bingo. Good guess. Did you look that up on Statsguru?
AZ Okay. I’ll trust you. Here’s your money.
CS Thanks. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty-seven, seventy-seven...
AZ Can you count it out later? We’re mid-interview.
CS Sorry. No problem. Was that a 17-pound note?
AZ Let’s move on.
CS Did you draw that yourself?
AZ Let’s move on.
CS It had Graham Gooch’s face instead of the Queen’s.
AZ He’s the rightful King of England. The point is, just because a player doesn’t score a hundred for over 20 Tests, it doesn’t mean he won’t spank a double-hundred a few years later.
CS So England should pick Monty Panesar for Brisbane. He’s clearly got a massive innings stored up inside, just waiting to burst out.
AZ And the other point is, three simultaneous high-scoring drawn Test matches in a week makes Jack a dull boy. And by “Jack”, I mean “Test cricket”. Especially when “Jack” is conducted by unadventurous captains on stodgy pitches.
CS So, Andy, who do you think will win the Ashes?
AZ None of your business.
CS Actually, I think it is my business.
AZ Is it? Fair enough. I think England will win the Ashes. Or at least not lose the Ashes, which is more important.
CS Really? What makes you think that?
AZ Don’t know. Bit of a hunch. Plus they are mostly in form. Even Alastair Cook, who so often bats like a visit to the doctor about a gastric disorder − awkward and only occasionally effective − has found some form, whilst the batsman formerly known as Ian Bell has been playing with a dominance befitting the official new name the ECB has given him to make him sound more intimidating for this series: “The Sledgehammer Of Eternal Justice”.
CS Yes, Eternal Justice could be an absolutely crucial player in this series. Surely as a long-standing England follower, all this must make you extremely uneasy.
AZ I admit it does feel slightly like the opening scene of a horror film, when everything is obviously too idyllic, and you know that inevitably something absolutely terrible will happen. In this instance, instead of a chainsaw-wielding maniac leaping out of a cupboard and starting to chop American college students to pieces, I’m worried that Mitchell Johnson will suddenly leap out of a cupboard and find a tidy line and length on day one in Brisbane.
CS Or that Xavier Doherty will emerge from the pavilion wincing in pain, with bloodstains all over his shirt, having just had Shane Warne’s arm surgically grafted onto his shoulder.
AZ That’s a possibility, certainly, but the way things have been going for Australia recently, they would probably balls it up and graft Warne’s left arm onto Doherty, not his right. Mind you, looking at Doherty’s first-class figures, that may still be worth a punt. With a bowling average of 48, he could prove to be to spin bowling what 93-year-old wartime singing sensation Dame Vera Lynn is to heavyweight boxing.
CS Sounds like a bit of complacency might be creeping in to your Ashes preparations, Andy.
AZ Far from it, Confectionery Stall. I’m fully focused on what I have to do on Wednesday night – sit down in front of the television and watch cricket. I’m not thinking beyond that. Besides, after the disasters I’ve experienced watching the last five Ashes tours, I’m taking nothing for granted. And I think the Australians would be mad to play a debutant spinner with no track record in the first Test of an Ashes series on a potentially seam-friendly wicket in Brisbane. That would be the tactical equivalent of eating your goldfish for dinner because you once had a fantastic fillet of sea bass in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
CS I’ll take your word for that, Andy.
AZ I’ve researched it extensively. The comparison stands.
CS Unless Doherty is much better than everyone in England seems to assume.
AZ Good point, Confectionery Stall.
CS Anyway, I think you’re wrong. I think Australia will win the Ashes.
AZ What makes you think that?
CS Don’t know. Bit of a hunch. Plus they have much greater experience in Australian conditions, particularly the bowlers. England’s have struggled overseas for years. And the Aussies have points to prove. And unwanted places in the history books to avoid.
AZ What do you think the key areas will be?
CS England’s batting, Australia’s bowling, both sides’ fielding, Strauss’s captaincy, Australia’s batting, Ponting’s leadership, and England’s bowling. In no particular order of preference. Plus luck.
Mrs Zaltzman Andy. Come and help me make dinner for the kids.
AZ Can’t Confectionery Stall do it?
Mrs Z No. You’re their father. Besides, Confectionery Stall frightens them.
CS They can’t handle the truth.
AZ But we haven’t finished previewing the Ashes yet, dear. Or analysing the strengths and weaknesses of India and South Africa as they prepare for their table-topping showdown.
Mrs Z I’ve heard what you have to say about India’s bowling options and South Africa’s lack of killer instinct, and, frankly, it can wait. If you’re not in that kitchen in 60 seconds, I’m confiscating your Denis Compton autographed snuggle blanket.
AZ I’ll be there in 59 seconds. Better go, Confectionery Stall. Lovely talking to you.
CS What are you doing? No, no, don’t shut me in the attic again. I promise I won’t wake you up with queries about how much tail-end batting averages have improved in recent years, or players who have emerged from prolonged career slumps to re-find their best form, or whether teams are statistically better off with an inferior spinner and better balance or a superior fourth paceman and reduced variety, or whether Harbhajan Singh is the greatest batsman of all time, no, not the attic, please, not the att...
AZ Good boy. I’ll bring you a sandwich on Wednesday.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer