The importance of Sehwag's hair, and the most average cricketer ever
In this readers' questions special: what's more wasteful - Mitchell Johnson or carbon emissions? Does one pick eternal torment over watching Gary Kirsten? And is the BCCI evil?
For those of you unable to stream or download the audio of the World Cricket Podcast, a transcript of this month's show is below the jump. However, the show is supposed to be listened to, not read. So I would prefer that you listened to it. And then recited it, word for word, on public transport, until you have the bus/train-carriage/aeroplane to yourself. Thanks. AZ.
Hello cricket fans, and welcome to the world exclusive Andy Zaltzman's World Cricket Podcast, the only cricket podcast this month to be recorded live in a secret underground bunker one mile directly below the Lord's Pavilion.
Of course this is where MCC scientists in the 1950s in a secret multi-million-pound project gathered together, to artificially create the perfect supercricketer. After years of experiments, failed prototypes and rogue cricketing androids, they finally cracked it. Could this Frankenstein's cricketer return England to the pinnacle of the world game? He was furtively sneaked out from the secret MCC bunker in the dead of night, and infiltrated into the county circuit, heralded in as-yet-undisclosed secret papers as being "a scientific cross between Garry Sobers, Don Bradman, and SF Barnes, with a squeeze of Freddie Trueman thrown in for good measure". And that man was Lancashire's Ian Austin.
"We don't know what went wrong," admitted an MCC source who wished to remain nameless. But couldn't remain nameless because his parents had already given him a name some years before. "We thought we'd cracked it," he said, "but something went wrong with the wiring, I think, and we got the height and width measurements mixed up so his body shape wasn't what we wanted. Still, Austin was a solid county performer, and did okay for England in a few one-dayers. But he was not quite what we were aiming for from a total outlay of £850 million over 30 years."
The program was beset by problems, but a few of the prototype cricketdroids did go on to have some success - including Somerset trundle-meister Colin Dredge, Leicestershire's Gordon Parsons, rock legend David Coverdale of Whitesnake, Prince Edward, the Grand National winning racehorse Hallo Dandy, Tory cabinet minister Edwina Currie, a performing dog called Wesley, and Mitchell Johnson, who was successfully programmed to do well for Australia up until crucial moments of Ashes series.
My MCC source concluded: "It has to be said Ian Austin, with respect, did not become the greatest cricketer of all time. So, overall the project was a failure."
Also in this fascinating bunker is the room where they keep the MCC's infinite number of monkeys - they're the ones who develop the county cricket schedule every year. And the waxwork Allen Stanford, who famously landed on the Lord's outfield in a pretend helicopter, whilst the real Allen Stanford sneaked into Buckingham Palace and stole the Queen. Britain has been using a decoy Queen ever since, until the real Queen can be sprung out of Stanford's special cell in Alcatraz.
As you can imagine, the tension had been building here in Britain for months and months ahead of the long-awaited one-day international series between England and Australia. There had been massive public celebrations, more bunting that you can shake an inflatable toy Allan Border at, huge concerts to mark the occasion, and special celebratory boat pageants down the Thames featuring an old woman who could boast that she had met both Colin Cowdrey and Lindsay Hassett.
Some claimed these celebrations were in some way linked to the royal family, but there is always that excuse. Look at your history books for the dates of the great royal occasions: Royal Wedding - 1981 ‒ Ashes. Silver Jubilee ‒ 1977 ‒ Ashes. Coronation ‒ 1953 ‒ Ashes. And now this year, 2012 ‒ Diamond Jubilee ‒ the beginning of the 2013 Ashes. Once again the royal family trying to muscle in on this country's love of cricket.
England against Australia. It is a contest as old as time itself - or at least it is if you believe Californian research scientists, who this week confirmed that the Big Bang happened in March 1877 and resulted in 22 men with moustaches in Melbourne throwing a ball at each other and trying to hit it with planks of wood. Seems as likely as any other creation story, to be honest.
We are now two matches into the series, and much as no one really gives a flying one what happens in it, England have been ruthlessly excellent in both of them, winning comfortably and looking a formidable side with a full five-prong bowling attack. Eoin Morgan looks mercifully restored to his innovative best, and against a rebuilding Australia, England are looking formidable. With Pietersen in the team, they would be looking even more formidable, but he was sadly ruled out due to a strained squabble.
Usually the prospect of the Australians touring occupies the entire cricketing consciousness of the English nation. This time, the collective reaction is not: "Can we win? Is this our year to vanquish the baggy greens in the ultimate test of our nation's crickethood?" No. The collective reaction instead is: "England are playing Australia? Are you sure? No, I'm pretty certain that's next year you're thinking of. It's not? Playing them at what? Hand-to-hand algebra? No? Definitely cricket? Pull the other one, big horse, I'm not an idiot."
This series might provide some early clues for next year's Ashes. There has already been some decent cricket. It might show us a little about the evolution of these two ODI sides after their disappointing World Cup quarter-final exits last year. But it shouldn't be happening, and no one really knows why it is happening. Other than a couple of high-level figures in the ECB accounts department. Who are in the bunker next to this one, playing with an abacus and giggling.
