July 11, 2012

South Africa in England 2012

The diminishing returns of disembowelment by eagle

Andy Zaltzman
A painting of Prometheus, of Greek myth, by Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)
England celebrate their victory in the fourth ODI at an overcast Chester-le-Street  © Getty Images
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England mercilessly claw-hammering Australia at cricket would normally provoke intense reactions on these shores. Some would charge around deliriously hugging strangers. Others would sit quietly with a glass of ale, ruminating in the satisfying afterglow of sporting triumph, before caterwauling wildly into the night skies and charging around deliriously hugging strangers. There would be spontaneous bunting, pigeons would be publicly applauded on the grounds that they might possibly have flown over the Lord's car park and deposited on the Australian team bus, and it would generally be accepted that the Apocalypse was imminent, but that the end of the world was a small price to pay for conquering the old foe on the cricket field.

It is a little odd, then, to see the recently-completed 4-0 drubbing, an exercise in one-day-cricketing surgery executed with ruthless precision, pass by with barely a ripple from an understandably ambivalent public. For most of the last 25 years, England thrashings of Australia were as rare as the Queen being seen doing an Elvis impression in public (which is set to be the majestic, white-suited culmination of a spectacular Olympic opening ceremony).

It might have been arguably the least noticed England-Australia showdown since Rolf Harris and Leo Sayer had a growl-off over a disputed game of Snakes and Ladders in a BBC green room in the mid-1970s, but England have been brilliant in this summer's micro-Ashes. The continually developing excellence of their bowling has enabled their Test technicians in the top order to use their class and craft to cruise to victory. It is a potent combination that bodes well for sterner and more relevant one-day challenges ahead.

However, as a curtain-raiser this series has whetted the appetite neither for next year's Ashes - even the most enthusiastic Labrador would lose interest if you were to let it off its lead and stand poised to throw a stick for 12 months before actually throwing it ‒ nor for this year's South Africa series, which would be eagerly anticipated if the schedule had given anyone the opportunity to eagerly anticipate it.

In this most congested of British sporting summers, saturated both with competing attractions, such as London's biggest ever two-and-a-half-week-long high-end school sports day, and with water, water and more water, even a Test series between the two top-ranked cricket nations was always likely to struggle to capture the wider public imagination. Has the schedule even allowed it to capture cricket's imagination? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I admit I have not had time to canvass much opinion because I have been too busy wondering what taekwondo is, trying to buy tickets to watch horsey disco, or "equestrian dressage" as the purists insist on calling it, contemplating whether Roger Federer's backhand could solve the Middle East crisis (and whether trying to beating an in-form Federer on grass is easier or more difficult than trying to beat an in-form Michelangelo in a ceiling-painting contest), and desperately wracking my brains to remember what happened last time England and Australia played each other in England, in another midsummer contractual obligation two years ago.

Savouring the prospect of an alluring showdown is one of the joys of following sport. This crescendo of anticipation and speculation is increasingly impossible amidst the ceaseless churn of modern international cricket, where what was once special risks becoming routine.

Prometheus, the former celebrity Greek mythological figure, was once all the talk of the gossip columns for having his liver ripped out by an eagle every day after stealing fire from Europe's then-No. 1-ranked deity Zeus. A rather stiff punishment for theft, most modern liberals would think, but ironically, the predictable daily routine probably took the sting out of the punishment. When having your liver ripped out by an eagle ceases to be a special occasion, it loses its impact and probably does not hurt as much. I am not a doctor, so that assumption may not be entirely medically accurate, but I am willing to assume that it is. Thus, Zeus unwittingly undercut the severity of the punishment through over-zealous scheduling. This is not to equate a damp, barely noticed ODI series with having your liver ripped out by an eagle (although it might have felt eerily similar to the Australians), but still, the point stands. Cricket, be warned.

● The sadly Boucher-less Test series begins at The Oval next Thursday. England have won only six out of the 17 Tests they have played at home against South Africa since the Proteas were readmitted to the Test game in the early 1990s, but three of those victories have come in the three Tests that have been played at The Oval. All three were in the final Tests of series, beginning in 1994, when Devon Malcolm decimated the South African top order, then their middle order, and finally their tail to end with 9 for 57. England, chasing 204, powerblasted to victory at almost six runs per over, and Allan Donald finished with 1 for 96 from 12 overs. Meaning that Malcolm was a 15-times-better bowler than Donald. For one innings only. If only the Derbyshire Occasional Destroyer could have replicated that over his entire career.

In fact, in the four series between the two teams in this country since South Africa's readmission, England have failed to win any of the first or second Tests, so beginning at The Oval could be a sound strategic move. The following two Tests are at Leeds - where England were trounced in 2003 and 2008 but clinched the series spectacularly in 1998 ‒ and Lord's, where thudding South African victories in 1994, 1998 and 2003 were followed by a marathon rearguard in 2008, featuring a nine-hour vigil by Neil McKenzie, a batsman of minimal movement at the best of times, who in that match was so resolutely immovable that he spent the week after the match as an exhibit in the Natural History Museum, being poked and prodded by scientists who thought he must be a frozen early human relic of the ice age.

History, therefore, suggests that England will win at The Oval but lose the first Test, before finally coming good to win the final Test whilst simultaneously losing at Lord's. The Leeds Test will be during the Olympics and therefore it will be impossible to ascertain the result through traditional media. The official Confectionery Stall series prediction for the three-Test series, therefore: 2-2. History, however, as is repeatedly shown on the sports field, talks a whole load of garbage, and her suggestions should be taken with a jeroboam of salt. It will in fact be 1-1.

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

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Posted by JackieL on (July 16, 2012, 6:07 GMT)

Very amused by the comment of Stuart Gill. Last time we went 'abroad' to Australia we beat them 3-1, and to South Africa drew 1-1. We also drew in Sri Lanka 1-1. The loss to Pakistan proves that no team can take success for granted.

Posted by Tom from Melbourne on (July 15, 2012, 14:50 GMT)

A great piece and as usual some great imagery.

As an Australian I only have one point to make and it is this. The only way this result makes sense is an exercise in cultivated hubris. We simply let this pointless series look easy and allow you develop the mentality your football team develops during the qualification phase of major tournaments. Make them believe they can win everything and watch them fail when the real event shows up.

You Englishmen are so adept at this process that it seems like a exercise in performance flagellation to cheer the rest of the planet up. The anticipation has us salivating at the prospect on this side of the planet that it makes our non-recession look vindictive.

In the meantime enjoy your victory in this single battle of a much greater and more important war that makes the cumulative wars of human history look like a squabble between toddlers over a toy.

P.S. Best upside to the olympics, back to back ashes series. WooHoo!

Posted by Rastawookie on (July 14, 2012, 2:18 GMT)

Another great Confectionery Stall. Always whips me into a mild state of Zaltzmania.

Posted by Stuart Gill on (July 12, 2012, 10:42 GMT)

While I am overjoyed with the success of the summer (so far) I still think the real test will be when we next go to Australia and South Africa. It's all well and good dominating at home in familiar conditions, but abroad, as pakistan proved, we are vulnerable.

Posted by Siddhartha gupta on (July 11, 2012, 16:24 GMT)

Hilarious as always yet insightful. *Applause

Posted by Rony Patra on (July 11, 2012, 15:16 GMT)

"Prometheus, the former celebrity Greek mythological figure, was once all the talk of the gossip columns for having his liver ripped out by an eagle every day after stealing fire from Europe’s then-No. 1-ranked deity Zeus." Hilarious writing! :)

Posted by dirkie on (July 11, 2012, 10:48 GMT)

Good one Andy, we've missed you. Will it ever stop raining? I think the rusty South Africans will be under the pump.

Posted by Cameron on (July 11, 2012, 10:02 GMT)

Brilliant as ever. Had me in stitches.

Posted by zues on (July 11, 2012, 9:27 GMT)

i'm Mcinze i need a appology straight .

Posted by Jackiel on (July 11, 2012, 8:51 GMT)

You might be blase. But we know now we could have won 5-0 but for the rains at Edgbaston and scaled the heights of being top in all three formats. No one predicted that. And you were way off beam Mr Zaltsman. As it is we have won 10 in a row. The fans have booked out these ODIs so they haven't passed them by. To see the Aussies in such disarray, to hear them chastised for timidity by their coach, is a joy undiminished. They should have won at Lords and didn't. The rot began there. Bell's comeback is a story in itself, one you have chosen to ignore because you have always labelled him as timid. Time to recharge the batteries and your vocabulary.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.

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