Ashes January 5, 2011

The Ashes boot is truly on the other foot

Happy New Year, Confectionery Stallers, and welcome to the first ever edition of this crickoblog to have been composed when the words “England retained the Ashes by obliterating Australia with a phenomenal display of total cricket” could be written

Happy New Year, Confectionery Stallers, and welcome to the first ever edition of this crickoblog to have been composed when the words “England retained the Ashes by obliterating Australia with a phenomenal display of total cricket” could be written without being a rabidly deluded fantasy or a wilfully obscure cryptic crossword clue.

As I write, England, with Cook and Bell grinding the remaining slivers of spirit from the Australian bowling attack, are well placed to ensure their series victory, probably by 3-1 unless Australia’s top order decide to stop batting as if they are trying to raise questions about their nation’s right to Test status.

It has been one of England’s greatest all-round performances, and almost certainly Australia’s worst. Many predicted an England success. No-one predicted a drubbing. Albeit a drubbing that could still, theoretically, end 2-2, and one in which England’s remorselessly determined and scientifically executed demolition of their opponents was punctuated by an oddly feeble capitulation in Perth. Strauss’s men are on course to record England’s biggest ever runs-per-wicket superiority in an Ashes series – so much for the too-close-to-call series almost everyone seemed to expect. This series has been the cricketing equivalent of turning up to see the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, only for one of the crews to be in a jet-propelled speedboat and the other to be in a leaking bath-tub.

Even fewer people than no-one predicted that Alastair Cook would score 750 runs in the series (and even that total may be horribly out of date by the time you read this). Of all the adjectives you could have used to describe Cook before this series, “undismissable” was some way down the list. Particularly if that list was being written by Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif. He has been phenomenally, bafflingly impressive – this is a player who had not averaged over 50 in a series against anyone other than Bangladesh or West Indies for over four years.

In six of those ten series, he averaged below 33. Cook turned up in Australia fresh from a domestic summer in which he breached the 30 barrier just once in ten innings, and then only with some major good fortune, and in which often looked unsure not just of where his off stump was, but unsure of what his off stump was, and even of what sport his off stump might be involved in. He then transformed into a slightly better version of Don Bradman. This constitutes one of the more remarkable individual triumphs in cricket history. Not quite as remarkable as Inzamam-ul-Haq winning the Olympic 100 metres would be, but remarkable nonetheless.

It remains to be seen whether Cook’s mega-series is a spectacular blip in his otherwise largely prosaic career, or the watershed in a potentially great batsman’s development. Either way, he has blasted himself into Ashes immortality.

He has been joined there by Australia’s top four. Who will be rather less chuffed to be there. England fans have of course become accustomed to baggy-green batsmen breaking scoring records in Ashes series. Usually in recent decades, they have been records for high scoring. The 2010-11 baggy-green vintage – a cheap Bulgarian Merlot laced with methylated spirits compared to the Chateau Latours England’s bowlers have faced on previous Ashes tours – have been chiselling themselves into the annals of all-time ineptitude with ruthless determination.

The course of a Test is established in the first innings, and Australia’s upper order have not merely flunked their first-innings exams, they have eaten their exam papers, sworn at the invigilator, and set their pencil cases on fire. Australia’s captain and vice-captain have totalled a reprehensible 71 runs in their nine first-innings efforts. Simon Katich and Phillip Hughes between them totalled 99 in the five Tests, and Shane Watson 150. Usman Khawaja’s determined 37 in Sydney not only saved his two skippers from the ignominy of being Australia’s worst 3-4 first-innings combination in any series since 1890, but also bumped the Aussie top-four first-hit series average up to a still-gob-smackingly dreadful 17.85 – their worst such figure in the Ashes since Lyons, Bannerman, Giffen and Harry Trott struggled to come to terms with English conditions in 1893, and their worst ever in a five-match Ashes series.

Even when Hussey’s sterling resistance at 5 is taken into account, Australia’s first five wickets have averaged just 23 per wicket in their first innings, their second lowest in the Ashes since Queen Victoria popped her massive queenly clogs.

And just to rub it in, England’s top 4 are on course to record the highest-ever series average against Australia. Ouch.

Much of the credit for Australia’s failure obviously goes to England’s bowlers, who, as in 2005, have been persistently threatening. James Anderson, who had little history of overseas success, needs three second-innings wickets to claim the best haul by an England bowler in Australia since John Snow in 1970-71 (and he only needs to take all ten to equal Snow), and the England pace attack have between them take 62 wickets at 28, putting them one more good innings away from the best series by a visiting pace attack in Australia since the West Indians of 1992-93. More on them in a future blog. They have been individually and collectively excellent. But not unplayable.

With the ball, especially with the bat, and in the selection committee, the Australians have been truly, historically dreadful. The Ashes boot is now well and truly on the other foot. The Australians must feel like a carnivore being eaten by a steak.

The unexpected disparity between the teams has made the series less compelling as a sporting spectacle than it could have been. In South Africa, however, after a similarly lop-sided beginning, a blistering series now approaches its endgame. VVS Laxman put in a late bid for innings of the year with his towering 96 in Durban – an innings which instantly rocketed towards the top of the Innings Which Deserved A Century But Did Not Get One chart, perhaps just ahead of Monty Panesar’s 7 not out in Cardiff in 2009.

Jacques Kallis (with his ninth century in his last 15 Tests) and Tendulkar (with his 12th in his last 24) laid down early markers for 2011, two of the greatest players the game has seen tussling for supremacy as others around them struggled.

Ben Hilfenhaus and Harbhajan Singh are the unlikely pace-setters in the Test Match Six Of The Year stakes, the former dispatching Tim Bresnan over midwicket like the 21st century Viv Richards that he isn’t, the latter plonking the world’s greatest current bowler over long on as if he was playing Stick Cricket.

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