South Africa in England 2012 August 22, 2012

Stop ruining cricket's schedule, you knuckleheads

Anyone feeling that three Tests was just enough to satisfy the appetite?
41

Thank you, whoever (a) invented cricket, (b) thought of stringing it out over several days, (c) developed the modes of transport that enabled it to be exported to certain parts of the world, and (d) conceived the idea of countries playing against each other at sport instead of, or as well as, war. The fruits of your genius were laid out on a platter at Lord's in a dazzling Test match with the kind of thrust and counter-thrust that would have made a couple of divorcing Olympic fencers proud, a game of constantly shifting balance and momentum, with more twists and turns than an ice-skating anaconda. It was a sinuously evolving drama that must have made the likes of film-making wiz Ingmar Bergman, novel-scribbling ace Leo Tolstoy and award-winning rom-com and rom-trag playwright Willie Shakespeare slap their collective foreheads in their graves and bark: "Oh nuts. I was wasting my time making stuff up. I should have cut out the middleman and just watched a good Test match."

In the end, South Africa's consistent excellence prevailed and England's intermittent brilliance was undermined by a series of pivotal bloopers. Finn and Bairstow gave auspicious displays of their match-changing abilities, but too many of the cornerstones of England's all-conquering 2011 were too far from their best, and, as they did over the course of the series, they failed the sternest examination of their careers. South Africa held the upper hand for most of the match. England kept bouncing back up off the canvas, but each time, one of the Proteas would step in and clonk them back down again, or England would slip up and punch themselves in the face.

It was the cricket that the cricketing universe had wanted to see from two excellent teams, one ascendant after years of underachievement, one struggling to arrest its decline from its peak. England gave South Africa multiple opportunities to choke, and Smith and his men impressively failed to take any of them. The frailties they had shown in failing to win so many series from 2009 to 2011 had been laid aside.

Thus, this fascinating rivalry between England and South Africa, which has produced so many intriguing series and subplots ever since the Proteas returned to Test cricket, has completed its latest chapter. It will now be taken to a barn, knocked spark out with a crowbar, and locked in forced hibernation in a cryogenic chamber for three and a quarter years. They will not meet in the Test arena until 2015-16. So, and forgive me for repeating a point made in another recent blog, between January 2010 and November 2015, two of the world's leading Test teams will have faced each other in a grand total of three Test matches. If this is what the doctor ordered to aid the long-term health of the longest and greatest format of the game, then cricket needs to ask to see that doctor's medical certificates. He is clearly an unqualified quack.

When leaving Lord's yesterday, I did not overhear a single person saying, "Yes, three Tests was just right for this series. Absolutely bang on the banana. Always leave them wanting more, that's what they say in showbiz. Besides, another Test could really undercut the delicate specialness of that ODI series."

Thus, yet another fascinating contest has been sawn off prematurely by knuckle-headed scheduling (is there anyone in the known universe who genuinely cares what happens in the forthcoming three weeks of limited-over matches?) (and I mean "genuinely", not "slightly, and temporarily, because it is a fun day out").

A quick message to whoever is responsible for scheduling Test cricket: please stop ruining it.

On the evidence of the swathe of fascinating, fluctuating Tests between various countries over the last year, the "product" is in not merely rude health, it is directly insulting health. Stop sedating it and telling it to mind its language. I know that this plea, were it to be delivered directly to those concerned, would fall not on deaf ears but on a cash register with no ears, but still. The point stands.

● The evidence of this series makes South Africa's struggles to win a series over recent years seem even more baffling. The belated admission to the Test team of Vernon Philander, the Emeritus Professor of Nibble at the University Of Bowl-Craft, has upgraded a series-drawing team into a series-winning one. His insistently probing cross-examination with the ball helped restrain England in the first two Tests, and scuppered them at Lord's.

They are not yet complete as a team. Tahir has been marginal, they need a wicketkeeper to allow de Villiers' batting to flourish, and Rudolph and Duminy have both been useful without fully establishing themselves as the long-term middle order. But they have four supreme batsmen and three top-class seamers, who form a perfectly balanced combination (plus Kallis, who has taken more than seven wickets in a series only once since 2007, but retains the capacity to make vital breakthroughs).

