April 30, 2013

The irony of being dismissed in the 90s in the '90s

Andy Zaltzman
Michael Slater falls to the ground, Queensland v New South Wales, Pura Cup final, March 14, 2003
Michael Slater: had an on-again-off-again relationship with his Australian badge  © Getty Images
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"April is the cruellest month," wrote poetry whiz TS Eliot in his smash-hit 1922 blockbuster The Waste Land. The celebrity wordsmith hammered out a bunch of other choice catchphrases on his magic typewriter, aided by his patented TSE3000X Metaphor Machine, but, given that the American-born literature ace had lived in England for several years by the time he wrote his alleged masterpiece of modernism, his slamming of the fourth month of the year is evidence that the Nobel Gong For Scribbling winner should be shunned by all cricket fans.

His casual lambasting of the month that annually hosts both the beginning of the English season, and, now the financiocricketous megastorm that is the IPL, endear him to neither traditionalist supporters of the great game, nor to its newer T20-obsessed aficionados. The man was, quite clearly, an idiot.

Besides, the evidence of my April suggests that he was wrong. April is the busiest month, on the evidence of April 2013 in the Confectionery Stall household, with the result that my cricket-watching has been restricted to distressingly, unacceptably, minimal levels.

However, whilst I can offer even fewer pearls of wisdom on the IPL than I am usually able to at this time of year, I have communed with Statsguru - a far more reliable companion to the intricacies of the human condition than TS Eliot - and delved into the phenomenon of the Nervous Nineties, for an article in the second edition of the new Nightwatchman magazine, excerpts from whose excellent first edition you may well have read on ESPNcricinfo.

This delving reveals that the 1990s, in a blast of alarmingly irrelevant irony, were the second most nervous decade for Test batsmen in the 90s in the last 100 years - 19.1% of all batsmen reaching 90 in the '90s were out before reaching 100, beaten only by the oddly nervous 1960s (21.8%). This can perhaps be largely explained by the fact that the 1990s were a relatively difficult decade for batsmen in general, at all stages of their innings. Or perhaps it can be attributed to existential angst about the impending turn of the millennium and likely end of the world it would almost certainly bring. Or to an unease about the impact of the internet on the planet as a whole. Or to the lingering psychological effects of Thatcherism on global consciousness.

The blame for the tension felt by the world's batsmen when on the verge of three figures in the 1960s can be laid almost exclusively laid at the feet of The Permissive Society, the Cold War, and rock stars growing their hair too long. Any historian would tell you that, for the right fee.

The man who did more than anyone else to popularise the Nervous Nineties in Test cricket's early years was Australian legend Clem Hill. In the first 65 Tests played, over almost 25 years, a batsman had been out in the 90s only nine times (out of 71 scores of over 90). The highest of those scores, and the only time a batsman had been dismissed within four runs of his century, was when Hill was bowled for 96 at the SCG in 1897-98.

Then, in consecutive Tests at the MCG and Adelaide in January 1902, Hill scored the first ever 99, and, in the next Test, the first ever 98 and the first ever 97. In that Adelaide Test, England's Tom Hayward, clearly inspired by Hill's quite heroically modest refusal to secure personal glory, became the first player ever to be run out in the 90s, and the only one to suffer that fate until 1948.

Hill's pioneering work in the field of narrowly avoiding personal milestones was not finished. In 1910, he became the first man ever to be dismissed in the 190s, when dismissed for 191 against South Africa at the SCG. It would be 20 years before another player was out within ten of a double-century.

In January 1912, in his final series, he was out for 98 again. He also was the second man (and first Australian) to be out for exactly 100, presumably due to be overwhelmed by relief, and to this day remains the only Test player to have the full house of 96, 97, 98 and 99 scores in his statistical bag. The man was the Nebuchadnezzar of Near-Misses, the Shostakovich of Shortfalls, the Arthur Conan Doyle of Agonising Cricketing Dismissals.

In all, Hill was out five times within a single boundary four of a century, a record he now shares with his Baggy Green descendant Michael Slater. Hill scored seven centuries, one behind the pre-first-War record of his great contemporary Victor Trumper. Five more boundaries, and he would have scored 12 hundreds - a record that would have stood until Jack Hobbs scored his 13th in 1926.

Some illustrious batsmen have been out four times within a single non-aerial boundary thwack of three figures - AB de Villiers, Inzamam, Steve Waugh and Ponting, though each of them has scored enough centuries for this not to cause them too many sleepless nights (16, 25, 32 and 41 respectively). Navjot Sidhu was out four times within a boundary of his hundred, to add to his nine centuries. Some experts believe the repeated trauma may have impacted his speech patterns, resulting in his pioneering use of the English language in television commentaries. England's MJK Smith takes the failure honours in this category - he converted only three of his seven innings of 96 or more into centuries.

History (by which I mean, Wisden) does not recall the idiocy, misfortune or twitchiness of the shots Hill played on those five occasions when he fell within a single controlled clonk of three-figure glory. History (by which I mean, the internet, including Youtube) does provide us with evidence of Slater's five extremely near-misses. He scored his first Test century in his second match, at Lord's in 1993, an innings of blazing confidence, and a decisive speed of foot and bat that may have been reminiscent of a young Bradman, for anyone old enough to reminisce about a young Bradman. He famously gave the Australian badge on his helmet an extremely amorous smooch on reaching three figures.

Slater, however, would prove to be the most vulnerable of all Test batsmen in the 90s. He reached 90 on 22 further occasions, and fell in the 90s nine times, against six different opponents, on eight different grounds. (Only England were unable to exploit Slater's vulnerability in close proximity to the century. He converted all of his seven 90-plus scores into hundreds in Ashes Tests. Against the rest, he fell short nine out of 16 times. This is entirely understandable. He was an Australian. Playing in the 1990s.)

