Unexpected and instant fame for the number 29
This increasingly compelling World Cup has continued to prove far more exciting than anyone could reasonably expect of a tournament that, by this time next week, will almost certainly have sent eight of the world’s top nine ranked teams into the quarter-finals, as was almost universally predicted before it had even begun, and taken more than month to do so. A recipe that looked deeply unappetising on paper has transpired to be surprisingly tasty, to a cricketing palate if not an English one, and the dessert course looks set to be a champion pavlova of a knockout stage. Cricket has been lucky. In Group B, at least.
I have seen only snippets of the last few games, as I have been on holiday with my young family on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. One of the benefits of a holiday on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, or indeed anywhere in Sri Lanka, is that all the hotels come fully equipped with staff who are able to provide accurate and well-informed information about and in-depth analysis of international cricket.
From score updates to well-reasoned arguments explaining why Sri Lanka’s middle order could prove to be their Achilles heel, from potted player biographies to tactical critiques of captaincy, the service is exemplary, and far, far superior to anything I have experienced in Europe. Rome may be a magical city in many respects, but in terms of hotel staff cricket knowledge, it is to Galle what Jimi Hendrix is to Shane Warne in terms of leg-spin bowling.
I managed to see only brief snippets of India’s alarm-bell-clanging defeat to South Africa. I saw Tendulkar place the entire city of Chennai on cricketing history red alert for his next match on March 20 by majesterialising to his 99th international century. “Looks like India are hitting form at the right time,” I thought to myself in a sage piece of internal punditry. I left the TV room to return to my hitherto vain attempts to persuade my children that flies are not necessarily lethal. India promptly collapsed like a prim Victorian lady at the unexpected sight of a gentleman’s unshirted chest. From 267 for 1, their last nine wickets evaporated for 29, equalling the World Cup record for Most Useless Final Eight Partnerships In An Innings, set earlier this tournament by Kenya when uselessly capitulating against New Zealand.
The worst last-nine-wickets figure for a Test nation in a World Cup before this tournament was 59 by England, as Joel Garner chunked them into cricket marmalade in the 1979 final. All this after Tendulkar, Sehwag and Gambhir had combined to reach the fifth-highest ever World Cup total for the loss of one wicket. It is fair to say that India did not make the most of their brilliant start, as if Neil Armstrong had turned to Buzz Alldrin and said, “Looks a bit chilly out there, let’s just head home.”
29 for 9 – the equal fourth worst nine-wicket collapse to end an innings in ODI history. Coincidentally, 29 is also the number of times during breakfast the following day that Sachin Tendulkar looked up from his cornflakes with an expression on his face that unmistakably read: “Are any of you guys going to attempt to (a) explain and (b) apologise for that?”
That India’s middle order should fail more convincingly than a learner driver ploughing into a crowded bus stop whilst flicking a v-sign at his instructor during his driving test is concerning enough. India’s bowling, which had always looked like their Achilles heel, began to look like an Achilles leg as the unfortunate Nehra was planked into the Nagpur stands by Peterson, and MS Dhoni began to think: “Maybe, with the benefit of two balls’ worth of hindsight, I should have let Harbhajan bowl this one after all.”
It is beginning to appear that India’s greatest problem is their insufficient number of bowlers whose names begin with H or Z. In their three matches against Test opposition in this World Cup so far, Harbhajan has conceded 5.24 per over, and Zaheer 4.90. Munaf, Sreesanth, Nehra, Chawla, Yuvraj and Pathan have been clonked for 597 in 90.4 overs, each at a run a ball or worse, collectively at 6.58 per over. It may not be impossible to win a World Cup with only two fully functioning bowlers. But it will not be easy.
(I have a two-year-old son who has an H-commencing first name to go with his Zaltzman surname. He does not currently hold an Indian passport, but I’m sure these things can be arranged, and he has a South-African-born grandfather, which I think means he is eligible to play for any country of his choosing. His two-year-old bowling action, however, is unlikely to pass ICC scrutiny. And he frequently oversteps. And they should probably let R Ashwin have a go first.)
Fortunately for India, they are not alone. Every team left in this tournament is nervously flexing its metaphorical lower leg, urgently seeking physiotherapy for its own niggling Achilles heel, checking the internet to find any versions of the ancient Greek myth in which Achilles turned out fine after all, and wishing its metaphorical mother had taken a little more care when dipping it in the river of cricketing invincibility.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer