A winter of discontent
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.
● 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