Time now for your questions, submitted to my @ZaltzCricket twitter feed.
BenPobjie: Why is Australia in England right now? Seriously? No one knows. I think it's to distract attention away from the European Economic Crisis, or the slow environmental death of the planet, or another disappointing Wimbledon for home hope Anne Keothavong. There is no earthly cricketing reason why they are here. Other than to make sure that the debate over whether or not there is too much cricket, rolls on for a while longer.
RhysCooper86: What is more off target, Mitchell Johnson, or world carbon emissions? Tough one. Mitchell has a well-deserved reputation in England for treating a cricket ball the same way a victorious Formula One driver treats a bottle of champagne. He pours it over someone's head then poses for a photo with it next to a scantily clad model. No, that's not it, is it? He sprays it all over the place. Yup, that's the one. As for world carbon emissions, well, the recent Rio+20 summit showed that many powerful and influential people and nations remained unconvinced about the economic benefits of saving the world. We are fundamentally a loss-making planet, and we have to accept that, looking at the state of the global economy, Armageddon does now make sound financial sense.
From a cricketing perspective, however, although the end of the world might help negate the looming threat of T20 completely taking over the game, I don't think it would actually help Test cricket in the long term. So, on balance, world carbon emissions just edge out Mitchell Johnson.
Alec Everlone: This season I have 0 runs from 0 innings. Should I quit before I ruin my average? Yes. As the old saying goes, it is better to live your life locked in your garden shed than to leave your house and be run over by a bus. You might argue whether that is a strict either-or choice or not, but the point stands. Which means that the greatest Test batsman of all time is England's Jack McBryan. He played one Test in 1924. It rained a lot, and he didn't bat or bowl. He was never selected again. So he never failed.
And he can claim to this day that if only he had had the chance, he would have been better than Bradman. Similarly, I am a greater tennis player than Rafael Nadal. He might have won 11 Grand Slam titles but he has also lost a lot of them as well. Whereas Andy Zaltzman remains undefeated in top-level tennis. And has never been knocked out of Wimbledon by the world No, 100.
Sagarch: Is BCCI the evil megalomaniac empire or just a misunderstood philanthropist? Oh, good question. The BCCI? Definitely evil megalomanic empire. Yes, I've always thought the Bank of Credit & Commerce International is at the root of all of the problems in international commerce, and credit for that matter. They're like Bond villains in pinstripe suits, but worse. Odd question for a cricket podcast.
StephenDakin9: Is Alex Hales the first batsman, on passing 50 for the first time internationally, to make 99? Stephen, if you think I am the kind of man who has the time to find out all the players who have made 99 as their first international half-century, then, well, to be honest, you've got a point. But I've had an unusually busy week, so I have not done that. Besides, it was in fact Hales' second international 50; he clouted 62 not out v West Indies in a T20I at The Oval last September. Yes, I'd forgotten that one too. But remember, all international cricket is special. No matter what.
Incidentally, the only player to have passed 50 only once in international cricket, and to have made 99 in that solitary success, is England's Alex Tudor, one of the great lost talents of English cricket, in a staggering nightwatchman's effort against New Zealand in, appropriately, 1999. Appropriately not because the year contains the number 99, but because 1999 times out of 2000 his team-mates would have made sure he reached 100, with wickets in hand, the game in the bag and no need to smash it around trying to look "ruthlessly professional", before going on to lose the series 2-1, being "disastrously amateurish".
Australia's Arthur Chipperfield reached 99 on his Test debut in 1934. The same fate befell Robert Christiani, for West Indies against England, in 1948; and Asim Kamal, for Pakistan against South Africa, who had the double misfortune of his debut Test innings ending by being bowled for 99 and of the bowler responsible being Andre Nel, whose avidly celebrating face is probably the last thing you want to see charging past you roaring in triumph after narrowly missing out on cricketing immortality and the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.
Hales is currently one of 11 players to have a highest score of 99 in all international cricket, but is one of the two most likely on that list to get off that list by scoring 100, alongside Malcolm Waller of Zimbabwe, unless Shane Warne comes out of retirement or post-war England captain Norman Yardley stops being dead. Well, Yardley? What's it to be? English cricket has been held back too long by the "is he, isn't he" saga of whether or not Norman Yardley is still dead. It's time he made a decision and stuck to it. Oh, he has? My mistake.
AndyCronk: Would replacing ODIs with T20 (internationally) allow all international Test series to be five Tests? No. It would not. It would merely allow there to be more and more T20 internationals, which would prove so commercially curvaceous that all Test series would be reduced to two matches, played simultaneously on adjacent wickets to save time.
I don't think we'd want all Test series to be five Tests. But we would want some Test series to be five Tests. And almost none to be two Tests. That won't happen, because, fundamentally, the people who decide these things aren't that fussed about whether the cricket is as good as it can be. I think many would want the forthcoming England v South Africa series to be five matches. This contest produced excellent five-match series in 1998 and 2003, a decent four-match series in 2008, so, logically, pruning it back to a bonsai three-match series makes as much sense as New Zealand picking Chris Martin as a specialist opening batsman.
AnishMcHacko: Did West Indies or India do better on their tour to England? I assume in this question you mean West Indies in 1984 and India in 1974. In which case, I'd have to go for, ooh, close one ‒ the 1984 West Indians secured a 5-0 whitewash playing cricket of fearsome virility and charisma, whereas the 1974 Indians were pasted like cheap wallpaper, 3-0 in three Tests, including being bowled out for 42 in 17 overs at Lord's… so, I'd probably go for the 84 West Indians doing better. Just.
If you are referring to the more recent tours, however, West Indies this year and India last year, then the answer is: still West Indies. They played well in patches, without ever really looking like they would win a match, and looked like an adequate team playing largely to potential. India last year, by contrast, a team that had reached the world No. 1 ranking playing some excellent and mentally resilient cricket, folded like a piece of paper in a speed origami flamingo-making contest, and served up the most disappointing performance by a touring team to England that I can remember, with the magnificent exception of Rahul Dravid's heroic exhibition of the art of batsmanship.
davidoromualdi: A stand of 511 in 22 hours by Gary Kirsten and Graeme Smith; eternal torment in the afterlife. What are the pros and cons of each? Good question. Tough call. Eternal torment is probably a bit more elegant than the Kirsten-Smith partnership. But 22 hours, even of Kirsten and Smith batting together, probably feels slightly less long than eternity. Is that definitely an either-or choice? How do I know eternal torment in the afterlife is not simply having to watch endless 511-run partnerships between Kirsten and Smith? I want to know before I commit either way.
JJFearnley: Which non-cricket nations would be good at the game if they started taking the game seriously? Watchful Japanese openers, belligerent Russians in the lower order, aggressive Argentinian pacemen etc. #stereotypesarefun Stereotypes can be fun. But they can stray dangerously into something a little beyond stereotypes. So let's look instead at what defunct civilisations might have been world-leading cricket powers.
I think the ancient Greeks would have been top-notch cricketers, if they hadn't spent so much time getting naked, covering themselves in oil and wrestling, or doing philosophy. Neither of which activities has any place on the cricket field. The mythical Trojan war hero Achilles sounds like he would have been a demon fast bowler, whilst you can't help thinking that ethics whizz Aristotle would have been a canny fingerspinner.
As for the ancient Romans, well, if feeding gladiators to lions wasn't the spiritual forerunner of T20, I don't know what was. The ancient Egyptians, well, they might have shown some promise, but then they'd have just given up and built a pyramid.
DCLaurie: What is the average average for batting and bowling, and which allrounder comes closest to this pinnacle of acceptability? Good question. The batting average for all Test cricketers combined, from Don Bradman to Pommy Mbangwa, is 30.16. And the bowling average for all Test cricketers, from George Lohmann to Kevin Pietersen, who, at 150, has the highest Test bowling average of anyone with five wickets or more, is 31.77.
The closest to being the most average cricketer in both major disciplines of the game, of all those who have played five or more Tests, is the post-war West Indian John Goddard, whose batting average was 30.67, and whose bowling average was 31.81, in 27 Tests. Pretty close on both counts.
The list of allrounders whose career averages in both disciplines are within 2 either side of the average average also features: Indian legend Vinoo Mankad, South African World War I fatality Gordon White, New Zealand's former oldest living Test cricketer, Gordon Weir - what is it with players whose initials are GW being so goddamned average? ‒ England's 1908 Olympic boxing and batting negativity legend Johnny Douglas, India's surprisingly still only 27 Irfan Pathan, and England's 2005 Ashes totem, Freddie Flintoff. Which just goes to show, average plus average can equal good. And you should never judge Flintoff on his overall career stats. Or even on his stats at all. Unless they're for the two years of his peak, when he was world-beatingly outstanding.
Giftofdevil: Yes. Is DRS more important than Sehwag's hair? No. Nothing is more important than Sehwag's hair. In fact, it is time for international cricket to get to grips with this issue, and ensure that Sehwag's hair is used in all international cricket, and that no team is able to unilaterally refuse to use Sehwag's hair, despite scientific evidence proving that it works.
Brett Arnold: Why did the English rugby team not win in South Africa? Even though they use the cricket tactic of including SA (and NZ) players? Simple. Because the England rugby team were not South African cricketers. The England cricket team does use South African cricketers, and has enjoyed a hugely successful era. If the England team used Pietersen and Trott in the centres, they would be unbeatable.
Sorry I haven't answered all of your queries - there were some more excellent questions submitted, but I'm afraid, like a badly managed French restaurant, I've run out of thyme.
So that's all for this month's World Cricket Podcast. I'm off to try to escape the secret MCC bunker before they try to turn me into the new Rachel Heyhoe-Flintoff. Bye bye. And may cricket have mercy on your souls.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer