May 15, 2013

Bring on the cricket megabinge

Seven Tests, 31 ODIs, six T20Is in 124 days. Let us lick our lips for what we are about to receive

Here in London the smell of linseed oil is being pumped through the underground system, fresh grass cuttings are being airdropped from the skies, and police vans are powering around the city, blaring out classic snippets of cricket commentary instead of their regular sirens. A new summer of international cricket is upon us.

It begins on Thursday, and will end 124 days later, after seven Tests, 31 ODIs, and six T20Is (including Pakistan's imminent one-dayers against Scotland and Ireland, and some matches between Scotland and Kenya that may escape blanket coverage in the mainstream media). The England women's team will also be playing five ODIs, five T20Is, and a four-day Test.

All this should be more than enough to keep the average cricket follower happy. In fact, it will definitely be more than enough to keep the average cricket follower happy. The average cricket follower may well start to feel slightly queasy at the excess of it all, at some point around the middle of the third Ashes Test.

If all the Tests last to their final day, and Mr Rain takes a long-overdue extended summer holiday in another country that does not depend on dry weather for cricket for its psychological equilibrium (I may be mixing up my country and my self), then there will be international cricket somewhere in the British Isles on 73 of those 124 days. So strap in and strap in hard. You will need stamina, patience, and the love and support of your friends, families and psychiatrists.

Unusually for an early summer Test series, there is a genuine sense of anticipation about the England v New Zealand showdown that begins this cricket megabinge. It should be an intriguing sequel to the drawn series that the two sides played out in March on the other side of the world, a contest that was more compelling than its 0-0 scoreline suggests, and which ended in high drama, with question marks charging onto the Auckland outfield and leaping enthusiastically onto both sets of players.

Those question marks have hung around outside the dressing rooms like unusually persistent autograph hunters ever since. Thursday's Test should provide at least some preliminary answers to queries such as:

1. Can England recover the individual and collective form and swagger of their golden late-2010-to-summer-2011 period, after an 18-month stretch that has been sketchier than Leonardo da Vinci's notebook?

2. Are New Zealand becoming a truly potent side, having demonstrated sufficient quality of batting and bowling to win Tests in Australia and Sri Lanka, and taken England to the brinkiest of brinks, which could now become an awkward force in the Test arena? Or are they still fundamentally the easily crunchable wafer-thin biscuit of a team that was chomped to pieces in South Africa, and have won only two (and lost 24) of their 30 away Tests against major opposition since 2004?

3. Were England complacent in New Zealand, or, given their form from January to August last year, have they simply become a middling Test side, albeit one still capable of outstanding performances, especially when aided by a compliant and chaotic Indian team?

4. Peter Fulton: flash in the pan, or perfectly (if belatedly) flambéed Crêpe Suzette?

There are many other points of fascination in this Test. It should also be remembered, however, that Tests in May do not always reveal immutable truths about cricket, cricketers, or life in general, and New Zealand will have to overcome not only an England team that had won its previous seven home series before losing to South Africa last year, but also the calendar.

The entire series will be played in May. The only other time England have played an entire series in May, they annihilated the 2009 West Indians in both Tests, by ten wickets, and an innings and 83 runs, and since the split summer was introduced in 2000, they have tended to have things rather easy in the earlier series.

England have won 11 and drawn two of their 13 early-summer series. Of the 34 Tests in those series, they have won 24, and lost just two - in 2001 against Pakistan at Old Trafford, and versus Sri Lanka in Nottingham in 2006. That Old Trafford match was a brilliant, raucously supported game of cricket, in which Inzamam and Saqlain punctured an apparently resurgent England and paved the way for another Ashes capitulation, and remains England's only defeat in a Test that has begun in May since the calendar rejig in 2000. (Of the other 19 Tests that have started in May in that time, England have won 15, including their last seven in succession, and drawn four.)

Furthermore, that Manchester masterpiece started on May 31, 2001, and therefore ended in the more traditionally Test-cricketous month of June. Only once have England lost a Test whilst May was still in progress, and that was 92 years ago, in 1921. It was their first home Test after the First World War, a ten-wicket drubbing by Australia at Trent Bridge that began on May 28 and ended on May 30 (thanks to May 29 being a rest day). Small wonder that the England Test summer, which had begun in May in five of the six summers in which international cricket was played from 1900 to 1921, did not allow itself another dalliance with the accursed month for 36 years.

Bearing in mind that this series is scheduled to finish on May 28, precedent offers a fearsome barrier for the Kiwis to overcome. England's record in these early-summer series is so imposing partly because the stronger Test nations have been saved for the choicer end of the season (by comparison, in the later series of the split summers since 2000, England's record is: played 55, won 26, drawn 13, lost 16), and they have been tougher opponents for their visitors this millennium than in the fading embers of the last one. Nevertheless, May Tests have exacerbated the problems of touring players struggling to adapt to English conditions.

You would expect a team that has won 24 and lost two of its recent early-summer home Tests to defeat a team that has won two and lost 24 of its recent away Tests against top-eight opposition, and England should win the series. But this New Zealand team has as good a chance as any visiting team to break the home team's stranglehold on its early-summer Tests. In other words, little chance. (But, definitely, some chance.)

They will try to eradicate any lingering memories of their record-breakingly incompetent batting on their last away Test jaunt, in South Africa, and cling instead to their excellent performance against England in March, and those two outstanding series-levelling victories in Hobart and Colombo, both of which, (a) are still recent enough to be relevant, and (b) were founded on the swing-bowling triumvirate of Boult, Southee, and Bracewell.

Official Confectionery Stall Over-Specific Prediction:
England 394 (Root 107, Southee 5 for 94). New Zealand 312 (McCullum 98, Anderson 4 for 75). England 352 for 5 dec (Cook 86, Prior 63*). New Zealand 219 (Broad 4-50). England to win by 215 runs.

Put all your money on this happening. Unless New Zealand bat first. (I realise that if this does all happen, it might look a little dodgy. But I can assure you, this prediction has been made legitimately, fairly, and exclusively through examining the entrails of a squirrel that was run over on the road outside my house, using an iPhone haruspex app.)

And now, some stats:

● On England's recent form: In their 20 Tests from the start of the 2010-11 Ashes until they ended last summer's series against West Indies in a state of Tino-Bestial disarray, their batsmen collectively averaged 40 (the best of the ten Test nations during that period), and scored at 55 per 100 balls (second), and their bowlers took their wickets at 28 (first), with a strike rate of a wicket every 59 balls (second).

Since then, their batsmen have averaged 34 (fourth), and scored at 44 per 100 (ninth), and their bowlers have averaged 40 (ninth), with a strike rate of 80 (ninth). Admittedly, this is a relatively short basis period on which to be making judgements, but the figures are (unlike England's bowlers on too many occasions) striking.

● On New Zealand at Lord's: New Zealand have won only once at Lord's - in 1999, one of the most disastrous in the impressive catalogue of Late-20th-Century Apocalyptic English Cricket Summers. However, they have been defeated only once at the Home Of Cricket since losing there in 1983, and have had some considerable individual successes there over the years.

That 1983 game was the only time in their last nine Tests at HQ, dating back to 1973, that no Kiwi batsman has scored a century. The New Zealand Lord's centurions: Jacob Oram (2008); Mark Richardson (2004); Matthew Horne (1999); Martin Crowe (1994, a stunning innings); Trevor Franklin (1990, a numbing innings); Martin Crowe (1986); Geoff Howarth (1978).

In 1973, three New Zealanders scored hundreds (Bevan Congdon, Mark Burgess and Vic Pollard), the first time that three visiting batsmen had reached three figures in the same Lord's Test. It transpired that Lord's Tests in which three visiting batsmen scored hundreds were like London buses - you waited ages for one, and then two came along at once. Later that summer, Rohan Kanhai, Garry Sobers, and Bernard Julien all scored Lord's tons for West Indies.

● New Zealand's bowlers have also regularly five-wicket-hauled their way onto the Lord's honours board - six times in their last eight Lord's Tests. Daniel Vettori in 2008, Chris Cairns in 1999, Dion Nash (in both innings) in 1994, and Richard Hadlee in 1986, 1983 and 1978. Hadlee is one of only three visiting bowlers to have taken three five-fors at Lord's, alongside Glenn McGrath and the 19th-century baggy green legend Charles "The Terror" Turner. James Anderson is one of six England bowlers to have taken five wickets three or more times at Lord's, an illustrious club consisting of the six highest wicket-takers in English Test history: Anderson, Bob Willis and Brian Statham (three Lord's five-fors), Derek Underwood (four), Fred Trueman (five), and Ian Botham (eight).

● In 1931, New Zealand, in their first ever overseas Test, became the first team to score 400 in the second innings at Lord's, aided by hundreds from Stewie Dempster and Curly Page. Only eight teams have done so since, four of them in the last 11 years.

● In 1949, Martin Donnelly scored 206, becoming the first batsman from somewhere other than England and Australia to score a Lord's double-hundred. There was not another double-ton in a Lord's Test until Mohsin Khan's in 1982. Donnelly's remains the highest score by a No. 5 at Lord's. There were ten double-hundreds in the first 105 Lord's Tests, until 2003, when Graeme Smith bludgeoned the life out of (a) England and (b) aesthetics. There have been five doubles in the last 20 Lord's Tests, including that one.

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