India in England 2011 July 29, 2011

England's secret weapon

They have a voodoo practitioner among their backroom staff

I am fairly confident that there were not any actual champagne corks popped in the England dressing room at the sight of Zaheer Khan limbering up in practice so gingerly that a Nottingham Chinese takeaway reportedly inquired whether they could use him in a stir-fry with some spring onions, or at the news that India’s lynchpin would, as expected, miss the second Test due to his misbehaving hamstring. However, England’s batsmen must have been mentally high-fiving themselves at the prospect of not having to face the man who tormented them on the same ground four years ago. Seven of England’s current team played in that series-deciding 2007 defeat, in which Zaheer took 9 for 134, with eight of his victims being top-six batsmen.

Lord’s was a very good Test, richly speckled superb individual performances and driven by a fluctuating narrative, but it could have been a great one had Zaheer stayed fit (or at least not injured). England’s bowlers applied remorseless pressure, led by Broad’s extraordinary and brilliant renaissance – after 18 months of largely ineffectual toil, he found his 2009-Ashes-winning length, took 7 for 94 in the match, had three catches shelled off his bowling (including a Strauss blooper so simple that he could, should and probably would have taken in his sleep, as the ball would likely have lodged in his pyjama pocket), and had two lbw appeals refused that were so plumb they were last seen heading off in overalls with a tool-kit to fix some broken piping in the Lord’s bathroom. It was a startling performance, and vindication for England’s selectors. Slightly belated vindication, perhaps, but vindication nonetheless.

Broad’s bowling might have touched perfection at times at Lord’s, but he still needs to do some major work to refine his appealing technique which remains a counterproductive caterwaul of almost Viking intransigence, and it seems a bizarre oversight that England have not invested in a backroom appealing coach. England are famously well prepared by their large and well-honed support team. Zaheer’s injury – to add to the ones suffered by, amongst others, McGrath in 2005, and Steyn in 2008 and 2009-10 - suggests that amongst that backroom staff is a high-quality voodoo practitioner, who has been working overtime to give England that crucial extra edge.

India’s bowlers, by contrast, released England at crucial times in both innings, and ended up twiddling their thumbs until the declaration came, and generously donating runs to the Matt Prior Century Fund (a worthy cause, given how well he played at the start of his innings, but allowing him to negotiate the supposedly-nervous 90s against the fearsome two-prong attack of Dhoni and Raina was surely taking well-meaning charity a step too far).

The current world No. 1 team habitually improve as series progress (none more so than Harbhajan Singh, as discussed in last week’s Multistat), but the lack of depth in their bowling is a concern. England may be without the outstanding Chris Tremlett, who has taken to Test cricket like a duck to a Chinese pancake. Should he fail to recover, England will replace him with either Steve Finn, their youngest bowler to take 50 Test wickets, or Tim Bresnan, who took 11 tight-fistedly cheap scalps in the final two Ashes Tests in Australia. India will have to replace Zaheer with either Sreesanth, who since his last tour of England has taken 33 wickets at 44 in 13 sporadic Tests, or Munaf Patel, who seemed to have given up on Test cricket, a form of the game in which he has harvested just 11 luxuriously expensive wickets in the last five years.

It will be fascinating to see how India go about trying to retain their No. 1 status after such a disappointing defeat, in which they mixed penetration and listlessness with the ball, and dogged resistance and careless errors with the bat, into a bizarrely inconsistent cricket cocktail that few would order on a night out. It would have been more fascinating to see them try to do so with their best bowler in action, but such is the way of modern cricket. I think India will do well to win a Test. But then, I and many others thought the same after their first-Test griddling last winter in South Africa.

Whatever happens in Nottingham, Lord’s provided further proof that one three-day game is insufficient preparation for a touring Test team. Of course, the days are long gone when a touring side would begin the first Test after a solid six to 12 months of warm-up matches, with various players having changed marital status since leaving home, or written epic novels.

It should be said that, in days gone by, a long build-up was not always a guarantee of hitting the ground running in the Test series. Len Hutton’s ultimately victorious 1954-55 England Ashes side prepared for the first Test with six four-day matches, and promptly hit the ground stumbling like a drunken pensioner trying to go the wrong way down an escalator – they were hammered by an innings and plenty, before fighting back to clinch the Ashes 3-1 in the fourth Test. Two months after their Brisbane battering. They had fun for another month, drew the final Test, and then hopped on the boat home at the beginning of March, wondering whether their families would still remember them.

Nevertheless, one warm-up match to prepare players who had either been playing somewhere else in completely different conditions, or not playing at all after a three-month binge of limited-overs cricket, was clearly insufficient. India at Lord’s reminded me of England in Pakistan in 2005-06, when, after scaling their greatest peak and achieving their ultimate ambition, and weakened by a couple of important injuries, they suffered a post-Ashes anti-climax, a disappointing fishfinger sandwich to follow some mouth-explodingly high-grade sushi.


The one question on the south hemisphere’s lips this week has been: for their forthcoming tour of Sri Lanka, should the Australian selectors have recalled Clarrie Grimmett? The pre-war legspin legend has admittedly not been at his best since departing Test cricket in 1936, retiring from the first-class game in 1941, and dying at the age of 88 in 1980.

However, in the absence of any cast-iron contenders on the Sheffield Shield scene, Grimmett was probably worth a selectorial punt. After all, as sports pundits – the wisest of all philosophers, according to the Massachusetts Institute Of Sports Punditry - often say: “There is no substitute for experience.” Before adding: “Form is temporary, class is permanent.” With 127 five-wicket hauls in first-class cricket, Grimmett is ahead of Michael Beer and Nathan Lyon by, respectively, 127 and 127 first-class five-wicket hauls. (Although both Beer and Lyon can boast superior Twenty20 records.) (And Grimmett was born and raised in New Zealand, so for Australia to select him now, after all the carping about England’s various imports over the years, would be to slug deep from the thermos flask of hypocrisy.) (The late great Bill O’Reilly was ruled out with a calf strain.)

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