The Losers XI Part 2
Welcome to Part 2 of the Official & Unarguable Confectionery Stall All-Time Great Series Performances In Comprehensively Defeated Teams XI ‒ The Bowlers. Please note that, for the sake of clarity, I have added the word “comprehensively” to the team name, thus ruling out, for example, Warne’s mesmeric 2005 Ashes, Imran Khan’s brilliance in narrowly failing to haul his Pakistan team to victory in England in 1982 (17 wickets at 14, 200 runs at 67, in the two defeats in a 2-1 loss), and Courtney Walsh’s 34 wickets at a nostalgia-fuelled average of 12 in a close-fought 3-1 defeat to England in 2000. All brilliant performances, all ultimately unsuccessful. But none for teams that were being battered like a suicidal haddock in a chip shop.
There was much deliberation around the family breakfast table over the make-up of the bowling attack. My four-year-old daughter eloquently put the case for Alec Bedser’s 1950-51 Ashes heroics earning him a place in this most illustrious of XIs, but was shouted down by my two-year-old son, who thought that having the 1924-25 Maurice Tate alongside his team-mates Hobbs and Sutcliffe would help engender a suitably defiant team spirit, and made his point forcibly, and with projectile baked beans. The final selection, to add to England’s long-dead opening legends, Dravid, Lara, Walcott and Flower (wk) is as follows:
No. 7 and captain: Kapil Dev, India v West Indies, 1983-84
The stats: 29 wickets in six Tests, average 18. Next highest Indian wicket-taker: Shastri (12 at 47); next best average: Maninder Singh (10 at 33). Result: clonked 3-0. In the three defeats, Kapil took 18 wickets at 18; no other Indian bowler managed more than six. In the West Indies batting line-up: Greenidge, Haynes, Gomes, Richards, Lloyd, Dujon, and more.
As a bowler, Kapil Dev was often magnificent in defeat – 10 of his 23 five-wicket Test hauls came in the 31 matches he lost with India (placing him third on the all-time list of five-wicket innings in losing causes, behind Murali (15) and Richard Hadlee (11)). By comparison, Kapil took five wickets three times in 24 wins, on 10 occasions in 75 draws, and a forgivable zero in one tie. (Hang on, Dr Fact, that is a large number of draws, isn’t it?) (What was cricket trying to do to itself at that time?) (Was there a curious belief that the best way to nurture Test cricket was to slowly pile-drive spectators into a numbed torpor of listlessness, whence all they could think about was the endless glories of their team not losing and the ultimate pointlessness of life?) (75 draws in 131 Tests.) (That is utterly ridiculous.) (I digress.)
He never galloped down a more magnificent road to defeat than when leading India to a 3-0 home clubbing by the mighty West Indies in 1983-84, most especially in the third Test in Ahmedabad. With India 1-0 down in the series and 40 runs behind after the first innings, Kapil took 9 for 83 in an unbroken 30-over spell that winched his team into contention. Any fast bowler attempting a 30-over spell in the current 21st-century science-enhanced era would be surrounded by physios, coaches, agents, psychiatrists, biomechanical gurus and mothers screaming at him to pull himself together and feign a chin injury in order to escape the field of play for a rubdown, a chinwag and a cup of tea. But Kapil bowled West Indies out for 201, and India were left needing just 242 to win.
Unfortunately for Kapil, the key missing words in that last sentence are (a) “off the bowling of Marshall, Holding, Daniel and Davis”. And (b) “on a pitch so spicy even a drunken British stag party wouldn’t eat it”. Meaning that the word “just” had no business appearing in this blog. India duly sank to 39 for 7, then 63 for 9, before Maninder Singh’s greatest day as a batsman – scoring 15, holding out for 81 minutes against a barrage of high-octane mega-pace, heroically bumping his career average up from the disappointing low-to-mid-3s to solidly into the entirely respectable high-3s, and being described by no less an authority than Wisden as being “relatively undaunted”) ‒ edged his team over 100.
Kapil was left with some sore legs, a princely moustache, the consolation of having pocketed the best Test innings figures by a losing player, and the comforting knowledge that, in the next Test, his opening bowling partner would be the fire-breathing bouncer-flinging monster that was Ravi Shastri.
No. 8: Maurice Tate, England in Australia, 1925-25 The stats: 38 wickets in fiv Tests, average 23. Next highest England wicket-taker: Kilner, 17. Bowled 316 eight-ball overs in the series (equivalent to 84 six-ball overs per Test) – next most overs by an Englishman: Kilner, 179. Result: marmaladed 4-1. In England’s four defeats, Tate took 31 wickets at 23, with four five-wicket innings. Of England’s other bowlers in those losses, only Kilner (12 at 27 in two Tests) took more than 10 wickets, averaged under 50, or bowled more than half the overs Tate bowled.
The third member of this team to emanate from England’s comprehensively clouted Ashes losing 1924-25 team, Tate reignites his statistically fruitful but resultistically disastrous combination with Hobbs and Sutcliffe. The Sussex schemer, in his first year of Test cricket, was a staggering mixture of incisive and durable, shouldering the burden for English bowling like a dutiful conservationist carrying an aqua-phobic elephant across the Serengeti.
He was never quite as lethal again, with only one more five-wicket innings in the rest of his Test career. Perhaps there is a reason that most modern doctors that I have consulted now advise that bowling over 2500 balls in a series on hard pitches is not necessarily beneficial for your long-term fitness.
In his next two Ashes series, Tate took far fewer wickets at far higher cost. And England won them both. A true losing-heroically legend.
No. 9: Rodney Hogg, Australia v England, 1978-79 The stats: 41 wickets in six Tests, average 12.85, including five five-wicket innings and two ten-wicket matches. Result: donkeyed 5-1. Next best Australian bowler: Hurst, 25 wickets at 23.
Bowlers relished this Packer-neutered series – non-legendary England tweakman and now selectorial overlord Geoff Miller took 23 wickets at 15 in the 6 Tests, but could harvest only 37 (average 40) in his other 28 Tests. Hogg had some able support, but England fielded a decent batting line-up, and, in his debut series, the Melbourne Motorarm obliterated it with some unremittingly baggy-green pace. Sadly for him, his own batting line-up counter-obliterated itself similarly unremitting persistence, and Hogg emerged with a soaring reputation, a starring role in Australia’s biggest ever Ashes defeat, and a nagging sense that he probably deserved better.
Like Tate, his kettle never boiled quite so bubblily again. He too took only one more five-wicket haul, and never more than 11 wickets in any other series.
No. 10: Muttiah Muralitharan, Sri Lanka v Australia, 2003-04 The stats: 28 wickets in three Tests, average 23. Next best Sri Lankan bowler: Vaas, 11 wickets at 34. Result: kneaded, baked and eaten 3-0.
Statistically, this selection should be non-contentious – 28 wickets at 23 in a 3-0 home series whitewash. But this whitewash did not wash quite as white as some whitewashes. Three times, Murali bowled his team into a first-innings lead (15 wickets at 15 runs apiece in the three first innings). Three times he was trumped by Warne in the second ‒ Murali took 13 at 32, Warne 14 at 16 to power-whirl Australia to victory on his spectacular return to Test cricket after his diuretic blooper.
Nevertheless, anyone who takes 28 wickets in three Tests deserves better than a 3-0 blooting. And Australia were very good at batting in those days. The Kandy Konjuror is in.
No. 11: Courtney Walsh, West Indies in South Africa, 1998-99 The stats: 22 wickets in four Tests (missed one match through injury), average 18. Next highest wicket-taker: Ambrose, 13. Result: ritually disembowelled 5-0.
Walsh is selected not only for his sterling bowling against a strong South African team during one of the innumerable disastrous away series that have come to characterise modern West Indian cricket, but for his sterling bowling in several other disastrous away series as well. Before this series, he had taken 14 wickets at 21 in a 3-0 horror-show in Pakistan (two defeats by an innings, one by 10 wickets, next highest West Indies wicket-taker: Dillon, with five). After it, he reached even higher peaks of defeated magnificence with the aforementioned 34 at 12 in England (when only Ambrose, with 17 at an average of 18, also took more than eight wickets), before rounding off his career with 25 more victims at 19 in a 2-1 defeat in a five-Test home series against South Africa.
As West Indies became progressively worse, Walsh seemed to become progressively better. In all, he took 186 wickets at 25 in 43 Test losses (more defeats than were suffered by Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Garner, Croft and Patterson combined), making him one of the greatest losers in sporting history. In a manner of speaking.
That is the final XI. A useful team, I think, albeit one with a slightly collapsible tail, and perhaps rendered more vulnerable by the undeniable fact that Hobbs, Sutcliffe and Tate would all struggle to pass a fitness test these days. And a team that I am confident would score multiple centuries and average above 70 with the bat, and skittle their opponents cheaply and repeatedly. And still find a way to lose.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer