Pakistan in South Africa 2012-13 February 5, 2013

What sub-50 innings scores teach us

A wealth of learning is packed into this post. (And also the most meaningless stat of the month)

Another month, another opponent skittled for under 50 by South Africa. At the start of January, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel powerskittled New Zealand for 45. At the start of February, with the assistance of Jacques Kallis, they macerated Pakistan for 49. When you add in the disembowelment of Australia for 47 in November 2011, South Africa have now dismissed their opponents without even allowing them the token applause for reaching 50 on three occasions in their past 17 Tests and 32 innings.

That is the same number of times as the entire planet managed to bowl out an opposition for under 49 in the 1560 Test matches played, and 5659 innings bowled, between June 1958, when Jim Laker and Tony Lock humiliated New Zealand at Lord's, and that eye-popping showdown between the Proteas and the Baggy Greens at Newlands 15 months ago, a statistical volcano that Vesuviused extraordinary numbers out so fast that several cricket statisticians were overwhelmed by the pyroclastic stats and preserved for eternity as they desperately sought shelter under piles of Wisdens. The three occasions in between were India's 17-over capitulation at Lord's in 1974 (all out 42), and the tit-for-tat skittlings of England by West Indies, and vice versa, in 1994 and 2004 (all out 46 and 47 respectively).

Quite what Vernon Philander thinks about Test cricket supposedly being the ultimate challenge is anyone's guess. (Apart from his. He, presumably, has no need to guess, and is well in the loop on that one.) He has only played in 14 Tests, and has already contributed to three sub-50 eviscerations (taking 5 for 17, 5 for 7 and 2 for 16). You could make a list of 50 great bowlers who have never even been involved in one. And the only other bowlers to have bowled in three sub-50 all-out totals are Steyn and Morkel. These are good times to be a South African bowler. (Other than when they were being horsed for back-to-back 500 scores in Australia in November, but, since they were the prelude to a series-winning blitz in Perth, the pain presumably wore off fairly swiftly.)

What can we conclude from this? That modern Test batsmanship has gone irreparably to seed due to the necessary impatience and unorthodoxies of T20, and that even slight awkwardness in conditions now prompts an almost medieval level of mayhem in the batting side? That the Steyn-Philander-Morkel-Kallis quadrident is historically unplayable in home conditions? That the international schedule and changing nature of the game leaves touring sides more unprepared than ever for unfamiliar conditions? Or that statistics occasionally throw up coincidences of little historical meaning? Or something else?

Feel free to answer as many or few of those questions as you wish, as loudly or as quietly as you see fit. I cannot provide a definitive answer, partly because it would require even more Statsguru scrabbling, partly because it is already well past my bedtime. I'm only 38; I need plenty of sleep or I am a nightmare in the mornings.

It is certainly true, however, that South Africa is currently the toughest place in the cricket world for visiting Test batsmen. Since the Proteas' readmission to the Test arena in 1992, away batsmen have averaged 24.8 in the Republic, the lowest such figure for any cricket nation, ahead of Australia (26.2), and Sri Lanka (27.1).

Since 2006, when Steyn made his breakthrough, and shortly before the Warne-McGrath era of Australia bowlsmanship came to its glorious, England-annihilating apotheosis, the gap has widened. Away batsmen have averaged 24.9 in Steyn-era South Africa, with the next-toughest hosts being Australia, England and Sri Lanka (all 28.7, 15% less difficult / wicketous / outsome / failurferous).

The gap is even more pronounced when only top-seven batsmen are counted - they average 28.8 in South Africa since 2006, making South Africa 18.5% tougher for visiting top-order batsmen than the next-hardest host, England (where top-seven visitors have averaged 34.2 in the same period), and 34.5% tougher than the rest of the world combined (excluding series in neutral venues, because they confuse poor little Statsguru, and because it is now even further past my bedtime).

Predictably and understandably, Pakistan were duly obliterated by South Africa's world-beating pacemen. You might not have predicted that they would be obliterated quite so obliteratively, but, given Pakistan's long-term struggles with the bat outside Asia, and given almost everyone's long-term struggles with the bat inside South Africa, even the most optimistic of Pakistan supporters would not have foreseen the home attack being carted to all corners of the Wanderers by a rampantly herculean Mohammad Hafeez or a boundary-blasting, fire-breathing Azhar Ali. Five of Pakistan's top seven had never played a Test in South Africa before. Hafeez had failed in their previous tour five years ago. Only Younis Khan had encountered even moderate success there with the bat, and then only at the second attempt, after a disappointing series in 2002-03.

More questions: 1. How were Pakistan's batsmen supposed to cope? 2. Where and when are today's international players supposed to learn the techniques that might enable them to succeed when playing away in different conditions? 3. Have the changing priorities and demands of the game left batsmen as a species unable to evolve to counteract new or unfamiliar threats?

(Answers to the microquiz: [1] They weren't. Far better and more experienced batting teams have struggled in South Africa in the past two decades, and decent swing generally causes major problems to all Test teams these days. High-class swing frequently brings about total carnage. [2] I don't know, but a couple of years playing overseas and avoiding learning to heave everything over midwicket might help. [3] Perhaps ‒ ask a real batsman, he'll know better than I.)

Even England, probably the best-resourced Test nation and with two coaches who were supreme players of the turning ball, took four Tests last winter to start to come to terms with spin, and they then needed a one-Test refresher course this winter to remind them. If you are all good, I'll try to find you some stats on whether away teams' batting performance has declined in recent years. Perhaps it is just that their failures are more extreme. There seem to be more megacollapses that there used to be. Which might be coincidence, and/or a concern. Or might not. Isn't life complicated?

And it is, I think, unarguable that Pakistan are currently even less well positioned to learn and adapt than other nations. Since their two-Test series in West Indies in May 2011, they have played just 12 Tests, and only one outside Asia - a one-off match in Zimbabwe 18 months ago. As preparation for facing Steyn, Philander and Morkel in South Africa, this schedule is about as useful as spending the year and a half before an expedition to the South Pole playing with a cuddly toy polar bear and occasionally standing near a fridge. So expecting them to pass what is currently the world's toughest batting examination, is as optimistic as Chris Martin buying a new tin of linseed oil for his bat, or Laika the space dog planning a Welcome Home party with her doggie friends before being blasted into space in 1957.

● Steyn, with another masterful display of fast-medium swing and unrelenting technical inquisition, became the 16th bowler to take ten wickets in a Test on five or more occasions, and the first to do so having made his debut in the 21st century. The list he joins, as you would expect, does not contain many rubbish bowlers. The previous pace bowlers to take five ten-fors have been Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan and Dennis Lillee, plus medium-pacers Alec Bedser, SF Barnes and George Lohmann. Not too many pie-chuckers in that list.

● Meaningless Stat of the Week: Pakistan dismal's first innings was the fifth time since the start of last year that a team has been bowled out for under 100. All of those five instances have occurred in either January or February. Only once in the previous ten years had a team been skittled for a two-figure score in a Test in the first two months of the year - England's heroically inept 51 all out in Jamaica in February 2009. The other 36 previous sub-100 humiliations had all happened in the last ten months of the year. Only four of the 67 all-out scores under 100 between 1985 and 2011 were scored in January or February. And that, friends, is the most pointless thing you will read this month. Even this early in the game, I am confident it cannot be overtaken.

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