January 25, 2012

Beaten like a naughty egg white

England do not lose too many Test matches these days

England do not lose too many Test matches these days. But when they do lose, they lose properly. They go down hard, they go down fast, and they go down in a blaze of statistical ignominy. Since the Flower-Strauss era began, with an almost mathematics-defying innings defeat after collapsing to 51 all out in Jamaica three years ago, England have lost only five more Tests (which, to put their current travails in perspective, is as many as they lost in six weeks in Australia in 2006-07, or in two months against the West Indies whenever they played them in the mid-1980s). They have won 20, drawn 11, and risen to the top of the world rankings. But when they fail, they do not mess about with half-measures. They take a treble measure of neat cricketing vodka, and wash it down with a meths chaser.

The ten-wicket Dubai splattering by a resurgent, skilful and determined Pakistan followed in the pattern of the 267-run clouting in Perth in last winter’s Ashes (do not let Australians persuade you that was in fact “last summer’s Ashes”, it was not; it was in the winter; after watching it, I went outside and had to put a woolly hat on; therefore it was winter; the Australians play cricket in winter; that is a fact). The sequence was partially interrupted by a fluctuating four-wicket loss to Pakistan at The Oval, a close game but one that nevertheless featured some historically inept batting by England. Prior to that, England had been clobbered by an innings by South Africa in Johannesburg, and by Australia at Headingley.

All of these defeats have featured collapses of 1929 stock market proportions - displays of landmark batting uselessness in an era notable for its unusually persistent and increasingly dominant successes, and also for its dogged, match-saving rearguards. The Jamaica debacle was England’s third-lowest Test score of all time, and only the fifth time that ten Englishmen have failed to reach double figures in a Test innings; at Headingley, England had eight players dismissed for 3 or fewer in a Test innings for the first time in their history, registered 13 dismissals for less than five runs for the second time ever (the first was another 1880s scorebook-burning classic), and were dismissed in under 34 overs in an Ashes Test innings for the second time in 105 years; in Johannesburg, England failed to last 550 balls in their two innings combined for just the third time in over 100 years; at The Oval, all of England’s top six were dismissed for 17 or fewer in the first innings of a Test for the first time since 1887, none of England’s bottom six scored more than 6 runs in the second innings of a Test for only the seventh time in their history, and England lost their last seven wickets for less than 30 runs for the first time in over a decade; in Perth, they failed to last 100 overs in the two innings of a Test in Australia for the first time since 1903-04.

Dubai was the latest outbreak of proper, unmitigated batting failure. England slunk to 42 for 4 in the first innings and 35 for 4 in the second ‒ the fifth-worst match performance by England's top four wickets since the First World War. They then subsided to 94 for 7 and 87 for 7 – the first time since 1988 that England have lost their seventh wicket for less than 100 in both innings of a Test, and the sixth-worst match performance by England’s top seven wickets since the treaty of Versailles heralded 21 years of glorious peace for the world. (Those 21 years, of course, followed four years of war – giving Versailles an 84% success rate, and thus making it a better treaty than Bradman was a batsman. Arguably.)

It is a curiosity that England’s rare failures are so cricketingly catastrophic. They have succeeded through collective excellence with bat and ball. They seem to fail with similarly impressive levels of teamwork.

They have also tended to respond positively to their isolated failures. They may fall off their horse from time to time, but they get straight back on that horse, feed it a sugar lump, and then Knievel it over a row of buses. Each of their last four defeats has been followed by a victory. And a big victory – by and innings and lots in Melbourne in the Ashes, and at Lord’s against Pakistan, by 181 in Chittagong in the first Test after the Johannesburg blooper, and by 197 at The Oval after seeming to be intent on hurling the Ashes away at Leeds. They also followed the 51 all out schemozzle with 566 for 9 in the next Test.

Certainly England were deservedly beaten in Dubai, and they were beaten like a naughty egg white in a 1970s police investigation. On the evidence of the Flower-Strauss years, from that beaten egg white, a deliciously crunchy meringue may grow in the Abu Dhabi Test. However, this admirable Pakistan team, only the second Pakistan Test side to contain (a) seven players over the age of 30 and (b) no one under the age of 25, is unlikely to be quite such compliant assistant dessert chefs as Australia were in Melbourne in 2010-11, or as a very, very different Pakistan team was at Lord’s 18 months ago.

Extras The more eagle-eyed Confectionery Stall readers among you may have noticed that I did not entirely predict the narrative and outcome of the first Test. My forecast of a one-nil series victory for England is now looking distinctly unlikely. At best. The two players I highlighted as the Ones to Watch did not adorn the match with scintillating brilliance. Azhar Ali adorned it with one solitary run, and Monty Panesar did not adorn it at all, other than by looking on lugubriously from the pavilion, wondering whether, given his glorious undefeated rearguard in his previous Test, in Cardiff in 2009, he might have been able to stem England’s collapses. In my minimal defence, I did write that England’s obviously imminent victory might not happen if they were “scuppered by the wiles of Saeed Ajmal”. At least seven true words out of 1100. That is by no means the worst performance ever by a British journalist. If I can indeed describe myself as a journalist. Which I certifiably cannot.

Some stats: Saeed Ajmal became the first bowler to take ten wickets in a Test against England since Murali (twice) in 2006, and the first Pakistan bowler to do so since Abdul Qadir, who did it three times in 1987. England had lost 16 wickets to specialist spin bowlers in their previous three major series, at an average of 86 runs per wicket. In Dubai, Ajmal and Abdur Rehman took 14 for 186. They bowled very well. England batted very badly. Before the last Test, Ajmal had taken 21 wickets in UAE Tests at an average of 34.

I did promise to write about India’s struggles in this blog. I have not done that. Many other people have done that. I may do it next time. Unless the struggles have been miraculously cured. Or become significantly worse.

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