May 31, 2011

Tremlett invokes Ambrose and cooks the Bolognese

The empty seats of the Swalec Stadium gazed on in astonishment yesterday afternoon as a hitherto grey Test match careered to an explosive ‒ or, depending on your allegiance, implosive ‒ end

The empty seats of the Swalec Stadium gazed on in astonishment yesterday afternoon as a hitherto grey Test match careered to an explosive ‒ or, depending on your allegiance, implosive ‒ end. England, having shown little real desire to win the game on day 4, blasted their way to a staggering victory with such ultimate comfort that, in the end, not only did they not regret wasting an extra 20 minutes whilst Bell completed one of the less significant hundreds of his increasingly impressive career, but they might now think they could have waited for Morgan to notch up the 86 more runs he needed to post three figures as well. Sri Lanka, who had played with skill and resilience in the first innings, left both of those useful attributes firmly locked in a safe deposit box in their hotel, and subsided like a badly timed soufflé in the face of the fire of Tremlett and the wiles of Swann.

New captain Dilshan and his men registered the seventh shortest completed Test innings since the Second World War, lasting 148 balls between them on a pitch on which their bowlers had taken English wickets at a rate of one every 186 deliveries. It is fair to say, in modern sporting parlance, that Sri Lanka had "a bad day at the office". As office days go, it was roughly equivalent to turning up to work to find that your swivel chair has been stolen and replaced with a stuffed porcupine, before your boss calls you in to give you a 90% pay cut, feeds your packed lunch to his pet iguana, and puts your trousers through his shredder, after which you return to your desk to find that your colleague has run off with your car keys, half-finished crossword and spouse, and your computer is frozen irretrievably on a YouTube video of Gary Kirsten’s unedited double-century at Old Trafford in 1998.

(I should point out that I have not spent much time working in offices. In the brief period of my life in which I did have an office job, every day was "a bad day at the office". In fact, even my days not at the office were bad – I took a week’s leave to go to that Old Trafford Test, spent two days watching Kirsten, and the remaining three regretting ever discovering cricket.)

The Strauss-Flower England thus added another superb Test triumph to their collection ‒ their fifth innings victory in their last seven matches, and their third in succession. England clocked up three innings victories in an entire decade in both the 1980s (all against Australia) and the 1990s (all against New Zealand), so these are boom times indeed for people who like seeing England win by an innings – the boomiest since the late 1950s, when one of England’s greatest teams obliterated West Indies and New Zealand in successive summers.

Yesterday’s win was facilitated by Tremlett, who surgically dismantled the high-class Sri Lankan top order in such a way that it would not have been entirely surprising if, at the post-match presentation, Mike Atherton had marched up to the Surrey paceman, said, “Come on Scooby, let’s see who he really is”, and ripped a latex face-mask off to reveal Curtly Ambrose underneath, before concluding: “I thought I recognised the way you were bowling.”

England’s selectors have had several major successes in recent years, Swann and Trott being the most prominent, and Tremlett is proving to be another. Like Swann before him, he has made a seamless transition in his late 20s from long-time county workhorse to international devastator. In his four Tests since his call-up to the Ashes squad, after a good if not Wisden-combusting 2010 season with Surrey, he has taken 22 wickets at an average of 23, and 16 of those dismissals have been top-six batsmen.

Tremlett should have been Man of the Match in this game – his three early wickets turned victory from an unlikely afterthought into a strong possibility, blitzing a strong upper order on a good batting pitch, and his fourth removed Prasanna Jayawardene, first-innings centurion and the final major barrier to success. In terms of impact on the game, his was the decisive performance. If England’s batsmen chopped the vegetables and minced the beef, it was Tremlett who cooked the Bolognese. Swann absolutely nailed some perfectly al dente spaghetti, some of the Sri Lankan batsmen suggested adding a tweak of nutmeg for depth of flavour, and Broad grated the cheese on top at the end. Yum.

As with Swann, Tremlett’s success prompts the question: did England err by not picking him more often earlier in his career; or is he only doing so well now because he arrived in the Test side as a rounded, experienced bowler? The answer is probably a bit of both, but, I think, more of the latter. It is impossible to say definitively, at least without recourse to a time machine, and, since the fall of Allen Stanford, that argument-settling device seems as far away as ever for cricket. The ICC should rightly concentrate on perfecting the DRS before investing its spare trillions in time travel. We will therefore have to wait for science to get its test-tube waggling act into gear before we finally know how Bradman would have fared against the 1980s West Indian attack, how much WG Grace would have made in advertising endorsements and IPL contracts if he had been around today, whether Ajit Agarkar would have been as lethal as SF Barnes on matting pitches, and how great a bowler Mohammad Amir might have become, if only Eve hadn’t been tempted by that juicy looking apple all those years ago.

All in all, another imposing performance by England, whose bowling is one of the joys of world cricket at the moment, and whose batting has taken on an aura of granite impregnability against the disastrously off-colour Australians and this understrength Sri Lankan line-up. What prompted this transformation late in 2010 remains unclear – whether is was the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the rescue of the Chilean miners, or the death of Norman Wisdom, something has inspired them.


1. Since the start of the Ashes, six England batsmen have been averaging over 40 – Cook 128, Trott 108, Bell 86, Pietersen 51, Prior 50, and Strauss 40. Over the course of their previous three major series, against Australia in 2009, in South Africa in 2009-10, and versus Pakistan last summer, only Trott (50) averaged over 40.

2. Since the start of last summer’s Pakistan series, England’s bowlers are collectively averaging 23.9. In the time between the start of the 2008 home series against South Africa and the end of the 2009-10 away series in South Africa, they averaged 37.4.

3. Yesterday was the third fastest England have bowled a side out since the Second World War, and the fifth fastest since Archduke Franz Ferdinand had his clogs forcibly popped, bringing an end to (a) world peace and (b) SF Barnes’ Test bowling career.

4. Sri Lanka can take some microscopic and stale crumbs of comfort from the fact that they lasted almost twice as long as South Africa did in their first innings in the first Test of 1924, when the tourists had the Edgbaston pavilion gate swinging like the toilet door at an incontinents’ drinking contest in being bowled out for 30 in 12.3 overs.

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