Why was he so regularly floored within touching distance of honours-board immortality? Perhaps he was vicariously infected by the nervous 90s - in that 1993 Lord's Test, he had seen both Mark Waugh and Mike Atherton fall for 99, the latter painfully run out. Perhaps the prospect of further romantic encounters with the Australian badge distracted him. Most players kiss it these days. It clearly has some moves.

On the five occasions that Slater was out for 96 or more, he:

  • charged down the wicket and was stumped (twice, both for 96);
  • attempted to spank a wide legbreak over extra cover, but instead spanked a wide legbreak directly into extra cover's hands (out for 96);
  • slavered over the juiciest of leg-stump full tosses, and, with drool-soaked bat and with the number 97 gleaming temptingly from the scoreboard, spooned the ball straight up in the air to square leg; and
  • on 99, thin edged a leg glance.

Each time, he was out playing a shot that would have brought him to his century. Slater has an esteemed position in the history of the game, and is fondly remembered as a thrilling, high-risk opener who could shape a match from the first ball. But how differently would he be viewed had he never faltered within sight of the milestone? Slater's 14 centuries put him in joint 16th in the all-time chart of Australia's leading Test hundred-hoarders. If he had converted those nine 90s, he would be joint seventh, alongside Michael Clarke and Justin Langer on 23. In fact, he would probably not have been alongside Justin Langer, who in all likelihood would not have played quite as many Tests, or scored quite as many hundreds, had Slater converted all of his 90s. And Slater would probably have played more, and scored more tons.

  • The IPL understandably hoovers up the cricket world's attention like a lonely vacuum cleaner comfort guzzling a dust milkshake, so here are some stats from the Zimbabwe v Bangladesh series, which is operating at the other end of the Glitz Scale.

Bangladesh's troubled Test history has generated its fair share of records, but few of them have been positive ones. In the Harare Test against Zimbabwe, however, the Tigers have achieved a small piece of immortality - they have become the first team whose numbers 5, 6 and 7 have all scored 50 or more in both innings of a Test. Shakib Al Hasan (81 & 59), Mushfiqur Rahim (60 & 93) and Nasir Hossain (77 and 67 not out) were the players responsible. In the first Test, they had amassed just 45 runs between them - the worst performance by Bangladesh's 5-6-7 since 2005, amidst one of their worst team displays even in their impressive catalogue of failures.

The second Test thus represented an impressive fightback in the shootout between Test cricket's two most defeatable teams. Robiul Islam become the fourth Bangladeshi bowler, and first pacer, to take five wickets in an innings twice in a series.

In the first Test, Brendan Taylor became the second player in the last two months to score 171 in a Test, after Hamish Rutherford's dazzling Dunedin debut for New Zealand. Before then, in 2076 Tests, only one player had scored exactly 171 - Ian Redpath, in the Perth Test in the 1970-71 Ashes.

Taylor followed up with an unbeaten 102 in the second innings. The next highest score - and only other half-century - in the match was Malcolm Waller's 55. Taylor thus became the seventh player to score two centuries in a Test in which no other player has reached three figures. On each of previous six occasions, at least four other half-centuries were scored in the match. Few batsmen have ever been so individually dominant in any Test match.

Out of interest (which, by this stage of the article, I assume you are), here are the previous six players to score the only two centuries in a Test match:

Rohan Kanhai (West Indies, v Australia, Adelaide, 1960-61) - ten other half-centuries in the match

Glenn Turner (New Zealand, v Australia, Christchurch, 1973-74) - four other half-centuries

Alec Stewart (England, v West Indies, Barbados, 1993-94) - six other half-centuries

Steve Waugh (Australia, v England, Old Trafford, 1997) - four other half-centuries

Grant Flower (Zimbabwe, v New Zealand, Harare, 1997-98) - five other half-centuries

Tillakaratne Dilshan (Sri Lanka, v Bangladesh, Chittagong, 2008-09) - six other half-centuries

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

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Posted by craigm_NZ on (May 1, 2013, 20:52 GMT)

I'd note that of this list Glenn Turner is the only one without a 50 in either innings from his team-mates - Brian Hastings's vital 46 in the 2nd innings being the next highest score and the only NZ batsman (apart from Turner) to make 30 in either innings of that historical test. First time we beat Australia.

Posted by VK on (April 30, 2013, 13:15 GMT)

Great article as always.

However...

As an Essex fan I have to say TS Eliot was spot on. And I would think the IPL can be pretty cruel too - take Luke Wright's death batting/bowling hero to zero a week ago for example, or Vinay Kumar's in just about every game he plays. I think you need to read the poem as an observation on the capriciousness of the sporting fates, rather than an objection to the month existentially.

Is it possible Eliot was sitting in the stands at Lords watching a topsy-turvy game in which a batsman edged to the keeper on 99 and that is what prompted him to write those now infamous opening lines in the first place? That would also explain his rambling about spring rain...

Posted by Noman_Yousuf_Dandore on (April 30, 2013, 10:43 GMT)

Brilliant as usual Andy. Your blog took me to the scorecards of '97 Ashes, where I noticed that in the 6th Oval Test, only 1 player crossed 50 in 4 completed innings, whereas as many as 3 bowlers took a 7-for, which I believe should be quite rare. Kindly keep this test match in your mind for future references. Have a blessed week, Cheers! :)

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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. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. 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 Cricinfo.

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