An XI of total losers
A rather bizarre English international summer concluded with a nostalgia-fuelled display of English incompetence at The Oval, skittled by a rookie West Indian team amidst a flurry of schoolboy errors – a curious bookend to a season in which they had often struck perfection and seldom dipped below excellence. England’s cricketing present and future have seldom seemed rosier. Helped by the fact that several other countries’ cricketing presents and futures, in the Test arena at least, seem as rosy as a concrete car park.
My personal highlight of the season was the colossal showdown between England’s unceasingly incisive pace attack and the majestic throwback batsmanship of Rahul Dravid, who presented the only significant barrier to one of the finest team series bowling performances of recent years. The Bangalore Bulwark became the sixth man to score his team’s only three centuries in a series, and the third to do so in a losing cause, after Lara in Sri Lanka in 2001-02 and HW Taylor for South Africa against England in 1922-23.
It is often said that in professional sport winning is the only thing that matters. This is patently rubbish. For fans, if not for players. In tribute to Dravid’s heroics in a team that was so conclusively routed, therefore, here is the Confectionery Stall Great Series Performances in Defeated Teams XI.
Criteria for selection: candidates must have performed wonders over the course of a losing series, ideally with minimal or non-existent support, and even more ideally whilst his team was being ground to a pulp like a piece of garlic in a recently divorced French chef’s kitchen.
Part one: Batsmen and Wicketkeeper
Openers: Jack Hobbs & Herbert Sutcliffe, England in Australia, 1924-25. The stats: Hobbs: 573 runs in 5 Tests, average 63, three centuries; Sutcliffe 734 runs, average 81, 4 centuries. Series result: trounced 4-1. Next highest England run-scorer: Woolley, 325. Centuries by other team-mates: 1.
England’s legendary openers are selected as a proven magnificent-in-defeat partnership for their heroic efforts in a 4-1 series drubbing. By the end of the third Test, each man had scored three centuries, and between them they had scored 1063 runs at an average of 88, and added 739 in six partnerships. And England were 3-0 down. Which must have been almost as annoying for them as it was for the designers of the delightful interior décor on the Titanic. “Well, we did our bit,” they must have gruntled, “and they didn’t ask us to make it all waterproof.”
Another century partnership, and Herbert Sutcliffe’s fourth hundred, followed as England won the fourth Test, before both failed in the fifth, and the Baggy Greens completed a 4-1 clouting. If man cannot live by bread alone, cricket teams cannot live by immortal opening partnerships alone either.
No. 3: Rahul Dravid, India in England, 2011 The stats: 461 runs in four Tests; average 76; three centuries; average balls per dismissal: 160. Series result: flambéed 4-0 (including two innings defeats). Next highest Indian run-scorer: Tendulkar, 273. Centuries by team-mates: 0. Combined series average of other top-seven batsmen: 22. Combined balls per dismissal of other top-seven batsmen: 47.
Before Dravid came to England this year, he had scored only one of his 32 Test hundreds in the 41 matches he had played in and lost. In the space of little over a month, he did so three more times, each innings a timeless monument of technical, temperamental and aesthetic mastery, each in the first innings, and each against a rampantly remorseless swing attack that reduced his rightly vaunted team-mates to a smouldering pile of confused and disorientated rubble.
It ranks as one of the great acts of solitary cricketing defiance. In India’s four first innings in the series, Dravid scored 388 runs, faced 789 balls, and was dismissed only twice – once striking out for quick runs with the tail, once by a Bresnan outswinger that would have cleaned up Zeus or Bradman at their very best ‒ whilst the rest of a theoretically magnificent top seven, sprinkled with undisputed greats of the game, combined to average 20. It is hard to imagine Dravid losing his temper in the dressing room. He seems no more likely to smash a television with a cricket bat than Chris Martin is to score a dazzling match-winning double-hundred. But he must at least once have looked at the rest of his team with a “Does anyone else fancy a game?” look in his eyes.
No. 4: Brian Lara, West Indies in Sri Lanka, 2001-02 The stats: 688 runs in three Tests; average 114; three centuries (including one double). Series result: splattered like a steamrollered hedgehog 3-0 (including two losses by 10 wickets). Next highest West Indies run-scorer: Ramnaresh Sarwan, 318. Centuries by team-mates: 0. Combined series average of other top-seven batsmen: 22.
No one has scored more Test hundreds in defeat than Lara. Admittedly no one has had quite the range of losing-hundred-scoring opportunities as the Trinidad Titan, who scored 14, including three doubles and five more over 150 – which is 14 more defeated hundreds than Wally Hammond, Geoff Boycott, Graeme Smith, Sourav Ganguly, Everton Weekes and Alec Stewart have managed between them in 167 losing Tests.
In 2001-02, against Murali and Vaas at their considerable peaks and on their home turf, West Indies were at their hapless post-decline-and-fall worst, and Lara was at his peerless and mesmeric best, a Yehudi Menuhin fiddling out perfect Mozart sonatas to the backing of a low-grade school thrash-metal band. He scored 688 runs in the three Tests, including 351 in the third, the record match aggregate by a batsman on a losing team. Aside from Sarwan, who contributed three half-centuries, Lara received as much support as a plate of foie gras at a vegan cooking competition.
Against Murali, Lara scored 286 runs and was out twice; his team-mates managed to hammer the Kandy Konjuror for 250 runs whilst losing 22 wickets. Facing Vaas, Lara hit 148 for 1. His colleagues defiantly tonked the left-arm schemer for 230 runs in exchange for 25 wickets.
No. 5. Clyde Walcott, West Indies v Australia, 1955 The stats: 827 runs in five Tests; average 82.7; five centuries. Series result: chewed 3-0. Next-highest West Indies run-scorer: Everton Weekes, 469.
Walcott became the only player ever to hit five centuries in a single series, and still contrived to end up on the wrong side of a 3-0 series hammering. In the three Tests West Indies lost, this particular 33.3% of the Three Ws scored 493 runs and three centuries – 300 runs more than his most productive team-mate, and 144 more than the other 66.6% of the Three Ws combined.
No. 6 and wicketkeeper: Andy Flower, Zimbabwe v South Africa, 2001-02 The stats: 422 runs in two Tests; average 211; two centuries. Series result: 1-0 (marmaladed in the first Test, drew the second). Next highest Zimbabwe run-scorer: Masakadza, 153.
Flower became the only wicketkeeper ever to score two centuries in a series in losing Tests, and he did so in one match – the first of a two-Test rubber against a powerful South Africa team, in Harare. Flower began by keeping wicket as South Africa plundered 600 for 4. After conceding precisely zero byes in 10 hours of unrewarding glovework (and having to endure the spiritual heartache of witnessing a Gary Kirsten double-hundred at soul-endangeringly close quarters), he soon came to the wicket at 51 for 3, to face a five-prong pace attack of Pollock, Nel, Kallis, Ntini and Klusener, plus the slightly less stomach-rumbling tweak of Henderson. Almost five hours later, he was last man out for 142 as Zimbabwe were dismissed for 286.
Following on, his top-order team-mates gave him even less respite – Flower barely had time for a cup of tea and a crack at the cryptic crossword before he was on his way to the crease again, at 25 for 3. He proceeded to bat undefeated for 10 hours, before last-man Hondo was irritatingly out, stranding Flower on 199. Which must have chafed a little. South Africa romped home by nine wickets. Flower had scored 341 for 1. His team-mates collectively had managed 301 for 19. He followed it up with 67 and 14 not out in the drawn second Test, for a series average of 211.
The previous year, he had averaged 270 in another series loss in India – but he is selected in this XI for the South Africa series due to the almost total lack of support received in Harare, the quality of the bowling he defied, and the comprehensiveness of the defeat. If only he had joined the England set-up in the early 1990s. We could have done with someone who couldn’t help averaging over 200 in a series.
That is the top order of the Great Series Performances in Defeated Teams XI. A bunch of total losers, I’m sure you will agree.
It is a subjective selection, of course, and some magnificent if ultimately futile efforts missed out – Michael Vaughan in Australia in 2002-03, when he scored three mellifluous centuries against, variously, McGrath, Warne, Gillespie, Bichel, MacGill and Lee. However, he only passed 50 once in the first seven innings of the series, by which time England were 3-0 down and following on in the fourth, so he loses out to Hobbs. Plus, I think Hobbs should still be in the England team. There is no substitute for experience.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul has played two phenomenal series in a thrashed West Indies team – 446 runs against England in 2007, 442 against Australia in 2008, in both of which he was only dismissed three times; making 50-plus 10 times in 11 innings and turning four of those into centuries. All whilst his team mates mostly looked on politely and tried to work out which end of their bats to hold. On reflection, he should definitely have been selected, surreally crabby stance or not. But I’ve written it now, and it is well past my bedtime. And there was a contractual dispute with the team’s sponsors, Walcott’s agent said he was available and he got the nod instead. And I didn’t want three left-handers consecutively in the batting order. And Walcott took four wickets in the 1955 series. And could keep wicket if Flower hurt his finger. The selector’s decision is final.
Your own submissions would be warmly welcomed, and discussed at length with my wife, who is fascinated by such matters. The bowlers will be revealed next time.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer