Why England must not learn from their mistakes
A few quick thoughts ahead of the Mumbai Test, which, personally, I am childishly excited about. It will be my first experience of watching Test cricket in Asia, and the cheapest per-minute entertainment I will have experienced since paying 10p to see the whole of War And Peace read aloud in a slow drawl by an ageing tortoise from Texas. My ticket cost Rs 500 rupees - just under £6. For the whole match. The same price as around 20 minutes of a Lord's Test. In fact, an ill-timed toilet break at next summer's Ashes showdown at HQ could in effect cost you more than the whole of the Mumbai match.
● Since the end of the Ahmedabad Test, much has been said, written, painted and sung about how England need to learn their lessons about playing in Asia (Lady Gaga been regularly addressing the issue in her live gigs, according to a well-placed source). Those advocating that England should belated learn the lessons they ought to have learned after the Dubai debacle at the start of the year are, however, chasing the wrong mongoose into the wrong exhaust pipe.
Recent history suggests that learning from their experiences is, in fact, the last thing that Alastair Cook and his men should be trying to do. Excluding two series wins in Bangladesh, England have lost six and drawn two of their last eight series on the world's biggest and spinniest continent. They have won only two Tests in those series, drawn nine and lost 11.
They have toured Asia more regularly this millennium than at any point in their cricketing history. Their last successful series away in any of the three main Asian Test nations were when they scored back-to-back wins in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2000-01. Before then, they had played four Tests in Asia in the previous 13 years.
In fact, England have played more Tests in Asia in 2012 than they did in the 15 years between their series wins in India in 1984-85 and Pakistan in 2000-01. In that time, England played just seven subcontinental Tests - three bad-tempered, finger-pointing, umpire-sqaubbling matches in Pakistan in 1987-88, and three ineptitude-fuelled selectorially nonsensical dodgy-prawn-aggravated games in India, plus a bonus defeat to Sri Lanka in 1992-93, which helped rectify the MCC's erroneous assumption that Sri Lankans did not know which end of a cricket bat, or ball, to hold.
Clearly the best recipe for English success in Asia is not only to not learn lessons, but not to even turn up to school. Amongst the fundamental tenets of educational philosophy are that learning is pointless as we'll all be dead within 100 years anyway, that it is better to learn no lesson than the wrong lesson, and that chalk has ballistic properties that the marker pen cannot hope to emulate.
England have a few winters off before their next Trial by Tweak in Asia. But when they next set foot there, they should do so with 11 debutants. They will romp to victory.
● The Mumbai Test begins today, with the two sides most recently deposed from the top of the Test rankings casting half an eye at the current leaders being battered like a suicidal calamari by the team who were No.1 before the whole rankings relay began. The No. 1 ranking seems to have been touch-passed from team to team like a volcano-roasted potato at a Fijian rugby practice, and on a staggering first day in Adelaide, South Africa started displaying several of the classic symptoms of a team suffering early-onset ranking slippage. Injuries, weaker links ruthlessly exposed, stronger links out of form.
The last few years of Test cricket have been, frankly, barking mad, with teams suffering wild extremes of form ‒ perhaps in an effort to raise global public awareness of how global warming could let to an increase in the amount of catastrophic weather. The world's cricketers might be confusing their supporters, but they are selflessly safeguarding the long-term future of the planet that has been so influential in the development of the sport.
● Both teams at the Wankhede have their innings co-started by a left-handed batsman. England's is so sure of his place in the team that, were the planet to be obliterated by a colossal asteroid strike tomorrow morning, he would probably still find a way of adding a few more Test caps to his collection. This is partly because the second Test would probably still go ahead despite the devastation of the world's end ‒ the Wankhede Stadium would likely be the only part of the planet to survive the impact, after the BCCI refuse to allow the asteroid access to the ground.
India's southpaw opener is rather less inkily inscribed in the selectors' good books. Gautam Gambhir is not alone amongst Indian batsmen in having had a lean time in Tests of late, but the World Cup-final hero has not reached three figures in a Test since January 2010, a run of 23 matches in which he has averaged a less-than-impressive 28. In the ten Tests before that, he had scored eight centuries and averaged 91. This followed his first 18 Tests, in which he averaged 36, and which were adorned by a solitary hundred (against Bangladesh), and a 97 against Zimbabwe.
If you exclude the minnows, he had averaged a less-than-impressive 29 before his spectacularly purple patch. In terms of career graph, Gambhir has one of the most extreme and pointy "sombreros" in Test history, putting the likes of fellow purple-patchers Michael Vaughan and Mike Gatting in the most Mexican of shades.
The old cliché argues, "form is temporary but class is permanent", which may be true, and applies equally to decent players in brilliant form as to great players in the middle of a slump.
So is Gambhir: (a) a world-class player who has been woefully out of form for most of his Test career; (b) a good player who has been slightly out of form for most of his Test career, but played above himself for one stellar 15-month period; or (c) rubbish, but swallowed a snooker ball covered in Don Bradman's DNA that he found in Ricky Ponting's kit bag in the Mohali Test in October 2008, before nervously coughing it back up when he saw Dale Steyn charging in at him in Nagpur in February 2010? Answers on a postcard showing a contraband photograph of Gambhir batting in the Ahmedabad Test, to the BCCI. (The correct answer is B. In the opinion of the Confectionery Stall Player Class Analysis Committee.)
● Tim Bresnan seems unlikely to play, barring injuries or illness to others. He was England's lucky charm whilst they were winning every single one of the first ten Tests he played in, and, more pertinently, whilst he was bowling brisk swing, incisively and economically, and chipping in with useful lower-middle-order runs. He took 27 wickets at 17 runs apiece as England mercilessly whizzed Australia and then India into an easily digestible soup. Having completed the recipe to perfection, England then sat down to enjoy the soup. And promptly spilt it all over their trousers.
In December last year, Bresnan had surgery on an elbow injury. Since then, he has bagged just 16 more wickets in seven Tests, averaging over 50, often bowling far from briskly. And he has chipped in with not very many useful lower-middle-order runs. Bresnan's last 107 overs in Tests have brought him 2 for 416 - not figures to write home about, unless you are writing "Help! Please rescue" on a bit of paper, shoving into a bottle, and throwing it out to sea.
Following on from this rather jet-lagged blog, I will be posting daily articles throughout the Mumbai and Kolkata Tests, and doing a podcast after each match. If you have any questions you would like me to answer in the podcast, please twitter them to @ZaltzCricket.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer