England in India 2012-13 October 27, 2011

Six questions arising from the India-England series

A whitewash followed by its reverse can perplex the sharpest among us

I’m confused. England crunched India like a birthday biscuit in the Tests during the summer, then beat them conclusively in the one-day series. But now, just weeks later, they have been unceremoniously counter-crunched by the same opposition, honked 5-0 in a fiesta of grumpy ineptitude, by an Indian team that was as focused, calm and efficient as it wasn’t in England. What does it all mean? It is too early to say definitively. I think we can safely say that, on the evidence of this series, England will struggle in the 2011 World Cup. Subcontinental conditions do not suit their game. India, meanwhile, will be desperately trying to remember not to begin the 2019 World Cup in England (a) with much of their first-choice side absent, (b) after a long, exhausting and humiliating tour that followed hot on the heels of another Test series, the IPL and a World Cup, and (c) in a rainy September.

It is probably also fair to say that England have not entirely cracked ODI cricket yet, but that MS Dhoni has.

Does it matter that England’s batsmen keep getting out after making a start? Strap in, stats fans, I’ve been digging again. Don’t tell the wife. (I’ll give you a couple of paragraphs to brace yourselves for the stat. Gather your family round, I think they should all be told.)

On a global scale, humanity probably has more significant issues to address than England’s batsmen playing themselves in and then playing themselves out again with alarming rapidity. And for Britain as a nation, this matter resides below staving off economicageddon, wondering if we can start exporting our old people to ease the pensions problem, and bickering over whether we should leave Europe and catapult ourselves into the mid-Atlantic instead. However, in the realm of one-day cricket it certainly does matter.

In Mohali, Ravi Bopara played arguably the archetypal modern England ODI innings – 24 off 32. It was not a dismal failure, but it was as close to unhelpful in the circumstances as he could have managed. Admittedly England could have done with a few more archetypal 24s off 32s in Kolkata yesterday, but of the impressive selection of Achilles heels they have flashed at the cameras during this series (historians are reassessing whether Achilles was in fact a centipede, not a man), the infuriating habit of batting quite well for a bit and then getting out was the most swollen.

STAT ALERT. Here it comes. It’s about batsmen getting out in the 20s and 30s. 5-4-3-2-1. Blast Off.

In ODIs since the end of the 2007 World Cup, top-seven England batsmen have been out between 20 and 39 on 152 occasions, compared to the 196 times that they have gone on to reach 40. So 43.7% of the times an England batsman has reached 20 (and has not finished not out between 20 and 39), he is out before he reaches 40. Of Test-playing nations in that time, England are only sixth best at top-seven batsmen not getting out in the 20s and 30s, just behind New Zealand (43.4%). The top four is as follows: South Africa in first (32% dismissed between 20 and 39), Australia in second (36.7%), India in third (38.5%), Sri Lanka in fourth (39.5%).

In this period, the highest ODI win percentage table is: South Africa in first (68.1%); Australia in secnd (67.7%), India in third (62.7%), and Sri Lanka in fourth (57.3%).

Have a glass of water.

The only significant mover between the two charts is Pakistan – seventh-best (44.3%) at not getting out in the 20s and 30s, but with the fifth-highest win rate (56.8%) ‒ nudging England (49.0%) down one to seventh, just behind New Zealand (50.0%).

I am not a professional statistician, and I don’t have the certificates to prove that, and I am sure other statistics could be found that produce a similar correlation. However, this mega stat does suggest that telling your top-order batsmen not to get out in the 20s and 30s, and those top-order batsmen following that instruction, is, as has long been suspected, a good idea.

Judging by the crowds at the matches, this series captured the Indian public’s imagination in the same way that a baby spider catches an Apache helicopter in its web. I love cricket. Should I be concerned? Yes. The cunning formula of overpriced tickets and a less-than-entirely-cordial match-day experience successfully kept crowds down at the neutral matches in India during the World Cup. That scheme has now been rolled out to cover India’s own matches as well. If cricket has not quite killed its golden goose, then it has certainly tied it to a radiator in a dungeon, punched it repeatedly in the beak, pointed a gun at its head, and screamed: “Lay more eggs, you feathery idiot, or I’m going to stuff you with sausage meat and roast you to the other side of Christmas.” The goose, understandably, is finding it hard to relax into its most productive egg-laying form.

Should Jonathan Trott be in the England ODI side? Presumably for the England selectors this is not a matter of much debate. Unless they are easily influenced by internet message boards. I imagine that, when picking their ODI batting line-up, they start with a blank sheet of paper, write Trott’s name on it, and then start thinking about the other players to fit alongside him. They might write Eoin Morgan’s name down first, but have sadly spent too much of the last year crossing it out again when they remember that he is injured.

Trott is not the ideal modern ODI player, but not many teams in any format have 11 ideal players, and he is still very good. In the two years since his debut, his average (51) has been excellent, close to the top of the international tree, and his strike rate (78) has been unspectacular but adequate – similar over the same period to Yuvraj Singh, Michael Clarke, Ross Taylor, Graeme Smith and Ponting.

The problem is that Trott has been surrounded by other batsmen whose strike rates have also been adequate but whose averages have been close to useless. Dropping Trott would be like firing your accountant after you spent your life savings on a giant inflatable Darrell Hair, left it tied up outside the Sri Lankan embassy, and found it repeatedly punctured the following morning. The accountant is not to blame.

How should Trott bat in ODIs? In Mohali, Trott scored 98 off 116, a soundly constructed innings that lacked a definitive final flourish, but which facilitated a strong team score. Clearly it would have been preferable if he had scored 198 off 116. In Mumbai, Trott made a brisk start. But again he made the mistake of not converting his 39 off 48 into 198 off 116. It is starting to look like a behavioural pattern. Some critics also seemed to think that it would have been even more preferable if he had hammered his first ball for four, then smashed his stumps down and marched off proudly announcing that he had given the innings some early impetus. And boosted his career strike rate in the process. Moreover, he would have allowed England’s volcanic middle order more time to Vesuvius it about at 12 an over as they always do.

Is it fair to criticise England for being a bit stroppy in the field? No. They are all worried sick about the Greek financial crisis. It is a tense time for everyone. However, results suggest that the somewhat inexplicable strops have not aided performance. This could, of course, be coincidence. Maybe a study could be done to analyse the effects of grumpiness on cricketing success. Perhaps Donald Bradman’s Test innings could be cross-referenced with his personal diaries to calculate whether his rare failures coincided with him being particularly unhappy at a new shade of paint in which his wife had just painted their kitchen, or irritated that the wi-fi in the Australian dressing room was not working, or generally feeling that life was ultimately pointless and we are all just dust in the winds of history.

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