They have reached their merited No. 1 ranking on the basis of a potent eight months culminating in this magnificent series triumph, but should have the capacity to remain there for some time. Of course, those same words could have been written this time last year about Strauss' England, whose nine months of cricketing perfection from the Boxing Day Test of 2010 to the end of last summer's series with India melted in the desert against Pakistan and has now fully evaporated in the English summer.

So nothing is certain. South Africa face some of the same challenges that Strauss' team have faced. Not all of them. It seems unlikely that Hashim Amla will be dropped from the team for going bonkers in a press conference and then abusing his own captain. He does not strike the neutral observer as that kind of man. Maybe Kallis will do so. Just to see the looks on people's faces.

● It was regrettable that Matt Prior, who has been superb with gloves and bat for England through their period of success and is currently one of the most influential Test cricketers in the world, should have been responsible for three critical errors in this match. He made eight dismissals, including some excellent catches, and become just the second England wicketkeeper to execute two stumpings in a Test since 1995. He scored 100 runs, 73 of them in a supremely paced second innings that showcased his trademark cocktail of classical style and modern innovation, and took England if not to the brink of victory, then certainly to the brink of the brink of victory, strapping on their brinking boots ready for a final assault on the brink.

Ultimately, however, his few errors proved more influential to the result than his several successes. In the first innings, he batted fluently at the close of the first day to help consolidate Bell's and Bairstow's recovery, then cautiously on the second morning in the build-up to the new ball. England were 221 for 5, 88 behind, on even terms with South Africa. If they could negotiate the new ball, they would be in control. Prior saw that already sizeable "if", injected it with a growth hormone, and watched it balloon alarmingly like a desiccated sumo wrestler in a jacuzzi. Philander took the shiny new conker. First ball, Prior played a loose drive and edged to slip. England never came as close to parity again in the rest of the match.

Prior was soon chuntering "oops" to himself again, when he dropped a reasonably tricky leg-side chance off Amla when he had scored 2. It would have made South Africa 49 for 2. As it was, they soon became 50 for 2 when Petersen was out two balls later. But Amla was still there, and Amla is one of the finest and most merciless batsmen of the 21st century. He scored 121 runs with ice-cold silken precision. England, again, never came as close to parity again in the rest of the match.

Finally, in that frenetic, dizzying final afternoon, Prior and Swann had Frankensteined England's seemingly moribund challenge back to life with electrified flamboyance against the old ball. They had plundered 41 from the previous four overs, 60 off the last seven. The impending new ball still gave the Proteas the likelihood of victory, but England needed only 64 more with two batsmen in rampant form. Could they combine chaos with calmness?

Prior then called Swann through for a single which, with hindsight, carried a similar level of risk as jumping into a lion enclosure dressed in a pantomime zebra outfit - not inevitably disastrous but with minimal prospect of safety. Swann was run out. For the third time in the match, Prior hunched over in self-recrimination. Inevitably, England never came anywhere near to parity again in the final remnants of the match.

The contrasting fortunes of England's gloveman are highlighted by the small piece of history that accompanied him as he trudged off the field at Lord's - he is the first wicketkeeper to make eight dismissals and score 100 runs in a Test and end up on the losing side.

It was a Test match of countless turning points, but these three were amongst the swivelliest. Prior played well in this match, brilliantly yesterday. England would not have come close to victory without him. They might have won it but for his mistakes. He helped show cricket in all its magnificence. But he put himself at the mercy of its intermittent cruelty.

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

  • Jimmy on August 27, 2012, 18:42 GMT

    Funny how out-bowling Swann in series after series makes the opposing spinner marginal, incomplete, weaker by comparison, yet only serves to enhance Swann's reputation... hmm....

  • Carlotta on August 24, 2012, 14:04 GMT

    Andy, I love you. @giselle23@yahoo.com : Your post contains five-and-a-bit sentences and four grammatical errors. "Poorly written..."? This series was Excellent vs Very Good and Excellent won.

  • david on August 23, 2012, 13:45 GMT

    Like many a marriage England at Lord's were undone by a good Philander, but let us too praise the truly wonderful Steyn. What a privilege to see this marvel of grace, menace and biomechanics in his prime.

  • Jimmy Stewart on August 23, 2012, 12:47 GMT

    Just a great writer, love reading your comments - superb Andy

  • Rett on August 23, 2012, 10:39 GMT

    Oh Sir Francis, have you learned nothing of test cricket? To simply write off Australia's chances against South Africa is foolish. South Africa won their last series there (it was also the only time in history that this has happened) and then were promptly defeated at home. Since the series loss against England in 2010-11, Australia haven't lost a test series (including a 1-1 against the Proteas in their own backyard).

  • Graham on August 22, 2012, 21:32 GMT

    @Giselle23 - you really do yourself no favours with your ludicrously misdirected vitriol. Let me guess - you're an Aussie or a Saffa, and a mean-spirited one at that.

  • Phil Newbold on August 22, 2012, 21:24 GMT

    Great blog Andy, you are the best!

  • Samin on August 22, 2012, 21:06 GMT

    I think the ODIs will be more mouthwatering den tests and am looking forward to it as this is the 5 match battle for supremacy for this format as r de t20Is.u fools, dey r all no.1 in da world eng vs no.2 in da world rsa clashes. wats da difference. Bilateral Odis shud stay but dere shud b more odis against associates or cric wont develop. bilateral tests shud die as no matter how mouth watering dey r, nobody actually has the time or patience to watch it for 5 days!!!

  • Apurva on August 22, 2012, 19:42 GMT

    @ Uday - Very well said. I completely agree.

  • Davd on August 22, 2012, 18:38 GMT

    I'm not sure what has so galvanized giselle23 to damn you with both faint and fulsome praise, but for the life of me I cannot quite decipher his/her intent, so cunningly is it camouflaged by a grammatical carnage of run on sentences, mixed metaphors, missing subjects, missing verbs & subject-verb agreement/disagreement/total war.* His/her comment almost exceeds in inexplicable ineptitude Strauss' batting, Tucker's umpiring & ECB player management. If you do dig the hole, toss in a basic guide to English grammar. giselle23 may find it helpful.

    *I stopped at nouns & verbs. Adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions would have made this comment as torturous as a Trott innings.

  • Jimmy on August 27, 2012, 18:42 GMT

    Funny how out-bowling Swann in series after series makes the opposing spinner marginal, incomplete, weaker by comparison, yet only serves to enhance Swann's reputation... hmm....

  • Carlotta on August 24, 2012, 14:04 GMT

    Andy, I love you. @giselle23@yahoo.com : Your post contains five-and-a-bit sentences and four grammatical errors. "Poorly written..."? This series was Excellent vs Very Good and Excellent won.

  • david on August 23, 2012, 13:45 GMT

    Like many a marriage England at Lord's were undone by a good Philander, but let us too praise the truly wonderful Steyn. What a privilege to see this marvel of grace, menace and biomechanics in his prime.

  • Jimmy Stewart on August 23, 2012, 12:47 GMT

    Just a great writer, love reading your comments - superb Andy

  • Rett on August 23, 2012, 10:39 GMT

    Oh Sir Francis, have you learned nothing of test cricket? To simply write off Australia's chances against South Africa is foolish. South Africa won their last series there (it was also the only time in history that this has happened) and then were promptly defeated at home. Since the series loss against England in 2010-11, Australia haven't lost a test series (including a 1-1 against the Proteas in their own backyard).

  • Graham on August 22, 2012, 21:32 GMT

    @Giselle23 - you really do yourself no favours with your ludicrously misdirected vitriol. Let me guess - you're an Aussie or a Saffa, and a mean-spirited one at that.

  • Phil Newbold on August 22, 2012, 21:24 GMT

    Great blog Andy, you are the best!

  • Samin on August 22, 2012, 21:06 GMT

    I think the ODIs will be more mouthwatering den tests and am looking forward to it as this is the 5 match battle for supremacy for this format as r de t20Is.u fools, dey r all no.1 in da world eng vs no.2 in da world rsa clashes. wats da difference. Bilateral Odis shud stay but dere shud b more odis against associates or cric wont develop. bilateral tests shud die as no matter how mouth watering dey r, nobody actually has the time or patience to watch it for 5 days!!!

  • Apurva on August 22, 2012, 19:42 GMT

    @ Uday - Very well said. I completely agree.

  • Davd on August 22, 2012, 18:38 GMT

    I'm not sure what has so galvanized giselle23 to damn you with both faint and fulsome praise, but for the life of me I cannot quite decipher his/her intent, so cunningly is it camouflaged by a grammatical carnage of run on sentences, mixed metaphors, missing subjects, missing verbs & subject-verb agreement/disagreement/total war.* His/her comment almost exceeds in inexplicable ineptitude Strauss' batting, Tucker's umpiring & ECB player management. If you do dig the hole, toss in a basic guide to English grammar. giselle23 may find it helpful.

    *I stopped at nouns & verbs. Adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions would have made this comment as torturous as a Trott innings.

  • Maheshnarayan on August 22, 2012, 17:15 GMT

    Just image Indians who have to be content with 2-match test series (can that even be called a series?)

  • Ashutosh Tiwari on August 22, 2012, 17:13 GMT

    a very good artical........

  • Anonymous on August 22, 2012, 15:43 GMT

    Great piece

  • Kathy on August 22, 2012, 15:43 GMT

    @Megafan, 'pologies. When I reread what I posted, I see it's ambiguous who I am talking about. "They were put under pressure ...": I meant England not SA. {K. writes a reminder to herself not to blog before breakfast again}

  • njr1330 on August 22, 2012, 15:24 GMT

    Great article...much better than the 'stats' nonsense. On the last day, I looked up some figures: England had no batsman averaging 50 or more in the series. SA had five, inc. Amla, who was averaging 151 !!

  • Akash on August 22, 2012, 14:45 GMT

    Ice-skating anaconda?? Haven't you used that expression before? You are losing your touch, Andy!

    Just kidding, another brilliant article! Your biggest fan

  • Matt on August 22, 2012, 14:27 GMT

    "It seems unlikely that Hashim Amla will be dropped from the team for going bonkers in a press conference and then abusing his own captain. He does not strike the neutral observer as that kind of man. Maybe Kallis will do so. Just to see the looks on people’s faces."

    *giggles*

  • Ammit on August 22, 2012, 14:14 GMT

    Two words for you

    ZaltzMan Rising!

  • GPrasad on August 22, 2012, 13:54 GMT

    While agree with the prospect of 5 test series, but we will have to recall this series as a one sided 2-0 thumping of the No1 team by SA. We all knew before the series started SA would be beating England. SA was in control of this match all the time, well, may be not the first morning .

  • giselle23@yahoo.com on August 22, 2012, 13:49 GMT

    It is true, very few have this ability to beat the drum about their team and bend for it. Andy you truly outclass yourself in this article praising the English. What has England done to wow you now? "Intermittent Brilliance?", you really got to be kidding. You should be given an award for consistently poorly written piece of articles. Why don't you dig a hole....

  • Nodders on August 22, 2012, 13:21 GMT

    That's your best blog yet Andy!

  • Paul on August 22, 2012, 12:47 GMT

    Loved that article and concur with all that is said in it. Cricket admin - wake up !!!!

  • Jem Lloyd on August 22, 2012, 11:34 GMT

    Excellent article, amusing in places ("the brink of the brink of victory") but above all, highlighting the most important failing of the ICC and relevant boards - the lack of quality Test matches in favour of generally dull ODI's. I mean seriously... who actually thought that a series of 7 ODI's was a good idea? Cricket tours between major nations should START as they used to, with 3 ODI's and perhaps 2 or 3 T20's, these acting as the hors d'oeuvres for what most true cricket fans see as the main course - 5 Test matches! In this last series, England got such a spanking in the 1st Test that it took them until the final day of the 3rd Test to realize that with a little more dedication, concentration and confidence, they could actually compete with the mighty SA machine. With two additional Tests, England may well have opted to bat for the draw in the 3rd game and then what kind of excitement and intrigue would have unfolded in the final two matches?!!

  • vinoth on August 22, 2012, 11:25 GMT

    an article without the word KP...

  • Chris Cowles on August 22, 2012, 11:22 GMT

    A Test against South Africa instead of the matches against Australia that nobody wanted, although it would probably have been ruined by rain, and another one instead of the five LOIs to come (I'm sure we could fit in the maximum required three of this boring exercise) might have made this late-starting summer as memorable as a couple of other things that have happened. There were a fair number of exciting Test matches over the winter involving other countries too. The game's administrators might take notice of that as well. We can just hope, JP. By the way, good column Andy.

  • david on August 22, 2012, 11:07 GMT

    Top hole piece, and top hole post @Kathy. When Swann was run out we only needed ato score at less than 3 per over, and had about a 25% chance of victory I think. But of course it is hard to turn the adreneline that fuelled our getting into such a position on and off like a tap, and staying measured in such a situation must be very difficult. And the best side did win. But what a day.

  • Zahir Chaudhary on August 22, 2012, 10:46 GMT

    Brilliant stuff Andy, as usual!!

    Do a piece on KP??

  • Tim Richman on August 22, 2012, 9:27 GMT

    Excellent piece. Pity that you - and your readers and so many genuine cricket fans (as opposed to people who want to be entertained for a few hours) - are shouting into the abyss. If a three Test-series isn't bad enough, let's not forget the titanic two-Test series between SA and Australia last year... Ten days of fantastic cricket between two great rivals ruined by the fact that there weren't another 5 or 10 or 15 to come.

  • Bernie on August 22, 2012, 9:10 GMT

    "or England would slip up and punch themselves in the face"

    Ain't that the truth, Andy Z. Ain't that the truth, KP.

  • Tim Richman on August 22, 2012, 9:01 GMT

    Excellent piece. Pity that you - and your readers and so many genuine cricket fans (as opposed to people who want to be entertained for a few hours) - are shouting into the abyss. If a three Test-series isn't bad enough, let's not forget the titanic two-Test series between SA and Australia last year... Ten days of fantastic cricket between two great rivals ruined by the fact that there weren't another 5 or 10 or 15 to come.

  • Sir Francis on August 22, 2012, 8:21 GMT

    Au contraire, it's very easy to tell who is No. 1 Test team. For those who are unsure. it is South Africa. As for the "mouth watering clash between Aus & SA, well id Australia win the stewards will have to be called in. Australia is nowhere near as good as S.A. right now. Let's all be grateful this wasn't a 5 Test series. 4 - 0 is not a good luck.

  • Adrian on August 22, 2012, 8:16 GMT

    Couldn't agree more regarding the scheduling. I think we all knew before the series started that 3 tests wouldn't be enough. Well said Andy.

  • Troll on August 22, 2012, 7:39 GMT

    Ancient Aussie saying, "There's no worse sight in cricket than a whining Pom"

  • al on August 22, 2012, 7:37 GMT

    If there had been two more Tests after this, England would have shut up shop on day five and we would have had a sleepy draw instead of the exciting finale. Three Tests ain't perfect, but the scarcity made every session of every Test of vital importance.

  • Dave on August 22, 2012, 7:31 GMT

    Brilliant piece again Zaltzman! You have just banished my black dog for the day.

  • megafan on August 22, 2012, 7:19 GMT

    @Kathy: Shark lost, as shark was England team.

  • JP on August 22, 2012, 7:12 GMT

    Brilliant piece. But, the administrators of the game would not care less.

  • Gaurav on August 22, 2012, 6:55 GMT

    You are complaining about the cricket schedule alright but stating "between January 2010 and November 2015, two of the world’s leading Test teams will have faced each other in a grand total of three Test matches" is absolutely rubbish.

    Last year, around this time, people could have said, "Oh! what a brilliant scheduling, the top 2 teams (India and England then) will meet at total of 8 times in 18 months.

    But then again, as test cricket is at this time, its hard to tell who the number 1 side is. Currently we have a mouthwatering clash between Aus and SA in November, which again is a battle for number 1 as Aus winning the series will take them to the podium. So stop blaming the schedule and enjoy SA-Aus, Ind-Eng over the next few months.

  • Nick on August 22, 2012, 6:33 GMT

    Solution: for these 'bilateral' things that happen so much, let's make them all tests. And if you want some of this "One day" cricket the kids seem to like, kick a few more teams together and have a meaningless cup tournament. Because a 7 game ODI series is a great recipe for 7 days of naps.

  • Kathy on August 22, 2012, 6:28 GMT

    Certainly the Brit team made mistakes, but so did SA, and I say it as a Saffer myself. They were put under pressure to a degree they had not experienced in their last few Test series, and couldn't keep their cool under it (aot staying po-faced, a different thing entirely). Even a good swimmer may do stupid things when he sees a Great White Shark cruising meaningfully towards him.

    Great Test series though, wasn't it? Just love those twists and turns that five days gives time for. That last day, with it's furious attempt to reach shore despite all logic and history, was a grand brave effort ... almost a pity that the shark won. Almost, I say. It would certainly have been a game for the ages if the last man in had pulled it off.

    I can just see it written up like a story in Boy's Own Annual ... but then there's something of the schoolboy in cricketers, isn't there (and in cricket lovers too).

  • uday on August 22, 2012, 6:15 GMT

    Andy, you have the rare ability to be rip roaringly funny and incredibly poignant in the same article. Cheers

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  • uday on August 22, 2012, 6:15 GMT

    Andy, you have the rare ability to be rip roaringly funny and incredibly poignant in the same article. Cheers

  • Kathy on August 22, 2012, 6:28 GMT

    Certainly the Brit team made mistakes, but so did SA, and I say it as a Saffer myself. They were put under pressure to a degree they had not experienced in their last few Test series, and couldn't keep their cool under it (aot staying po-faced, a different thing entirely). Even a good swimmer may do stupid things when he sees a Great White Shark cruising meaningfully towards him.

    Great Test series though, wasn't it? Just love those twists and turns that five days gives time for. That last day, with it's furious attempt to reach shore despite all logic and history, was a grand brave effort ... almost a pity that the shark won. Almost, I say. It would certainly have been a game for the ages if the last man in had pulled it off.

    I can just see it written up like a story in Boy's Own Annual ... but then there's something of the schoolboy in cricketers, isn't there (and in cricket lovers too).

  • Nick on August 22, 2012, 6:33 GMT

    Solution: for these 'bilateral' things that happen so much, let's make them all tests. And if you want some of this "One day" cricket the kids seem to like, kick a few more teams together and have a meaningless cup tournament. Because a 7 game ODI series is a great recipe for 7 days of naps.

  • Gaurav on August 22, 2012, 6:55 GMT

    You are complaining about the cricket schedule alright but stating "between January 2010 and November 2015, two of the world’s leading Test teams will have faced each other in a grand total of three Test matches" is absolutely rubbish.

    Last year, around this time, people could have said, "Oh! what a brilliant scheduling, the top 2 teams (India and England then) will meet at total of 8 times in 18 months.

    But then again, as test cricket is at this time, its hard to tell who the number 1 side is. Currently we have a mouthwatering clash between Aus and SA in November, which again is a battle for number 1 as Aus winning the series will take them to the podium. So stop blaming the schedule and enjoy SA-Aus, Ind-Eng over the next few months.

  • JP on August 22, 2012, 7:12 GMT

    Brilliant piece. But, the administrators of the game would not care less.

  • megafan on August 22, 2012, 7:19 GMT

    @Kathy: Shark lost, as shark was England team.

  • Dave on August 22, 2012, 7:31 GMT

    Brilliant piece again Zaltzman! You have just banished my black dog for the day.

  • al on August 22, 2012, 7:37 GMT

    If there had been two more Tests after this, England would have shut up shop on day five and we would have had a sleepy draw instead of the exciting finale. Three Tests ain't perfect, but the scarcity made every session of every Test of vital importance.

  • Troll on August 22, 2012, 7:39 GMT

    Ancient Aussie saying, "There's no worse sight in cricket than a whining Pom"

  • Adrian on August 22, 2012, 8:16 GMT

    Couldn't agree more regarding the scheduling. I think we all knew before the series started that 3 tests wouldn't be enough. Well said Andy.