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It might have escaped the attention of all but the most eagle-eyed English and Australian cricket followers, but the two best teams in the world are about to face off in a potentially titanic showdown to decide which is currently the greatest cricket team in the known universe.
Here in England, South Africa hosting India has not received quite the same media frenzy as the Ashes (or, as it is being officially renamed in Parliament this afternoon by the cross-party Committee for Premature Triumphalism, ‘The Heroic and Rightful English Vanquishment of All That is Baggy, Green or Evil in the World’). Not yet, anyway. It has some catching up to do.
It is, admittedly, understandable that the unofficial World Championship play-off has slipped under most English cricketing radars, amid the wild exultation about: (a) England being ahead in an away Ashes series for the first time since David Capel was still just a hopeful, Botham-resembling twinkle in the selectors’ eyes; (b) more importantly, after two Tests of an away Ashes series, England not being bent over a desk in Cricket Australia’s head office midway through a vigourous ceremonial spanking, for the first time since that 1986-87 triumph; and (c) England having gone ahead and, more importantly, not gone behind by absolutely shoeing their oldest rivals. And it was not merely a simple, regulation shoeing, but a shoeing administered with pointy steel toe-caps, stiletto heels and, to back it up, designer poison-tipped socks.
However, for those who have detected faint traces of the impending clash in South Africa, it is an enticing prospect, not least because this series will show how good MS Dhoni’s India really are. History does not bode well for them – they have won only one of their 12 Tests in the land that has produced so many fine English cricketers, a Sreesanth-inspired skittling of the hosts in the first Test in Johannesburg four years ago. And – strap in stats fans - of the 34 Indians who have played Tests in South Africa, only six have averaged higher than their career average.
Nor is it a particularly illustrious six. Leading the way is Kapil Dev, averaging 40 in his four Tests in South Africa, compared to his career figure of 31. Other than the great allrounder, the remaining five are: Dinesh Karthik (101 runs for once out in his solitary Test, boosting his career number to the undizzy heights of 27); Vikram Rathour, who qualifies only by having been marginally less useless in his two games in South Africa (averaging 16) than he was in his four other Tests (10.83, figures which one assumes he does not have immortalised in a commemorative tapestry above his bed); and hopeless tailenders Ventapathy Raju, VRV Singh and Ashish Nehra.
The giants of modern Indian batsmanship – Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag, Laxman, Ganguly and Azharuddin - have collectively averaged 34 in South Africa, compared with their overall combined average of 50. This will be an enormous and fascinating challenge for Dhoni’s team.
Before the Ashes, I ran a series of blogs detailing good and bad stats for the players on both sides. Thus far, England have lived up to the former, and Australia have lived down to the latter. If time permits this week, I will do the same for South Africa and India. I began by looking into Tendulkar’s almost unfathomably gigantic numbers.
Tendulkar is the hot favourite to win the race to 50 Test centuries. He needs one more, and now leads Ricky Ponting by 10, has left early pace-setter Don Bradman spluttering in the dust, seemingly unable to respond, and still leads the fast-closing Harbhajan Singh by 47. He also needs just five more centuries to reach a hundred hundreds in international cricket – unquestionably the mark of a pretty useful player.
He has emerged resplendently from his mid-decade slump to hit 12 centuries in his last 31 Tests, averages 63 in that period, and this year alone has close to 1400 runs at 82.
However, he averages just 38 against South Africa, as opposed to 59 against everyone else combined. His average against South Africa is the 79th best of all players since South Africa’s return to Test cricket after their little ‘ethical intermission’, and puts him some 56 runs per innings behind surprise leader - any guesses? – the Sri Lankan batting leviathan Farveez Maharoof.
Admittedly, Maharoof’s statistical sample (94 runs in four innings with three not outs) might not satisfy hardcore mathematicians, but who is to say that if the Colombo Clouter plays 22 Tests against South Africa like Tendulkar has, he will not still be averaging 94? The answer to that question is: anyone outside the most loyal and deluded members of the immediate Maharoof family. But the fact remains that, of the 99 top seven players who have played five or more Tests against South Africa since readmission, Tendulkar has the 43rd best average.
(In an intriguing quirk of fate that must cause unending tension at the family breakfast table, the players with the highest and lowest averages in this admittedly niche category are Andy (70) and Grant (11) Flower. No prizes for guessing who smugly snaffles the extra boerewors bap at their family barbecues.)
Moreover, this series has been extremely cleverly scheduled by South Africa. The first two Tests are in December, a month in which, over the course of his career, Tendulkar averages 47.5, and just 42.9 if you exclude his two December Tests against Bangladesh, one of which included an unbeaten 248. In the other 11 months of the year, his career average is 58.8 (57.6 excluding Bangladesh). This means that, in December Tests not against Bangladesh, he is 25% less effective than he is in the rest of the year.
And it is getting worse. Since 2002, excluding that mauling of Bangladesh, Tendulkar averages just 30 in December Tests. And this grievous problem is exacerbated when the opponents are South Africa – he averages a pitiful 24.3 against South Africa in December, compared to 43.4 against them in other months. Overall, this suggests that, when the greatest batsman of his era plays South Africa in December, he is only 42% of the player he usually is. (Please do not concern yourself with how I unearthed these statistics, nor with the effect they have had on my family life, or the way my wife looks at me when I’m using my computer.)
The only rational conclusion to this is that Tendulkar’s main – perhaps only – weakness as a batsman is, evidently, that he gets overexcited about Christmas. Indeed, if those last eight Christmases since 2002 are anything to go by, he finds it increasingly difficult to focus on his batting when he is thinking about what Santa Claus will bring, or has just brought, to him.
I realise that Tendulkar is not a Christian, but Christmas crosses religious boundaries these days, and you simply cannot argue with statistics. Or with the rumour that the South Africans have been leaving large, bulky presents in the Indian hotel with little tags reading “To Sachin”.
The stump microphone should provide fascinating listening this series. Prepare to hear the close-in fielders trying to distract the little master by saying: “So, Mr Tendulkar, do you think you’ll get that BMX bicycle you’ve always wanted this year? That would be awesome, wouldn’t it? You’d love to have that bike, eh?” Is this bad sportsmanship, or merely professionalism? In the modern game, when an opponent has an obvious weakness, you must exploit it. And if that means playing on Sachin Tendulkar’s uncontrollable giddiness about Christmas, then we must, regretfully, accept it.
Meanwhile, during the brief intermission in the Ashes, Australia have replaced one spinner widely viewed as neither experienced enough nor good enough with one who is even more inexperienced – so inexperienced, in fact, that no one can possibly know whether he is or isn’t good enough, so at least they have replaced an "X" with a "?" on their “Can these bowlers win us the Ashes?” quiz sheet.
If the Australian cricketing public were scratching their heads when Xavier Doherty was picked for Brisbane, they have been scalping themselves with a hacksaw at the selection of Michael Beer. Of course, Beer may even be dropped even before he plays, if Steven Smith is favoured by the selectors, whose current technique for picking their squad appears to involve drinking large quantities of absinthe, riding a quad bike into a wall as fast as possible, and saying the first name that comes into their heads. They have clearly read and learnt from 1980s England supremo Peter May’s influential academic paper, How To Utilise Selectorial Whims To Minimise The Effectiveness Of A Test Match Cricket Team.
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.