June 23, 2011

Test cricket needs man-eating tigers

Also: posing with a cuddly WG Grace figurine could improve your cricket beyond all measure

It is unlikely that, if asked what single luxury they would take with them to an isolated desert island, many people would excitedly respond: “Oh, well, that’s a tough question, but of all the things in the world, I’d have to go with a copy of the commemorative DVD containing extended highlights of the 2011 England v Sri Lanka Test series. Yes, I would definitely choose that, ahead of other possible luxuries and life-enhancements, such as a vintage gramophone equipped with the complete works of Mozart, or a cast of Rodin’s smash-hit sculpture The Thinker, or a lifetime supply of high-class milkshakes, or a rocket pack like the one that guy flew into the stadium with at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles in a moment that really should by now have presaged an age of universally available rocket packs for all, or an illustrated teach-yourself-to-pole-vault book, or an Aleem Dar Hair Care Kit, or Aleem Dar.”

It was an autumn-weekend-in-Aberdeen-with-your-in-laws of a series ‒ damp, grey and frustrating. There was plenty of good cricket, but The Weather came away with two wins out of three, and will be disappointed that it did not claim a 3-0 series wetwash, after having done all the hard work in Cardiff before leaving Sri Lanka a tiny window of opportunity from which to tumble to defeat, a window out of which England promptly defenestrated them.

Sri Lanka were never close to forging a winning position in any of the three Tests, against an England batting line-up that, after a couple of years of individual and collective inconsistency, has hit a rare and statistically mind-bending tranche of form. Strauss apart, they were seldom inconvenienced by a game but limited bowling attack. Ian Bell has reportedly commissioned a set of curtains depicting Sri Lanka’s bowlers to make himself feel invincible when he wakes up in the morning. England mostly played well, consolidating their stellar Test winter, but cricket – like most sports, as well as arguments, divorce proceedings and space races ‒ is seldom at its best when only one side has a realistic prospect of victory.

Nevertheless, three important things have been learnt from this series.

1: A six-week 50-over World Cup, followed by another six weeks of Twenty20 in the IPL, is not ideal preparation for a Test series in England.

Sri Lanka’s bowling always looked wafer-thin, and England’s in-form batting juggernaut duly gobbled it up like a hungry child munching its way into an ice-cream. This left the tourists depending heavily on their four experienced top-order batsmen. Of the two who played both warm-up games, Tillakaratne Dilshan left the IPL early and prospered, and Thilan Samaraweera, who is not most IPL owners’ idea of a dream DLF-Maximum-blasting batsman, did well enough; but Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, who arrived in time only for the second warm-up game, in which they both failed, each reached 30 only once in six attempts, and, despite the former eventually finding his game in his outstanding match-saving final innings of the final Test, each recorded his lowest series average for several years.

Perhaps they failed to make technical and mental adjustments to their games, perhaps they were suffering physical or psychological fatigue, perhaps it was merely coincidence, perhaps it was all of the above, but a key factor in Test series nowadays often seems to be which side’s players arrive at the start line less knackered.

2: All Test matches should be played in giant underground bunkers.

Rain is boring. Almost all cricket fans agree that a cricket ground with giant tarpaulins all over it and a grumpy-looking groundsman in a waterproof jacket peering at the sky is less interesting to watch than a cricket ground with cricketers on it, playing cricket. Umpires cannot be trusted not to use any marginal dimming of the light as an excuse to scuttle everyone back to the pavilion so they can check their emails, finish their game of online Scrabble, or practise their karaoke.

The giant underground bunker would, of course, remove the weather from the equation. But it would have other benefits for the spectator as well. Crowds at Tests around the world are often barely discernible, but the acoustics of a giant underground bunker would mean that even a few hundred spectators could create a decent atmosphere. It would also help with over rates. If the authorities could threaten players and umpires with being locked overnight in a giant, and ideally haunted, underground bunker if they did not complete their allotted 90 overs in a reasonable time, I am convinced that we would swiftly see a return to a brisk 1950s tempo. (And to make sure, there should be an ICC-trained man-eating tiger in a cage just beyond the boundary rope. The computerised door of the cage should be programmed to open automatically whenever the over rate falls below 15 per hour. No one likes being eaten by a tiger. This scheme would be 100% successful. As well as helping out an endangered species.)

Of all the potential Test-improving innovations being trialled – pink balls, floodlights, a Test championship, supermodel umpires, rocket-powered bats, the development of Sehwagium (a new chemical element derived from Virender Sehwag’s DNA, which, when ingested, gives a cricketer a remorselessly cavalier approach to batting) ‒ it beggars belief that playing all Test matches in giant tiger-infested underground bunkers has not even been discussed.

3: Stuart Broad needs to learn to take wickets again.

His Test bowling career is in a slump. He has taken more than two wickets in a Test innings only once in the last 18 months, and after playing a decisive role in the Ashes victory of 2009, and an important one in the drawn series in South Africa that followed, he has since been marginal to England’s continuing successes.

It was often said in the past that Broad did not know what type of bowler he was trying to be – was he a McGrath-style prober, nagging away like a deeply regrettable girlfriend, or a hostile paceman armed with fire, brimstone, a range of wicket-taking options, and some volcanic vocabulary to back it up? At the moment he is neither. Many pundits suggest that Broad generally bowls too short. In his two best spells in Test cricket – his Ashes-winning five-wicket blast in the first innings at The Oval in 2009, and his 4 for 43 in the Durban second innings to help Graeme Swann bowl England to victory the following winter – he took seven of his nine wickets either bowled or lbw, and another to a mistimed drive, and all were top-seven batsmen in two of the world’s stronger teams.

Of course, this does not mean that, were Broad to bowl every ball on a full length, he would slice through any top-class batting line-up like a hot chainsaw through a tree made of butter. But he is probably more likely to do so than he is when banging it in at a brisk but seldom bone-shuddering pace.

Broad took up bowling relatively late, and had a rapid ascent to the international team. Perhaps a spell in county cricket honing his craft and rediscovering his penetration – and getting some regular batting ‒ would help him complete his journey to becoming a world-class Test allrounder. Perhaps not. A little under a year ago, I was convinced that Alistair Cook needed a spell in county cricket to re-find and refine his game. I stand by that. If he had had that spell in county cricket, he would definitely have averaged over 200 in the Ashes. Without question.


A fascinating Test in Jamaica will reach its conclusion tomorrow. India remain favourites, after a nostalgia-fuelled century by the ageing master craftsman Rahul Dravid, a throwback innings on a throwback pitch. Dravid’s career has seemed to be in decline, but in his one Test since posing for a photo with my cuddly woollen WG Grace during the World Cup, he has averaged 76. In his previous 46 Tests over five years, he had averaged 39. You cannot possibly argue with cold, hard statistics like that.

[Any other Test players concerned about their form are welcome to rent WG Grace for a photograph at a cost of just £9995 per hour.]

[Disclaimer: posing for a photograph with a cuddly WG Grace is not guaranteed to ensure long-term cricketing success.]

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