April 2, 2013

England: wonderful, horrid England

Andy Zaltzman
Alastair Cook talks to the media ahead of the first ODI, Hamilton, February 16, 2013
Alastair Cook ponders the unfairness of a world in which a tactically sound decision can also be a wretched one  © Getty Images
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It is April. In India, the IPL casts its annual envious glance at Major League Baseball. A hundred and sixty-two matches per side - truly, commercial dreams can come true. And as cricket's annual big-bucks slugfest begins, the 2012-13 Test season has been tagged, bagged, and taken away to the ICC laboratory for analysis (assuming that you consider the Zimbabwe v Bangladesh series to be part of the 2013 season) (an issue which has, no doubt, exercised your mind considerably over recent weeks). Around the cricketosphere, the world's Test nations are taking stock. Some with more relish than others.

Australia, who began the season by initially dominating the world's best team, have ended it in something vaguely reminiscent of a poorly directed theatrical farce. The whole of Australia will be desperately hoping that Michael Clarke's troublesome back recovers within the next 99 days, that his troublesome team reads a few coaching manuals in the same time frame, and that the government's secret research into the development of an age-reversing serum that it can slather on seven or eight of its former world-dominating stars bears fruit.

India is basking in the afterglow of emerging from its era-ending slump, with perhaps a smidgen of concern over how quickly its bright new dawn might be clouded over in South Africa later in the year, and a tinge of regret that they needlessly delayed their obviously-needed process of regeneration until after they had caved in against England in two disastrously low-octane performances in Mumbai and Kolkata.

South Africa themselves have spent the last few days having the ICC Test mace analysed by scientists to discover why it seems to possess the supernatural power to magically transform turn a good team into a thoroughly average one. Thus far, they have succeeded only in turning Morne Morkel into a zebra, and Dale Steyn into Sreesanth, although thankfully that metamorphosis was temporary, and lasted long enough only for the world's leading paceman to put on a headband and throw some excitable shapes on a dance floor. The Proteas may also be wondering why it took them so long (a) to pick Vernon Philander, (b) to fulfil their potential after years of underachievement, and (c) to realise that (a) and (b) might be linked.

Sri Lanka have been largely unimpressive with the now-35-year-olds Rangana Herath and Kumar Sangakkara in the team. Without them, they would have been sub-dismal.

Since Tino Best produced the most unexpected innings of 95 in the history of cricket - possibly the most unexpected innings of over 70 in the history of cricket - West Indies have won six out of six (for the first time since 1988). That is as many Tests as they had won in their previous 73 matches over eight years. New dawn, or inevitable result of playing the three teams ranked below them? Or a bit of both?

New Zealand, amidst concern for the hospitalised Jesse Ryder, are assessing the fall-out from a turbulent season on and off the field, in which creditable drawn series bookended an absolute and merciless cauterisation in South Africa.

Pakistan are contemplating how difficult it is to win Test matches without (a) playing regular Test matches, (b) a batting line-up, and (c) England in the opposition dressing room.

Bangladesh have made distinct progress in batting, but have, at best, stagnated with the ball. Zimbabwe are playing again.

And England? A curious melange of excellence, adequacy and ineptitude, a curious cocktail of rugged determination and inexplicable fragility. They have been brilliant and decisive at times, shoddy and hesitant at others.

The batsmen, having enjoyed an extraordinary collective purple patch, then endured an equally extraordinary collective funk in the UAE at the start of last year. Since when, through last summer and this winter, they have been, with the exception of Matt Prior throughout and Alastair Cook in India, mostly inconsistent.

The bowling unit on which their previous successes were built had shuddered to a halt at The Oval against South Africa. It has since spluttered inconsistently. From the start of the Pakistan series of 2010, when the bowling unit clicked into a higher gear, until the end of the West Indies series last summer, England picked eight different frontline bowlers. All of them, from Graham Onions in his solitary Test in that time, to Graeme Swann, who played all 24, averaged under 30. Collectively, with the ball, England averaged 26 runs per wicket, and took a wicket every 55 balls.

Pakistan are contemplating how difficult it is to win Test matches without (a) playing regular Test matches, (b) a batting line-up, and (c) England in the opposition dressing room

Since then, the six bowlers England have used in their last three series have all individually averaged over 33, and collectively, they have averaged 40, with a strike rate of 80. Tino Best seems to have transformed more than one team's fortunes. Before his eye-popping, precedent-obliterating innings, England as a team had taken their opponents' wickets for less than 30 runs apiece in 19 of their previous 23 Tests. In ten Tests since then, they have done so only in their two wins in India.

England should still win one, and probably both, of their impending Ashes contests. Australia's weaknesses look more pronounced. However, after only two series wins in six, and with no opportunity to avenge their conclusive defeats by Pakistan and South Africa until the 2015-16 season, England's opportunity to establish themselves as a great Test side has probably passed them by.

● Cook's decision to put New Zealand in to bat certifiably, incontrovertibly and almost disastrously, did not work. This does not mean it was the wrong decision. Even with hindsight, I think it may, in fact, have been the right decision. But it was followed by a rubbishly executed team performance for four days. So it looked wrong. Very, very wrong.

There must, similarly, be times when the captain makes the wrong decision at the toss, but his team plays well and wins, so everyone agrees that he made the right decision.

Cook's captaincy is prone to extreme, almost unfathomable, caution in the field. It was visible at times in India, even when England were completely dominant. It was painfully obvious on the fourth morning of the Auckland Test match, when England ran up the tactical white flag and waited for the merciful release of declaration.

But Cook's insertion of New Zealand on day one was a bold move, aimed at maximising England's chances of winning. It backfired - if this had been a children's cartoon rather than a Test match, Cook would have been left with gunpowder all over his face, hair on fire, and teeth falling out of his head with a comic twang - but it was strategically sound and statistically sensible.

On a pitch that looked likely to remain batsman-friendly for five days, as indeed it did, Cook gave his team the earliest possible opportunity to start the difficult process of taking 20 wickets, with the subsequent options of either trying to force the game forward, or shutting up shop and seeing out a comfortable draw. The fact that they then took only one of those 20 wickets in the first day of the match, and became only the 13th Test side ever to put their opponents in to bat and then see their first two wickets rack up more than 250, does not invalidate the decision. Necessarily.

Perhaps England were thinking back to Andy Flower's first series in charge, when they failed to take the initiative at 1-0 down in the West Indies and needing to force a win on a similarly dull and featureless pitch. Then, England won the toss and, in accordance with convention, chose to bat, thus constricting the time available for taking the 20 wickets they required. They scored 546.

West Indies were quite happy to let them score 546. Five of the 15 sessions they would have to survive to secure the series had already gone by the time they went in to bat. One solid team innings on a moribund pitch and they would be almost safe. They replied with 544, and six more sessions had scuttled down England's drain. England thrashed a quick 237, set West Indies a notional 240 to win in 66 overs, a target that was never going to tempt them, given that they had the lead in the series, and the game ended with West Indies' ninth-wicket pair clinging on, and England thinking "Oooops." Cook wanted to avoid a similar scenario, in which his team could be denied a series victory by a lack of time to take the crucial final wickets on a non-deteriorating 21st-century fifth-day pitch. And he did avoid that scenario. By a massive margin. Albeit not quite in the way he was intending to.

● Some stats on winning the toss and electing to bowl:

Since 1 January 2000, toss-winning Test captains have elected to bat 396 times. Their results: won 142, drawn 96, lost 158. They have chosen to bowl 209 times - won 86, drawn 55, lost 66. In terms of their win-to-loss ratio, captains choosing to bowl first have been 45% more successful than captains choosing to bat (1.30 wins per defeat, to 0.89 wins per defeat).

This was the 23rd time England had chosen to bowl first since 2000. They have won 12 and lost only two of those matches. In the 53 Tests in which England have won the toss and batted in that time, they have won 19, drawn 16, and lost 18.

The Confectionery Stall will be taking a couple of weeks off to recharge its batteries for the summer ahead. But do not fear. Particularly if you are a lifelong Peter Fulton fan. I have already written a blog all about him, which you can have next week. If you're good.

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

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Zaltzman
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. 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 ESPNcricinfo.

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