February 9, 2012

Whacked in the face with a live barracuda at 3.30am

A comprehensive review of the Pakistan-England series

A few quick thoughts and numbers arising from the Pakistan v England series (I will do a full review of it in next week’s World Cricket Podcast). Some people are outlandishly claiming that the series ended in a 3-0 whitewash of the Universe’s Number One-Ranked Cricket Machine by a side that recently was not merely plumbing depths of on-pitch ineptitude and off-pitch naughtiness, but was fitting a basin, bath and power shower in those depths. This story is so far-fetched that it must be discounted. It cannot have happened. It cannot have happened. It simply cannot have happened. I checked the rankings this morning. England are still the Universe’s Number One-Ranked Cricket Machine. It must have been a hoax.

Nevertheless, until the hoax is conclusively proved and accepted by the ICC, we must reflect on what allegedly happened. And what allegedly happened was one of the most extraordinary collective batting failures in cricket history, and one of the finest series wins of recent decades. England averaged below 20 runs per wicket for only the second time since Archduke Franz Ferdinand had his clogs controversially and unhelpfully popped, and registered their lowest team series runs-per-wicket figure since shortly after Tchaikovsky premiered his smash-hit ballet Sleeping Beauty, and shortly before the birth of professional French President and eight-time European Nose Of The Year winner Charles de Gaulle (in 1890 – thank you, Wikipedia).

England’s numbers 4, 5 and 6 (Pietersen, Bell and Morgan, with one innings at 6 by Prior) averaged 11.94, a figure that, since the First World War, has only been out-ineptituded once in a three-Test series ‒ by a motley collection of Indians against New Zealand in 1969-70.

The people I feel most sorry for, with regard to this historic disintegration of England’s stellar batting line-up, are the poor, unfortunate bat sponsors. For the last year they had got their money’s worth. In their previous 13 Tests over three series, England bats had been waggled in celebration on 93 occasions – 54 times on reaching 50, 22 times to mark a century, ten times for 150, six times to celebrate double-centuries, and once by Alistair Cook to mark England’s first 250 since Gooch clomped India all around Lord’s in 1990. These had been unprecedented times for English bat-waggling. But in the three UAE Tests, those same bats remained eerily unwaggly.

The five half-centuries England mustered in the series, none of which was converted into a hundred, represents the fewest times England batsmen have waggled their bats in celebration in a series of three or more Tests since the Ashes of 1888. Only once in that time have they scored fewer than five 50-plus scores – in the 1986 debacle against India, when England’s elite batsmen managed to pass 50 just three times. However, one thing you could not criticise England for in that series was failing to build on good starts. Of those three fifties, one became a century for Gooch and another a 183 for Gatting. It was the other 63 innings England’s batsmen played that were the problem.

This was also only the third series since the First World War in which England have mustered only one score above 75. The two previous occasions were the three-match series with India in 1946, when the third Test was heavily curtailed by rain, and the five-Test 1985-86 series in the West Indies, when England’s batting was heavily curtailed by the West Indian bowlers. Curtailed, and, on occasion, facially rearranged.

As wake-up calls go, for England, after a year in which they touched extraordinary heights against some far too ordinary opposition, this series was the equivalent of being whacked in the face with a live barracuda at 3.30am by a man dressed as a cross between Freddie Krueger and Richie Benaud. Bracing, unexpected, and hopefully not to be repeated.

Extras ● Azhar Ali justified his pre-series selection as The Confectionery Stall’s One To Watch with another innings of throwback craft and an almost medieval determination. Pre-medieval, perhaps. He gave the impression that, had he been a Roman gladiator facing up to a dangerously peckish man-eating lion in the Coliseum, he would have calmly blocked the lion with his sword, and kept blocking the lion with his sword until the lion got bored and tootled off to buy a hot dog from the fast-food stall outside. His partnership with Shafiq turned the Abu Dhabi Test, and his stand with the masterful Younis Khan effectively won the final match in Dubai. Both partnerships began with Pakistan trailing and having already lost second-innings wickets. Ajmal fractured England’s confidence in the first Test, and Abdur Rehman shattered its flimsy remnants in Abu Dhabi, but, in a bowler’s series, Azhar arguably had as much impact on the final scoreline.

● Rehman finished the series with 19 wickets at an average of 16.7, and, by the end of the series, some of the English pundits were even beginning to acknowledge that he is a useful bowler. I heard it said of him during the series that “he is no Derek Underwood”. However, nor has anyone else been, since Derek Underwood, other than Derek Underwood himself, and even he is not the bowler he was. Rehman currently has the best Test average of any left-arm spinner to have taken 30 Test wickets since the Kent Conniver ended his 297-wicket career, and the third best of any left-arm tweakman to have debuted in the last 50 years (behind Underwood and Pervez Sajjad).

● The ICC has rebuffed calls in the British media that they should step in and investigate after Saeed Ajmal appeared to admit in a TV interview that he was a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars. The Pakistan Cricket Board leapt to Ajmal’s defence, saying his comments had been misinterpreted, whilst the ICC confirmed that it had definitively cleared Ajmal of being an early-19th-century secret agent. One British journalist, who did not wish to be named, commented: “Well, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him in the background of a painting of the Battle of Austerlitz, wearing a distinctly French-looking hat and waving a baguette around. I don’t care what the evidence suggests.”

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