West Indies May 18, 2011

Why Darren Sammy is the greatest bowler of all time

Also: the alternate meaning of the Providence Test, and whether it is a bonafide new dawn for West Indies

After a prolonged sabbatical spent worrying about its future whilst watching its younger siblings charge around like banshees, Test cricket roared back into life with a low-scoring thriller between West Indies and Pakistan. Admittedly, that roar raised the age-old philosophical question: if something roars in an empty cricket stadium, and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a noise?

It was a gripping match of 19th-century-style scoring, played out in front of a 17th-century-style crowd, in a 21st-century-style stadium – nicely made but pointlessly remote. One day, a high-ranking scientist or Nobel Prize-winning genius will work out on a high-powered computer that if you build soulless modern stadiums, without history or character, far from civilisation, you may on occasion struggle to attract crowds to watch cricket in them. It will take a brain of formidable power to reach this conclusion, a thinker of rare perspicacity, who is prepared not only to think outside the box, but to set fire to the box whilst his head is still inside it to accelerate the thought process.

Low-scoring games have provided some of cricket’s all-time classics, from the umbrella-chewing mayhem of The Oval in 1882, when the 19th-century proto-Lillee, Fred Spofforth, demonised the Ashes into existence with brilliant bowling and an intimidating moustache, to England’s back-from-the-dead-but-with-hindsight-still-feeling-quite-ill World Cup group win over South Africa in Chennai in March.

Misbah’s 52 was the highest score in the Providence Test (which itself sounds like something the cricket community should insist wealthy tycoons pass before being allowed to land at Lord’s in a helicopter with a Perspex box full of cash). This is the sixth-lowest highest score, if that makes sense, in a completed Test match since the First World War, and enabled the game to narrowly avoid becoming only the third Test since the Second World War to produce a positive result without featuring any half-centuries.

The previous fifty-free Test was in Hamilton in December 2002, when New Zealand dismissed an Indian batting line-up containing Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman for 99 and 154, with Daryl Tuffey taking 8 for 53 in the match. It seems scarcely conceivable now, and that sentence might read as if it has been generated by a seriously malfunctioning internet automatic translation programme trying to convert a Swedish recipe for salmon fishcakes into English, but it is in fact 100% true.

Before that, there had only been one other such match since before Neville Chamberlain was waving his piece of paper around, declaring “peace in our time” – a declaration that now looks dodgier than Hansie Cronje’s at the Centurion Test in January 2000, and proves that there was a precedent for high-ranking English officials being duped by confident men with moustaches long before the Stanford debacle. The game in question was Edgbaston 1981, when Botham swung England to victory by marmalising Australia’s tail, spreading them on toast, and eating them in one mouthful, with 5 for 1 in five overs of legend-solidifying brilliance.

There is something deeply engrossing about a match in which an innings of 25 is a potentially game-winning contribution rather than a frustratingly wasted start. I find there is also something nostalgic about such games, as they recall early school matches when runs were scarce and boundaries seemed like hypothetical barriers halfway to the horizon. In the second game I played, my school Under-9 team bowled out the opposition for 63. I remember thinking: “That is an imposing total. Not many teams in world cricket could hope to chase that down.” Despite the loss of totemic opening batsman Zaltzman, harshly adjudged bowled first ball, my school battled bravely, but fell short. Thirty-nine all out. A match-winning total in some games, but a 24-run thrashing on the day.

It ended with a good win for West Indies, and a personal triumph for Darren Sammy. West Indian cricket has had more false dawns than an insomniac schoolkid waiting nervously for his exam results to arrive in the morning post. The standard of Pakistan batting – historically, almost heroically, inept in their six Tests in England last summer, and little improved since then - means that we cannot be sure whether this is a genuine dawn, another bogus one, or just a car passing in the street outside with its headlights shining through the bedroom window. After all, the previous apparent new dawn for West Indies cricket, when Jerome Taylor skittled England like a tray of wobbly milk bottles in Jamaica in 2009, turned out barely even to be that. However, after a World Cup marked by brief periods of promise inevitably scythed down by an onslaught of incompetence, at least this was a welcome and hard-won victory, the highlights being Devendra Bishoo confirming his promise and captain Sammy sealing victory with his fourth five-wicket haul in Tests.

Sammy is not yet on many people’s Great Bowlers Of The 21st Century shortlist, but he now has more five-wicket innings notched into his bedpost than Andrew Flintoff, Colin Croft, Lasith Malinga or Stuart Broad, and the same number as Harold Larwood and Frank Tyson. He has played just 12 Test matches, in which he has taken more wickets than the legendary Picasso Of Pace, Malcolm Marshall, did in the equivalent period of his career. In fact, Sammy has taken as many five-wicket hauls in his first 12 Tests as Holding, Garner, Marshall, Ambrose and Walsh managed between them in their first 12 Tests. The logical conclusion to all this is that Darren Sammy is (a) the greatest and (b) the fastest bowler of all time. Ignore the speed gun. It lives only to deceive.

Extras

The ECB have announced that they are working on a new fourth format for international cricket to enable England to appoint a fourth captain. A spokesman explained: “Having three skippers is proving to be a nightmare – whenever we have an England Captains Table Tennis tournament, Strauss always insists on getting a bye directly into the final. This understandably causes resentment amongst the other captains. With four, we can either use a straight semi-final-to-final knockout structure, or a four-prong round robin followed by a first-versus-second final. It has to be resolved, and fast, before Cook and Broad start throwing their toys out of the pram.”

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

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