England in Sri Lanka 2011-12 April 3, 2012

A winter of discontent

For England's bowlers who are still waiting for apologies from their batsmen
25

England have one final chance to rescue some dignity from their unexpectedly disastrous Test winter. More specifically, England's batsmen have one final opportunity to issue an official, long-overdue and suitably grovelling apology to England's bowlers, in the form of a last-ditch outbreak of subcontinental competence. If any of England's willow-wielders does manage to add to Trott's solitary 2011-12 century, I hope he has the decency to hold up his bat to the bowlers in the Colombo pavilion to reveal an "I am so, so sorry" sticker plastered on the back, before flagellating himself in penance with a section of the boundary rope the England have found so elusive of late.

Seldom have two parts of the same cricket team performed at such extremes of proficiency. England's bowling has been almost uniformly excellent. The batting has been historically poor. It has been a little reminiscent of the ill-fated mixed-doubles tennis partnership between Martina Navratilova and Henry Kissinger, or the RSC's controversial 1960s production of Romeo and Juliet in which Hollywood heart-throb Paul Newman was cast opposite Chi Chi, the London Zoo panda. The difference is that Kissinger was never a truly world-class tennis player, and Chi Chi was more suited to comedic cameos than leading lady roles. Whereas England's batting, just a few months ago, was smashing records as if they were plates at the wedding of two Greek discus throwers.

England's bowlers enter their final Test of the 2011-12 season with a collective average of 26 this winter. Thus far, it has statistically been England's second best bowling winter since 1978-79, when Mrs Thatcher was still a slightly unsettling twinkle in the British electorate's eye, and Botham, Willis, Miller and others took advantage of a Packer-stripped Australia.

Since then, only in the 1996-97 season have England's bowlers returned a (fractionally) better average, and then their opponents were Zimbabwe and New Zealand, the two lowest-ranked Test nations at the time. Even in the 2000-01 winter, when England achieved outstanding series victories in both Pakistan and Sri Lanka, they averaged 33 with the ball.

For years, England had struggled to dismiss their opponents away from home, but they have now bowled their opposition out in both innings in nine of their last 11 away Tests. They had done so just five times in their previous 27 Tests outside England, dating back to their post-2005-Ashes comedown series in Pakistan, and in just 29% of their overseas Tests over the previous three decades.

England's bowlers (who in Galle became just the third attack in Test history to be on the losing side despite dismissing the opposition's top three for a total of less than 20 in both innings) have done their job all winter, a message conveyed unmistakeably by Jimmy Anderson's face when he trudged out to bat at 157 for 8, three hours after flogging a five-for out of the docile Galle surface.

England paid dearly for Monty's drops and Broad's no-ball (and, of course, for Jayawardene's refound mastery and Herath's crafty insistence), but the game was decided in their first innings, when they lost their top six wickets for less than 100 for the fifth time in four Tests this winter. They had been six down for under 100 just nine times in their previous 70 away Tests.

Can a batting line-up ever have sunk so far, so fast? Certainly not since Leicestershire mistakenly booked a pre-season tour to the bottom of the Marianas Trench in 1924. England averaged 19.06 runs per wicket in the UAE against Pakistan - their lowest figure in any series since 1890. Last summer, they averaged 58 runs per wicket ‒ their third best summer of all time, and best since 1962.

The 2010-11 winter (51.1 runs per wicket) had been their best since the timeless-Test-enhanced 1938-39 tour of South Africa. The 2011-12 winter is currently their worst since 1934-35. In the last year and a half, they have registered their highest runs-per-wicket season averages against Australia and Sri Lanka, and their third best against India ‒ but also their worst against Pakistan and, as it stands, Sri Lanka.

No wonder there was completely unnecessary panic buying of petrol in England last week in preparation for a fuel-tanker-drivers' strike that may or may not happen at some point not especially soon. England's batting in the last 18 months has left the nation confused, discombobulated, and willing to queue needlessly and stockpile lethal liquids in its houses.

Traditionally, dismissing your opponents twice gives you a strong likelihood of victory. But this England team is clearly no respecter of history and tradition.

To further illustrate the extraordinary lengths to which England's batsmen have gone to finesse four Test defeats out of four this winter, consider this, stats fans: of the 50 away Tests in which England bowled out their opponents twice between 1980 and 2011, they won 37, drew 6 and lost just 7. And between the Sydney Test of 1998-99 and the Perth defeat late in 2010, England won 19 and lost just one of the 21 away Tests in which they took 20 wickets. Three times this winter they have dismissed their opposition twice. Three times they have lost. Truly, being one match away from a whitewashed winter, despite have bowled with such penetration, craft and consistency, represents one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of English batsmanship.

EXTRAS

● For anyone unconvinced at what an influential cricketer Luck is, consider not Lahiru Thirimanne's literally gut-wrenching catch at short leg, when the Sri Lankan's phenomenal anticipation and stomach-endangering bravery combined with good fortune and a friendly tummy-bounce to dismiss Matt Prior, somersaulting the Test back towards the home team. Consider Jonathan Trott.

Trott was rightly praised for his artfully constructed second-innings century, which put his team in a winning position and was England's first century in their four Tests in 2011-12. (They had scored 22 tons in their previous 12 Tests; and 49 in the first 36 matches of the Strauss-Flower era.) The general consensus was that the rest of England's batsmen should watch and learn from Trott, and take note of his patience, his sage selection of strokes, and the fact that he wisely opted not get out for not many runs. And so they should. But they should also learn from his Luck.

In the first innings, Trott was stumped when he charged out of his crease as if sprinting home to check whether or not he had left his oven on, and forgetting to hit the full-toss that was heading his way. In the second innings, when he was on 7, he tried to play an ungainly pull shot to an unthreatening short ball by Tillakaratne Dilshan. Tried, but failed. The ball thonked into his pads, Sri Lanka appealed, it looked close, and it was close. The umpire's finger of doom must have contemplated a journey into the air, but decided to stay in the snug safety of the pocket, saving its harsh justice for someone else. Trott survived. Hawkeye suggested the ball would have trimmed the bails. If Trott had been given out, he would have stayed out. And he would have been slammed for getting out to startlingly dreadful shots early in both innings, for lacking the composure, gameplan and technique to succeed in Asian conditions, for not having learned his lessons from the Pakistan series, and, probably, because he is Trott, for not scoring quickly enough in one-day internationals.

The finger of doom was less kind to Trott's Warwickshire team-mate Ian Bell, who was harshly triggered leg before wicket for 13, when he was well down the pitch to a ball that Captain Technology asserted was shaving his offstump. If he had been given not out, he would have stayed not out. Instead, he was slammed for playing yet another of England's injudicious and/or ineptly-executed sweep shots. If he had not been given out, he might have stroked an almost-match-winning hundred. Or he might not. Luck reprieved Trott, but convicted Bell. But playing ungainly pull shots and injudicious and ineptly-executed sweeps is inviting Luck to stick its capricious snout into your business. And repeatedly chipping balls to infielders specifically placed for chipped balls into the infield is effectively saying: "You take the rest of the day off, Luck. We can lose this for ourselves."

● The Official Confectionery Stall Prediction For The Colombo Test: I don't know. I don't know anything anymore. England might remember how to bat. They might not. Maybe they'll bowl terribly for a change, but chase down 800 to win on the last day. It has been a baffling few months for England. Fascinating, but baffling.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • david on April 7, 2012, 19:07 GMT

    ... made glorious summer by this son of Towcester! Writing in the wake of Englad's sterling performance to win the Second Test against Sri Lanka I see only increasing glory for the universe's undisputed No. 1 team. Graeme Swann is the best spinner and Jimmy Anderson the best paceman currently playing, and the batters I think just got a bit bored of winning earlier in the winter. I can only see series wins against WI, SA and India before the by now ritual rout of Australia in 2013.

  • Raj on April 4, 2012, 5:45 GMT

    The umpire’s finger of doom must have contemplated a journey into the air, but decided to stay in the snug safety of the pocket, saving its harsh justice for someone else.

    STUNNING!

  • Cogito on April 4, 2012, 5:08 GMT

    England’s batting in the last 18 months has left the nation confused, discombobulated, and willing to queue needlessly and stockpile lethal liquids in its houses.

    Brilliant!

  • Mithun Raj on April 4, 2012, 4:10 GMT

    Nope. It's just the curse of being No.1. South Africa started it. India sustained it. England have now perfected it.

  • Rohit on April 4, 2012, 3:58 GMT

    English batsmen are just seam track bullies.. !! :P

  • Ajay H R on April 4, 2012, 2:44 GMT

    England's unexpectedly disastrous Test winter? You must be kidding me Zaltzy! You seriously can't expect England to be the favorites in the sub-continent no matter what their current form is..

  • Palitha on April 3, 2012, 22:07 GMT

    You refer to the Galle surface as a "docile" one. Not true, I am afraid. It has almost never been. Usually it is a mine field, and in the 1st test, it became bowler friendly as time went on - especially for the spinners. Ask Rangana herath, he will attest to it. Cheers! Palitha

  • Deepak on April 3, 2012, 19:17 GMT

    Maybe its the curse of the #1 test ranking. first it struck India & now England. I guess I am better off not trying too hard to be #1 at my work ;)

  • Pradyuman on April 3, 2012, 19:03 GMT

    yeah, luck plays a big big part most of the times. its the real big daddy of cricket. loved the 'Luck see off' line. great piece yet again!

  • Arif on April 3, 2012, 18:45 GMT

    As always, a treat. Thank you Andy.

  • david on April 7, 2012, 19:07 GMT

    ... made glorious summer by this son of Towcester! Writing in the wake of Englad's sterling performance to win the Second Test against Sri Lanka I see only increasing glory for the universe's undisputed No. 1 team. Graeme Swann is the best spinner and Jimmy Anderson the best paceman currently playing, and the batters I think just got a bit bored of winning earlier in the winter. I can only see series wins against WI, SA and India before the by now ritual rout of Australia in 2013.

  • Raj on April 4, 2012, 5:45 GMT

    The umpire’s finger of doom must have contemplated a journey into the air, but decided to stay in the snug safety of the pocket, saving its harsh justice for someone else.

    STUNNING!

  • Cogito on April 4, 2012, 5:08 GMT

    England’s batting in the last 18 months has left the nation confused, discombobulated, and willing to queue needlessly and stockpile lethal liquids in its houses.

    Brilliant!

  • Mithun Raj on April 4, 2012, 4:10 GMT

    Nope. It's just the curse of being No.1. South Africa started it. India sustained it. England have now perfected it.

  • Rohit on April 4, 2012, 3:58 GMT

    English batsmen are just seam track bullies.. !! :P

  • Ajay H R on April 4, 2012, 2:44 GMT

    England's unexpectedly disastrous Test winter? You must be kidding me Zaltzy! You seriously can't expect England to be the favorites in the sub-continent no matter what their current form is..

  • Palitha on April 3, 2012, 22:07 GMT

    You refer to the Galle surface as a "docile" one. Not true, I am afraid. It has almost never been. Usually it is a mine field, and in the 1st test, it became bowler friendly as time went on - especially for the spinners. Ask Rangana herath, he will attest to it. Cheers! Palitha

  • Deepak on April 3, 2012, 19:17 GMT

    Maybe its the curse of the #1 test ranking. first it struck India & now England. I guess I am better off not trying too hard to be #1 at my work ;)

  • Pradyuman on April 3, 2012, 19:03 GMT

    yeah, luck plays a big big part most of the times. its the real big daddy of cricket. loved the 'Luck see off' line. great piece yet again!

  • Arif on April 3, 2012, 18:45 GMT

    As always, a treat. Thank you Andy.

  • Alexander Wilson on April 3, 2012, 16:24 GMT

    Your articles are a delight to read. I thank you.

  • Vis8 on April 3, 2012, 16:23 GMT

    England should realize the dangers of the sweep. This shot is not needed in Test matches.

  • salman khan on April 3, 2012, 14:35 GMT

    "England’s batting in the last 18 months has left the nation confused, discombobulated, and willing to queue needlessly and stockpile lethal liquids in its houses. " It is funny and ironic. Nation doesn't even watch cricket. They are football fans. so nobody cares.

  • bigwonder on April 3, 2012, 14:13 GMT

    Andy, It appears that you are discounting opposition team's bowling by indicating poor batting from England. You are also giving too much credit to England bowlers while ignoring the fact that opposition team's batsmen may not be the best.

  • usman on April 3, 2012, 13:21 GMT

    one thing is pretty much understood that english batsman are not trying to look and adjust.IN UAE same was the pattern,lbw's,why they dont just play with bats?and leave the shot of sweeping the balls which are pretty much straight?they are good but they cnt be like andy flower,who swept and reverse swept with ease

  • Anonymous on April 3, 2012, 13:07 GMT

    Yes quite right about luck Mr.Zaltzman. Additionally, much ado has been made by the English writers about the sticky, humid heat...wealthy locals running to the hills to avoid it etc, etc. (They dont..they have air-conditioning at home, in cars and at their offices) Many SL's, not just the stinky rich, holiday in the hills but not just when the heat is at its nadir. They just go when they can. If Andersson was well suppported by others than Trott and SL were trounced I'm certain no talk of the heat would arisen. I would add 'excuses' to Andy's point about 'luck'. These 2 factors dominate world cricket wherever its played.

  • Daniyal on April 3, 2012, 13:01 GMT

    nice writing but spare us the stats would you ! England were better a year ago and shambolic now, thats a factostat, don't need numbers to see that

  • Aditya on April 3, 2012, 12:49 GMT

    Funny, and yet has more perspective than many serious reports. Specifically about the role that luck plays.

  • Imad on April 3, 2012, 11:08 GMT

    Come on Andy...now you know how it is to be a fan of the pakistani cricket team. Welcome to the club.

  • Jayesh Sharma on April 3, 2012, 10:42 GMT

    "playing ungainly pull shots and injudicious and ineptly-executed sweeps is inviting Luck to stick its capricious snout into your business" One of the best lines of all times. (for India, poking outside off on swinging wickets should be added to the list). Clearly the NewYork bagels have had a positive effect on your cricket writing, or maybe their passion for cricket has rubbed off.

  • utpaul on April 3, 2012, 10:40 GMT

    Honestly, Eng dont deserve to be No. 1 Test team. They are a good No.3 or No. 4 side. South Africa deserve to be No. 1 but they wont be; and you know why.

  • Sivas on April 3, 2012, 10:34 GMT

    Yep the world number 1 team has shown its true colours. Lions at home and nobody overseas. Lost even to Pakistan. NO offence against Pak but they had not played competitive test cricket for a while!!

  • andyzaltzmannshair on April 3, 2012, 9:46 GMT

    Saeed Ajmal has mentally obliterated the English batsmen. They can't tell the difference between a doosra and a straighter one anymore. Neuron connections in their brain which once told them that if it looked straight, pitches straight and goes on straight, then it's the straighter one are frazzled. They are to use a technical term confuddled. I can picture a few of these English batsmen, Bell comes to mind, sitting in a corner of a padded room in a mental asylum rocking back and forth in the not so far future. Only the hushed words of 'doosra', 'the doosra is coming' can be heard over and over again. Deafening in its quietness.

  • Nasser Ali Khan on April 3, 2012, 9:00 GMT

    Andy is amazing. Another fine article full of facts and their analysis.

    I would like to mention that Pakistani batting and bowling are in similar vein to those of England. The difference is when England leave the sub-continent, the batsmen would start performing, because they can bat. The Pakistanis do not know how to bat - period. And their fielding is awful - nearly always.

