Lions with snoring problems, and light-sleeping wildebeest
It has been a largely cricket-free week in Confectionery Stall Towers. Brief glimpses of Xavier Doherty looking thoughtful, as if he was contemplating what on earth went wrong with his usually rock-solid recipe for spaghetti carbonara, or coming to a higher understanding of why Shane Warne did not have many of his numerous great successes in India. A few excerpts of Cheteshwar Pujara batting like a surgeon. Occasional snippets of English commentators struggling to prevent their pre-Ashes confidence spilling over into the kind of giddy excitement usually associated with children on Christmas Eve in big houses with wide chimneys. Barely even enough time for my weekly commune with Statsguru. Tough times in the Zaltzman household. Albeit only for one of the Zaltzmans.
England's Test series in New Zealand, however, which begins tonight (New Zealanders may claim it begins tomorrow, but do not believe them, I have checked the schedules, and it definitely begins tonight), will hopefully rectify this harrowing personal cricket drought.
As ever in the build-up to a series against the Kiwis, the streets of England have not exactly been overburdened with squadrons of police and emergency troops resorting to any available means, legal or otherwise, to keep under control a public aflame with the febrile frenzy of cricketous excitement. Nevertheless, this contest promises to be more interesting than the two teams' respective rankings suggest it could be.
England should win, and quite comfortably, against opponents who, in the five years since they shocked England with an outstanding victory in the first Test in Hamilton in 2008, have scored only three victories in 19 home Tests, two of which were against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and who, in their most recent foray into the Test arena, in January, were obliteratively squidged by South Africa in two utter humiliations. They have been fitful with bat and ball for too long, and England, although they fell considerably short in two of their three major challenges in the Test arena last year, have in recent times proved ruthless at demolishing weaker opposition.
Nevertheless, party injuries permitting, the Kiwis do possess the kind of bowlers who have most discomfited England in recent years (swing bowlers) (i.e., the kind of bowlers who have most discomfited almost all teams in recent years) (and for much of cricket history). They have won in Australia and Sri Lanka in the past 18 months, and in their most recent home series, a year ago, they bowled out South Africa for under 260 in the first innings of two of the three Tests.
Their greatest hope, however, is to commission a squadron of light aircraft to circle above the ground throughout the match, trailing banners spelling out in enormous letters the words: "Welcome To The FIRST TEST In Dunedin. That's Dunedin, which, to confirm, is NOT IN ENGLAND."
England and first Tests away from home have not been harmonious bedfellows of late. In fact, they have been about as harmonious as a lion with a snoring problem bunking down in a one-man tent with a light-sleeping wildebeest.
In their 13 away series since the 2005 Ashes, they have won one first Test, drawn three, and lost nine. Their sole victory was in Bangladesh, one of the draws required a frantic tenth-wicket rearguard to save the day, and in one of the others they conceded a 221-run first-innings deficit.
England, it is fair to say, have tended not to start away series well. Even if they have been trying to concentrate really, really hard on starting away series well. They have hit the ground dozing, whacked the snooze button on their alarm clock, and mumbled something about wanting ten more minutes. After which, awakened by the chastening espresso of defeat, they have woken up. Since the Ashes whitewash of 2006-07 - when even the most industrial-strength coffee could not have saved them - they have played ten series away from home. In first Tests, they have won one, drawn two, and lost seven. In the remainder of those series, they have played 22, won ten, drawn eight, and lost four. So recent precedent suggests New Zealand have to strike early, and then hope for the best, pray for rain, or run away.
That Hamilton Test five years ago offers some hope for the home side. Then, they strangled England's batting in the first innings - 348 all out in 173 overs - and skittled it in the second, when Chris Martin and Kyle Mills, inspired by the still-happily-non-existent ghost of Richard Hadlee, blasted England out for 110, with only Ian Bell passing 15.
That was only England's fourth Test loss in New Zealand, but all four have been fairly spectacular. Two of them have been very spectacular. The remorselessly unsuccessful grind to defeat in Hamilton in 2007-08 followed a rather frenetic capitulation in Auckland to conclude the drawn 2001-02 series, when Daryl Tuffey took nine wickets in the match, and Andre Adams three in each innings, in what remains his only Test.
(This fact is one of 21st-century cricket's greater mysteries. New Zealand have fielded competent bowling attacks for most of the last decade, but they have not exactly been slicing through opponents like a divorced sushi chef through his ex-wife's favourite goldfish. Andre Adams has taken 614 first-class wickets at an average of 23, and has been in recent years one of the most influential players in English county cricket. He is a medium-paced swing bowler and an effective, hard-hitting lower-order batsman. He must feel like kidnapping Vernon Philander, scrawling the South African's Test statistics in indelible ink all over his face, and dumping him in a cricket bag on the doorstep of the New Zealand cricket board's headquarters with a handwritten message saying: "Here's what you could have had.")
England's two other Test losses in the land of the long white cloud were amongst the most eye-popping capitulations in their Test history. In the Christchurch Test in 1983-84, England did not merely plumb the cricketing depths, they installed a fully fitted bathroom, hot tub and steam room in the cricketing depths - bowled out for 82 and 93, to lose by an innings and 132 runs. Which was not the kind of batting form a side would have wanted to be in with a five-Test series against the West Indies looming the following summer.
It was the only Test since 1895 in which England have been bowled out for under 100 in both innings, and one of only two completed Tests in which none of England's top 6 passed 20 in either innings, the other being in Brisbane in 1950-51, when Len Hutton, then the best batsman in the world, was demoted to No. 8 to try to avoid the worst of a rain-affected horror pitch.
Instrumental in New Zealand's victory, as he was in almost all of New Zealand's victories in the 1970s and 1980s, was Richard Hadlee - 99 off 81 balls, and match figures of 8 for 44 in 35 overs. Handy cricketer, that boy. The Kiwi Ajit Agarkar, in my book. (My book needs proofreading.) New Zealand only batted for 72 overs - the third shortest time a side has batted before going on to win by an innings.
Six years previously, in Wellington, England had an even more catastrophic collapse, albeit only in one innings. Chasing just 137 to win, they anti-amassed a distinctly sub-heroic 64 all out - the first time a team had lost when chasing under 150 in the fourth innings of a Test since 1907 (and, until a similarly incompetent performance in Abu Dhabi last year, the only time England had done so since 1902). Hadlee took 6 for 26. He truly knew which end of a cricket ball to hold. The Southern Hemisphere Ronnie Irani.
None of this suggests that England will lose in Dunedin, or in either of the two subsequent Tests in this series. As the old cricketing saying goes: "Precedent, schmecedent." But, if England do lose any of those games, history - the flighty little minx that she is - suggests that it will probably be one of the most harrowing experiences of any England fan's cricket-watching life. And absolutely unmissable viewing for the neutral.
● In England's three most recent away series, their first-innings scores have been 191 all out, 193 all out and 192 all out. Other than when they mauled Bangladesh, they have not scored over 360 in their first innings of an away series for seven years. In those ten innings, the only century was scored by Andrew Strauss in Chennai in 2008-09.
● In England's defeat in Hamilton in 2008, their match run rate was precisely 2.00 per over - their slowest in a Test in the last 12 years, and the slowest by any top-eight Test nation in a Test against New Zealand since the aforementioned 1983-84 series, when England scored at slower than 2 runs per over in two consecutive Tests.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer