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When historians sit down at their special historical desks in decades to come and compose their unarguable histories of the year 2011, they will scratch their history-loving chins, twiddle their retrospectivising pencils, and wonder to themselves: “What was the most important thing that happened in that famous year? Was it the wave of popular revolutions around the Arab world? The forces of technology-enhanced democracy unleashed around the planet? The European economy Titanic-ing itself into an iceberg of idiocy? The violent deaths of some of the universe’s least desirable dinner companions? Or was it the rebirth of Test cricket, as a new generation of star fast bowlers emerged, and groundsmen around the world remembered that their principal purpose in life is not to bore spectators to tears and make fast bowlers wish their parents had never met?”
Time will tell which box they tick on their multiple-choice answer sheet. But they will surely give considerable thought to the last of those options. Some may even choose it. They would, of course, be wrong. And, hopefully, fired from whatever professorship they happen to occupy.
However, the last couple of months have been the most exciting for the Test game for a considerable time, a catalogue of engrossing contests in which momentum has shifted with each couple of wickets and each partnership of 30 or more, decorated by individual performances of enticing promise for the future. Test match cricket has been buffeted about like an unwanted penguin in an uncaring tumble dryer in recent years, but that penguin has emerged, flapped its wings, barked, and resolved to give flight another wholehearted attempt.
The year ended with the two teams that had begun the year tussling for the No. 1 Test spot sink to disappointingly supine defeats. India caved too easily in the face of excellent Australian fast bowling, whilst South Africa, for the third series in a row and fourth in six, contrived to lose a 1-0 lead, this time to an inspired Sri Lanka, who claimed their first win of the post-Murali era, at the 16th attempt. In a country where they had never previously won. And where they had averaged 209 all out per innings in their previous eight Tests. Seven of which they had lost (four by an innings), with one rain-aided draw. And with a bowling attack that had not taken 20 wickets in its previous 12 away Tests over three years. It was one of Sri Lanka’s greatest wins.
It was also one of South Africa’s worst modern defeats, rounding off a deeply disappointing year in both Tests and ODIs, in which a team that has almost all the component parts of a great side consistently proved itself not to be one. Yet. The Proteas can look like a top-end Rolls Royce in one match, but when the clock strikes 1-0, they seem to turn into a pumpkin, with Graeme Smith sitting confusedly at the wheel of the pumpkin like a disappointed Cinderella, banging the pumpkin dashboard and muttering, “Where’s the accelerator on this thing? Vroom vroom. Come on. Vrooom. Ah, shucks. I could have really done with more from that Prince.”
Dhoni’s India picked up where they left off in England, batting with insufficient technique and application against the moving ball. A questionable tactic, at best. From a position of first-innings control, if not dominance, they lost 17 wickets for 237, thus counteracting both their own strong team bowling performance and Australia’s own insufficient technique and application against the moving ball.
India should be in a better state to recover from their first-Test blooper than they were in England, whilst Australia have shown that they have the capacity to lose a match from almost anywhere. An intriguing series looms as these two fragile giants trade cricketing slaps with each other.
One of the prominent trends this Test year, and particularly of the 2011-12 season so far, has been the performance of bowlers new to Test cricket. In Melbourne, Pattinson again looked a potential world-beater ‒ how was he allowed to slip through England’s global recruitment net ‒ and Yadav confirmed his promise with another muscular and skilful display.
(Strap in, stats fans. I’ve spent far too long working all this out, to give statistical backing to an already widely observed phenomenon, so you can all damn well read it to justify me staying up well past my bedtime for a prolonged and intimate session with Statsguru.)
Bowlers who have made their Test debut in 2011 have, between them, taken 319 wickets at an average of 28.8. (I have included bowlers and allrounders, but not batsmen who dobble a few down every now and again. Even if they have taken wickets. They have no place in the numbers. I don’t care if it is allegedly the season of goodwill.) In 2010, debutant bowlers took 165 wickets at 41.4. From 2000 to 2010, the average yearly haul by bowlers in their debut Test year was 152 wickets at 38.7.
Furthermore, over the last 12 months, debut-year bowlers have outperformed those who had played Test cricket before 2011, who collectively averaged 33.5. Thus, bowlers new to tests in 2011 have been 16% more effective than their more experienced colleagues – from 2000 to 2010, bowlers in their first year of Tests had, on average, been 15% less effective than those who had already played.
Nor is it that these statistics have been skewed by one or two particularly outstanding newcomers. Bowlers who have debuted this year have taken 18 five-wicket hauls, shared between 12 different players from eight different countries, all of them under the age of 27, six of them aged 22 or less. Only England, who did not give a debut to a new bowler this year, and Sri Lanka, cannot boast a newcomer with a five-for this year.
By comparison, in 2010, seven five-wicket hauls were taken by players new to Tests; there were five newcomer five-fors each in 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2001 and 2000; only one apiece in 2005, 2004 and 2002; and a slightly rogue 10 in 2003.
Of course, these numbers are, by their nature, a little random – a bowler who makes his debut in a Boxing Day Test has less opportunity to shine in his debut year than one who prances onto the Test scene in January; and due to not wanting to wake up in the morning with pages of meaningless numbers drifting before my eyes, or to alienate my children at breakfast with exciting discoveries about the performance of bowlers in their debut years during the 1890s, my research only goes back to 2000. Even Statsguru was begging me to leave it alone by the end.
However, the sheer number of newly blooded bowlers who have made an immediate and striking impact on the Test scene this year bodes well for the next few years. Not for batsmen who do not particularly like playing pitched-up swing bowling (i.e. all batsmen), but for Test cricket and its supporters, for whom memorable bat versus ball contests have not been as plentiful as they would have liked. Provided, of course, that all these new bowling stars do not simply disappear into the Twenty20 ether, fall to pieces under the merciless hammer of the international schedule, or decide that banging it in short of a length outside off stump to keep the runs down is the way to bowling nirvana.
Next time: The Confectionery Stall 2011 Awards Ceremony.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.