    In spite of their great spin bowling attack (their pace attack is not what it could have been since the departure of Asif and Amir), I can't see Pakistan progressing beyond number 3. Let's see what Whatmore can do.

  • Andrew Dodds on April 3, 2012, 7:08 GMT

    I feel that what we need to do as England is play our subcontinental tests at an appropriate neutral ground. As such we should probably give way to the incessant demands for the independance of Nottinghamshire and use Trent Bridge as our overseas test venue.

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  • Andrew Dodds on April 3, 2012, 7:08 GMT

    I feel that what we need to do as England is play our subcontinental tests at an appropriate neutral ground. As such we should probably give way to the incessant demands for the independance of Nottinghamshire and use Trent Bridge as our overseas test venue.

  • Nasser Ali Khan on April 3, 2012, 9:00 GMT

    Andy is amazing. Another fine article full of facts and their analysis.

    I would like to mention that Pakistani batting and bowling are in similar vein to those of England. The difference is when England leave the sub-continent, the batsmen would start performing, because they can bat. The Pakistanis do not know how to bat - period. And their fielding is awful - nearly always.

    In spite of their great spin bowling attack (their pace attack is not what it could have been since the departure of Asif and Amir), I can't see Pakistan progressing beyond number 3. Let's see what Whatmore can do.

  • andyzaltzmannshair on April 3, 2012, 9:46 GMT

    Saeed Ajmal has mentally obliterated the English batsmen. They can't tell the difference between a doosra and a straighter one anymore. Neuron connections in their brain which once told them that if it looked straight, pitches straight and goes on straight, then it's the straighter one are frazzled. They are to use a technical term confuddled. I can picture a few of these English batsmen, Bell comes to mind, sitting in a corner of a padded room in a mental asylum rocking back and forth in the not so far future. Only the hushed words of 'doosra', 'the doosra is coming' can be heard over and over again. Deafening in its quietness.

  • Sivas on April 3, 2012, 10:34 GMT

    Yep the world number 1 team has shown its true colours. Lions at home and nobody overseas. Lost even to Pakistan. NO offence against Pak but they had not played competitive test cricket for a while!!

  • utpaul on April 3, 2012, 10:40 GMT

    Honestly, Eng dont deserve to be No. 1 Test team. They are a good No.3 or No. 4 side. South Africa deserve to be No. 1 but they wont be; and you know why.

  • Jayesh Sharma on April 3, 2012, 10:42 GMT

    "playing ungainly pull shots and injudicious and ineptly-executed sweeps is inviting Luck to stick its capricious snout into your business" One of the best lines of all times. (for India, poking outside off on swinging wickets should be added to the list). Clearly the NewYork bagels have had a positive effect on your cricket writing, or maybe their passion for cricket has rubbed off.

  • Imad on April 3, 2012, 11:08 GMT

    Come on Andy...now you know how it is to be a fan of the pakistani cricket team. Welcome to the club.

  • Aditya on April 3, 2012, 12:49 GMT

    Funny, and yet has more perspective than many serious reports. Specifically about the role that luck plays.

  • Daniyal on April 3, 2012, 13:01 GMT

    nice writing but spare us the stats would you ! England were better a year ago and shambolic now, thats a factostat, don't need numbers to see that

  • Anonymous on April 3, 2012, 13:07 GMT

    Yes quite right about luck Mr.Zaltzman. Additionally, much ado has been made by the English writers about the sticky, humid heat...wealthy locals running to the hills to avoid it etc, etc. (They dont..they have air-conditioning at home, in cars and at their offices) Many SL's, not just the stinky rich, holiday in the hills but not just when the heat is at its nadir. They just go when they can. If Andersson was well suppported by others than Trott and SL were trounced I'm certain no talk of the heat would arisen. I would add 'excuses' to Andy's point about 'luck'. These 2 factors dominate world cricket wherever its played.