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The second Test in the Olympics-buried series between Team GB and South Africa begins at Headingley on Thursday with Seb Coe and his men desperately needing a gold medal to haul themselves back into contention following a disastrous opening routine at The Oval. I'm confused. I think I have been watching too much sport, but not enough cricket. Too much sport and too much cricket is a combination I am familiar with. A combination for which I have spent most of my conscious life training assiduously.
I will be incapacitated for some of what promises to be a fascinating Test match by temporary afflictions, such as attending some badminton and wondering what the rules of sabre-toothed fencing are. I am not expecting canoe sprint to usurp cricket as the sport closest to my heart - cricket signed a long-term lease in 1981 and I believe, without access to all the paperwork, that it may even own the freehold ‒ but there will not have been many home Test matches in the last 30 years from which I have been more distracted.
It promises to be a fascinating match. But then, The Oval promised to be a gripping, evenly matched thriller, and turned into one of the hardest thrashing administered in this country since the days of 19th-century education and headmasters possessing a dangerous cocktail of strong moral convictions, innate sadism, and a plentiful supply of easily wieldable sticks.
England have generally bounced back well from their rare struggles of recent years, and proved many critics wrong at many junctures. (In fact, their success in doing so could have been their undoing at The Oval. Most modern sportsmen seem to thrive in the quest to "prove critics wrong", whatever those critics have said, and whether or not those words had been wilfully misinterpreted. England's stellar form had, until last winter, left them almost devoid of critics - and thus struggling for motivation.)
But the form lines of their high-class bowling attack may been causing significant concern. The bowling unit, as it loves to be called, has been almost uniformly excellent for two years. However:
● In his last two Tests against South Africa, James Anderson has taken 1 for 227. In between those two games, from early 2010 until this July, he never took fewer than two wickets in a Test, and never fewer than three in a home Test. He had taken at least two first-innings wickets in 18 consecutive Test matches, dating back to the Lord's Test against Pakistan in 2010.
● Stuart Broad took his first 13 wickets of the Test summer at an average of 14. Since the last of those - his second wicket in the first innings at Trent Bridge, against West Indies ‒ he has taken one more wicket for 238 runs.
● Tim Bresnan took 8 for 141 in that Test, and, when he dismissed Samuels at Edgbaston, he had followed that up with 3 for 46. Since then, in the rest of that Tino-Best-inspired frenzy and at The Oval, he has taken 1 for 205.
● Graeme Swann has taken 19 wickets at 50 in his last eight home Tests (nine of those wickets came in one match, at last summer's Oval Test against India). He has taken 6 for 433 this summer. He bowled excellently in South Africa in 2009-10 (21 wickets at 31 - the first time in more than 30 years that an England spinner had taken 20 or more in an away series). There have been few major blips in Swann's four outstanding years as a Test bowler, but he is in the middle of one now, and England need him to de-blip himself as soon as possible.
Set against those numerical anti-treats:
● Dale Steyn, in his last three Tests against England, has taken 20 wickets at 21 apiece, he now averages 16 in Tests which South Africa have won (compared with 35 in defeats and 40 in drawn games). His seven-wicket match haul was the joint highest by an overseas pace bowler at The Oval since Michael Kasprowicz took eight in the 1997 Test.
● Morne Morkel, in his last three Tests against England, has taken 18 wickets at 18 apiece. He still runs to the wicket as if he is trying to return a pot of yoghurt to the fridge before his housemates realise they are one yoghurt short of their world-record yoghurt balancing event, but those are some tidy figures to be indelibly writing on your pillow case every morning to help yourself visualising.
● Vernon Philander had match figures of 2 for 108 off 46 overs at The Oval. It was the first time, in his eighth Test, that he has taken fewer than five wickets in the match, and sent his Test bowling average ballooning to a frankly dismal 15.66. It was, however, his most economical match (and his second innings was the first time a seamer has bowled 15 or more overs against England and conceded less than 1.6 per over since Zaheer Khan in Chennai in December 2008). It was also, irrelevantly, his seventh Test in succession in which he has conceded between 100 and 120 runs.
● Imran Tahir took three wickets in the second innings. He has never taken more than three in an innings, but has taken at least one in 13 of the 15 Test innings in which he has bowled. When he dismissed Strauss and Prior in thesecond innings, was only the second time in eight Tests that he had dismissed two top-seven batsmen in the same innings.
And one slightly less flattering figure about a man who is inking himself into the Technical Perfection Hall of Fame:
● Jacques Kallis ‒ the human coaching manual volumes 1 to 25 ‒ claimed the match-turning wickets of Pietersen late on day one and Bell early on day two. However, he has taken 20 wickets at 52 in his last 23 Tests dating back to 2009. In those matches, he has averaged 76 with the bat, hitting 13 centuries, and taken 38 catches. The Oval was only the second time in his last 13 Tests that he has taken more than one wicket in a Test innings. Still a tidy cricketer.
OFFICIAL CONFECTIONERY STALL PREDICTION
Weighing all this up, I still don't know what will happen in this series, but if England can win at Headingley ‒ and still without the unavailable Hammond, Hutton, Trueman, Grace, and Zaltzman ‒ it might even make it within eight pages of the back cover of one or two of the newspapers. Confectionery Stall Prediction: another South African win. In some sports. Possibly involving cricket.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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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.