England's wins cause ailments to their middle-aged fans
Welcome back, Confectionery Stallers, just in time for the official Confectionery Stall preview of the end of the 2011 Indian tour of England. The final match in a damply curious ODI series will bring the curtain of mercy down on one of the most unsuccessful tours ever to fail to grace these shores. It might be a good game, it might not be, and either side could win it and/or lose it. Duckworth-Lewis, in fine form after their spectacular win at Lord’s, cannot be ruled out. No one will mind very much either way, I imagine. The schedule of the English international summer is specifically designed to maximise the chances of a prolonged anti-climax, and the weather has chirped in this year to assist the achieving of this oddly conceived goal.
On then to the official Confectionery Stall review of the 2011 Indian tour of England.
At the start of the summer, there had been rich anticipation for a titanic showdown between two of Test cricket’s leading forces. Titanic showdowns, however, as early-20th-century maritime historians will vociferously testify, can end with something that was widely lauded as indestructible and magnificent sinking rapidly and disastrously. The good ship India rammed repeatedly into Iceberg England, and the rest is now statistically alarming history that will be sifted over by curious students in decades to come. (If there are any curious students of Test cricket in decades to come.)
Back in April, as India briefly celebrated their iconic triumph in Mumbai before looking at their fixture schedules and thinking that they had better get some kip whilst they had the chance, and England recuperated from their Ashes megavictory and their barking-mad World Cup campaign, some mesmerising contests loomed – Zaheer against England’s batting machine; Sehwag against England’s demon swing attack; Tendulkar versus Statistical History.
The first flickered tantalisingly on the first day at Lord’s before Zaheer’s not overwhelmingly well-honed body rebelled. The second began (a) too late, as injury ruled out the Evel Knievel Of Opening The Batting from the first two Tests, and (b) too early, as he rushed back with insufficient preparation to face brilliant, in-form swing bowlers in swingy conditions. I am sure even Albert Einstein after a prolonged break from science needed to ease himself back into things with some basic physics - a couple of frames of snooker, at least, or juggling some tomatoes – before launching into the serious quantum stuff. The third saw Statistical History fighting a brave rearguard against the Little Master (whilst taking its eye off the majestic Dravid, allowing him to put on one of the finest displays of batsmanship in a losing cause and become only the second player after Bradman to twice score three centuries in a series in England).
India were underprepared, knackered and unlucky, but their response to their misfortunes is unlikely to have the world’s poets wielding their quills in excitement, ready to poet out some stirring tales of steadfast heroism in the face of adversity.
Consequently, as a contest it has been strange and unsatisfying, like eating a plate of high-quality filet steak lathered in a once-delicious lemon mousse that had been left out of the fridge for a couple of weeks. For England, the Test series was unremittingly glorious. Players reached or maintained peaks that a year ago had seemed inconceivable. They were ruthless, dazzling, thrilling. Those are three adjectives that have not always been applicable to English cricket over the last 30 years. They have slap-hammered their opponents for seven innings victories in 14 Tests over 12 months – one more than England managed in 211 Tests over 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s. England have averaged 59 runs per wicket with the bat in 2011 – the best year ever for England batting, and the best by any team that has played more than six Tests in a year. Their pace bowlers have collectively averaged 24 this year – the second-best such figure by England since 1979, behind 2000, when Gough, Caddick, Cork and White eviscerated the hapless West Indians.
England had an almost supernaturally stellar Test summer, to follow a similarly successful winter, and ascended to the official top of the Test rankings with ease. Reaching summits is often considered tricky in mountaineering circles (I am reliably informed). England scaled the ICC Rankings Peak in the the manner of Hillary and Tensing unicycling the last few hundred metres up Mount Everest whilst juggling apples and singing Viking drinking songs.
It is hard to know exactly how good this England team is currently and can become in the future – they have had a happy knack of playing opponents who are in transition, meltdown or need of a holiday, and have exploited weakness, misfortune and fatigue with merciless power and precision. A winter in various parts of Asia will give further evidence, and next summer’s annoyingly brief showdown with South Africa could prove to be the crucial exhibit.
EXTRAS Lancashire clinched a staggering triumph in the County Championship, with two bone-jangling late victories in their final two matches. Last time Lancashire won the championship outright, in 1934, it heralded a 19-year spell in which Britain fought a World War, saw a king abdicate, and presided over the collapse of its empire, and in which, more importantly, England failed to win the Ashes. So whilst this extraordinary and long-overdue triumph will be rightly celebrated across Lancashire, the rest of the country and the government may be understandably more muted in its response.
When I was a cricket-obsessed boy, I patiently endured a four-year period from 1986 to 1989 when my country won three Tests out of 40. Fortunately, two of those wins were in one Ashes series, so the late ‘80s seldom get the credit they deserve as the absolute nadir of English cricket history. It was often said at the time that county cricket was not producing Test-quality cricketers. This was not entirely true. It was producing them, but they were mostly playing for England’s opponents. County cricket is still producing Test-quality cricketers, and England’s opponents, too busy to allow their players be properly schooled in English conditions, as they once were, are suffering the consequences, trying to learn on the hoof in the Test arena, like schoolchildren trying to cram in some desperate post-last-minute revision after a crucial exam has already started.
Following the trial of a pink ball in a County Championship game, the ICC has announced that in the forthcoming Sheffield Shield season in Australia, umpires’ index fingers will be painted fluorescent green, and topped with a flashing light. “We want to make the moment of dismissal a more spectator-friendly experience,” explained the secretary of the ICC Tinkering Around Committee. A further proposal under consideration is forcing batsmen’s helmets to be coated in a bronze casing, to ensure that a bowler clonking a batsman on the noggin with a bouncer makes the metal clang loud and amusing enough to prevent the crowd drifting off and thinking about gardening.
Apologies for my lengthy absence, which was caused by a range of factors: (1) spending a month telling jokes at the Edinburgh Festival; (2) taking my wife and children on holiday to compensate for spending a month away from home at the Edinburgh Festival; (3) trying to explain the difference between cricket and football to my two-year-old son; (4) Statsguru asking me for some time apart to think about where our relationship is going; and (5) a rest and recuperation period advised by my doctor to help adjust psychologically to the fact that England are now officially the universe’s leading Test Match cricket team, a state of affairs for which cricket supporters in my age bracket in this country have not been adequately conditioned. In fact, medical staff at cricket grounds have reported cricket fans complaining of a range of previously unimaginable ailments, including disbelief, delirium, smugness, an unshakeable suspicion that it is all an elaborate trick, terror that England’s ascent to the summit of the world’s greatest sport is an unarguable sign of impending apocalypse (it is all in The Book Of Revelations, if you read it backwards in John Arlott’s accent), and in several cases “feeling disconcertingly Australian”.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer