XIs November 29, 2011

Players with pairs lasting two or three balls XI

Ashwin's hundred reminded Andy Zaltzman of Agarkar's, which in turn reminded him of things that go quack-quack

I sat down this morning to write about the phenomenal conclusion of the Mumbai Test. However, a trawl for some tasty statistics sent me a little off-piste. I could have returned to the piste, but I did not, and I will therefore discuss the match not in this blog, but in the relaunch episode of my World Cricket Podcast, due out later this week.

Instead, I have another Confectionery Stall XI for you, arising from investigations into R Ashwin’s Wankhede hundred – a historically momentous innings which means that Sachin Tendulkar and Ashwin between them have now scored 100 international centuries. No wonder the crowd went noisily berserk.

Ashwin became the fifth frontline Indian bowler this millennium to score a Test hundred, after Harbhajan (twice), Irfan Pathan, Kumble and Agarkar. In the two previous millennia, the only Indian bowler to have scored a hundred batting at No. 8 or lower was Kapil Dev, who scored two of his eight Test tons there.

Ashwin’s was far from the most unexpected of these lower-order successes. Ajit Agarkar can safely claim that honour. He might have had one first-class hundred under his belt when he walked to the wicket at Lord’s in 2002, but he also had nine runs in his previous six Test innings under the same belt, plus a shining belt-buckle engraved with details of a frankly heroic eight ducks in 18 Test innings to date.

Half of that quacky flock of eight ducks constituted a world-record-breaking sequence of four consecutive first-ballers in Australia in 1999-2000, a run of instantaneous ineptitude broken when he defiantly stodged out for a marathon two-ball duck in his next innings, enabling him to complete back-to-back pairs totalling five balls at the crease. It takes something special to record a King Pair. It takes something almost divine to follow it up with a three-ball pair.

At Lord’s, the game was already lost, but Agarkar defied both a useful England attack and his own career average of 7.4 to plank a statistically gobsmacking 109 not out. It remained Agarkar’s only Test score of more than 50. Few Test hundreds can have emerged so unexpectedly from a seemingly inescapable swamp of statistical precedent.

He later launched a similarly ingenious cricketing ambush with the ball. In the Adelaide Test of 2003-04, having lulled the Australians into a mathematically-justified sense of false baggy-green security by never having taken more than three wickets in an innings in 17 previous Tests over five years, Agarkar kebabed his way through them with 6 for 41, to set up one of India’s finest victories. He never took more than three wickets in an innings again – in fact, after that series, he never took more than two wickets in a Test.

Agarkar, a consistently effective ODI performer, thus established himself as unquestionably the greatest all-round one-off-flash-in-the-pan Test player of all time: 26 Tests – one major success with the bat, one major success with the ball. Of the 41 cricketers who have converted their only Test fifty into a century, Agarkar played more than twice as many Tests as the next man on the list. And of all the bowlers who have taken 50 wickets or more in Tests, only Agarkar can claim that on the one and only occasion on which he took more than three wickets in an innings, he turned that success into a six-wicket masterclass.

Agarkar’s hit-and-run Test career, and in particular his monumental, gravity-defying run of rapid-fire ducks, has inspired the Confectionery Stall Players Of My Cricket-Watching Lifetime Who Have Been Out For Pairs Lasting A Total Of Just Two Or Three Balls XI.

(I have selected the batsmen based on the quality of their careers, and the bowlers for their all-round ineffectiveness of the specific match in which they harvested their double-quick-time pair. At its best, this is a well-balanced XI that could challenge most teams, particularly with the bat. At its worst, it would be all out for 0 in 2.2 overs in both innings.)

Mike Atherton: 3 balls, v South Africa, Johannesburg, 1999-2000

Four years earlier on the same ground, South Africa had failed to dismiss the Lancashire Limpet in 10 hours 43 minutes and 492 balls of match-saving resistance. This time, they did so twice in nine minutes of batting, encompassing three balls, only one of which did not result in Atherton trudging off to the sound of Fate giggling to herself about what a neat line in irony she can peddle when the mood takes her.

Virender Sehwag: 2 balls, v England, Edgbaston, 2011

An uncharacteristic match strike-rate of 0 for the Delhi Devastator proved one of the most immutable rules in the scientific universe: if you are thrown straight into a Test match after four months out of the game following a major operation, against the world’s strongest pace attack in swinging conditions, in a crumbling team, you will probably struggle, even if you are, in different circumstances, capable of hitting a run-a-ball triple-century off Steyn, Ntini, Morkel and Kallis. And Harris.

Kim Hughes: 3 balls, v West Indies, Melbourne, 1984-85

It is fair to say that resigning the baggy-green captaincy did not help Kim Hughes rediscover the twinkling form that had helped him score an eye-popping undefeated hundred against Holding, Roberts, Garner and Croft, scored whilst Australia were being skittled for 198 at the MCG on Boxing Day 1981. In his first Test after his tearful departure from high office, Garner and Marshall dismissed him for a golden duck and a seven-ball 2 (a perfectly respectable innings against the mid-1980s West Indians, to be fair). In the next match, back at the scene of his previous triumph, Walsh snared him second ball, and Garner condemned him to another first-ball blob, and Hughes’ Test career was over.

Mark Waugh: 3 balls, v Sri Lanka, Colombo, 1992

Probably the most elegant three-ball pair of all time. The marginally younger Waugh bounced back in the following Test in Moratuwa, improving considerably to register an equally elegant nine-ball pair.

Alec Stewart: 3 balls, v Australia, Brisbane, 2002-03

England began the 2002-03 Ashes with miniscule hopes of victory, after a generation of baggy-green pummellings. By the end of day one of the series, those hopes were barely visible with an electron microscope, and England’s humiliation was complete when Stewart, one of England’s doughtiest servants through those lean Ashes years, suffered a Warne-induced golden duck to complete his three-ball pair.

Adam Gilchrist: 2 balls, v India, Kolkata, 2001-02

The world’s most destructive bat hit the ball two fewer times than its owner’s pads managed to in the momentous Eden Gardens epic. After a characteristically annihilative hundred in the series opener, Gilchrist was trapped in front in the middle of a hat-trick by Harbhajan late on day one. Four wild and crazy days later, he was pinned again, this time by Tendulkar, as the little Master ‒ who has averaged two Test wickets a year over his 22-year career ‒ took three in 13 balls. I was following the drama on Ceefax in my flat in London. Despite the drawback of only being able to see the scorecard change every five minutes or so, it remains one of the most exciting cricket matches I’ve ever watched.

Gilchrist was out lbw for 1 in both innings of the final Test. He had only been leg before once in his first 15 Tests before Eden Gardens. He was not out in this manner again for another 34 Tests. He had clearly learnt the valuable lesson that hitting the ball with his bat was a better tactic than hitting it with his legs.

Andrew Flintoff: 3 balls, v India, Headingley, 2002

Having ploughed through 27 overs for the solitary and distinctly unglamorous wicket of Sanjay Bangar, the Lancashire Leviathan would have hoped for more than three balls’ worth of batting. But Flintoff was still some way from cracking Test cricket, and he became another Harbhajan first-ball lbw victim, before, in England’s follow-on, being snaffled second ball by Zaheer Khan to register his eighth duck in 21 Tests. It would be almost a year before Flintoff reappeared in the Test arena. In the interim, he had acquired some crackers. And he started cracking things.

Justin Kemp: 3 balls, v West Indies, Jamaica, 2001

Not only did Kemp somehow contrive to be comfortably out-batted by Courtney Walsh in his final Test, but he also picked up only one wicket in 34 overs on a seamer-friendly pitch. Kemp was promptly dispatched into the Test match undergrowth by the South African selectors, whence he would emerge only four-and-a-half years later, for a solitary valedictory Test.

Ajit Agarkar: 3 balls, v Australia, Sydney, 1999-2000

Selected for his three-ball Sydney double-bloop rather than his king-pair pratfall in Melbourne on the anti-strength of his SCG bowling – 0 for 95 in 19 overs of persistent uselessness as Australia clonked their way to 552 for 5. Next time he faced the Baggy Greens, Agarkar backed-up his five-innings-in-six-balls nano-batting heroics with another pair of quacks in Mumbai, although this double dud took a stately 27 balls to complete. He finished his career with eight ducks in 16 Test innings against Australia – no one has scored so many noughts in so few innings against any opposition.

Rangana Herath: 3 balls, v Pakistan, Galle, 2000

In his third Test, Herath gave the cricket world one of its least impressive all-round personal performances – his one-ball first innings and two-ball second sandwiched a 36-over trundle of 0 for 115, making him the only player ever to score a pair with the bat and concede a wicketless century with the ball in the same match. The Sri Lankan selectors took note of the history being made before their eyes, and did not pick Herath again for almost four years.

Maninder Singh: 3 balls, v Pakistan, Karachi, 1982-83

In a strikingly ineffective debut, Maninder began as he meant to go on – on a mission to become statistically the worst batsman ever to play 20 or more Tests. Sadly, his average of 3.80 in 35 Tests has since been eclipsed by a man with an even greater devotion to being unable to hit cricket balls, the immortal Chris Martin (2.47 in 60 matches), but Maninder’s international bow also featured 23 wicket-free overs as India were mercilessly pounded by their arch rivals.

Remarkably, Maninder was batting as high as 10. The selectors, understandably, had assumed that they could not possibly have found a less capable batsman than the 4.6-averaging Dilip Doshi. They were wrong. Doshi outshone his tail-end compadré. His pair lasted four balls.

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