May 21, 2013

From suspended animation to slapstick frenzy

Andy Zaltzman
Ian Bell faced 133 balls for his 31, England v New Zealand, 1st Investec Test, Lord's, 1st day, May 16, 2013
Ian Bell throws circumspection to the winds for one glorious ball during his 133-ball 31  © Getty Images
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"Pick the bones out of that, Watson," as the allegedly fictional supersleuth Sherlock Holmes might have said, in his Baker Street lodgings, just down the road from Lord's. The non-existent celebrity 19th-century pipe-smoking hat-toting crime-detecting wiz would probably have been talking about a freshly slain murder victim, or an amateurishly filleted piece of haddock in his favourite restaurant, Auntie Ethel's Screaming Aubergine. But he could easily have been discussing the first Test of the 2013 English summer, a curious and engrossing match that began in suspended animation, and ended in an almost slapstick frenzy of wickets and a veritable Niagara of stats.

It was a contest that fluctuated and twisted like a slow-burning spy novel. You could probably have skim-read the first couple of chapters, but thereafter the narrative seemingly built towards a climactic showdown between the two main protagonists over the final 100 or so unmissable pages. Then, with the tension building and the outcome in the balance, one killed the other with a single frying pan whack to the head. Clang. The End.

What to make of it all? Both teams displayed their strengths and weaknesses as openly as a tubby naturist at a belly-wobbling contest. England's bowling remains the likely decisive factor in the summer ahead, while their batting is a curious mixture of cautious and careless, resolute and brittle.

Anderson and Broad, after a year of sporadic returns, were devastating again. In the last year, Broad has had good Tests, bad Tests, and almost nothing in between. Much has, rightly, been written about Anderson, a compelling bowler whose 157 wickets at 25 in 37 Tests this decade confirm (a) his class, and (b) the often misleading nature of career averages. Would you judge Michelangelo less favourably as an interior decorator if you averaged out the Sistine Chapel with a scrawled set of gentleman's unmentionables that he graffitied on the walls of his school toilet with a marker pen when he was 13?

Root was auspicious, Bell concerning.

As for New Zealand, they remain a team good enough to threaten victory, but flawed enough to avoid it, as they were on their last two tours here. They have held positions of potentially match-winning strength or dominance at Lord's and Trent Bridge in 2004, Old Trafford in 2008, and Lord's this year, but have lost all four of those Tests. Three and three-quarter Test matches of impressive parity with bat and ball dissolved in their third megacollapse of the year, leaving Southee, finally becoming the Test bowler he seemed destined to be on his teenaged debut five years ago, scratching his head after joining Courtney Walsh as the only other bowler to have taken ten wickets in a Lord's Test and still ended on the losing side (and alongside Walsh and Rodney Hogg as the only pace bowlers to take ten against England and lose since the War).

So, with hindsight, was England's passive batting on day one, when they crawled along at two runs per over with the methodical joylessness of a Soviet cabbage peeler preparing for the Politburo's annual borscht-off, ultimately justified by the result? Or did their risk-averse, initiative-ambivalent approach contribute significantly to them not being in control of proceedings until Broad's decisive fourth-morning blitz, after three-and-a-bit days that were much more closely fought than May Tests in England have tended to be? You could argue it both ways. And you would probably be both right and wrong on both counts.

It is unarguable, however, that England could have played with similar restraint but considerably more positivity. Various stodgy England landmarks were set - for example, the 420 dot balls they blodged out on the first day constituted the most blanks they have drawn in the first 80 overs of a Test innings since 2001, when ESPNcricinfo started recording such things; and the 49.4 overs it took England to reach 100 was the second longest it has taken them to reach 100 in their first innings of a Test since 2001, beating the 56.3 overs it took them in Auckland (although then at least they were replying to an imposing New Zealand innings, rather than setting the tone for the match).

England played only 65 scoring shots on that turgid first day - one every 7.5 balls faced, well below the average since 2001 of a scoring shot every 4.1 balls. However, it is the lack of singles that reveals England's first-day passivity most glaringly. They scored just 22 singles from the 485 balls they faced in the day - the fewest that any team has scored in the first 80 overs of a Test innings since those records began in 2001.

Bearing in mind that there have been 1123 innings lasting 80 overs or more in that time, that gives some context to the extent of England's single-snaffling failure, and suggests that it went some way beyond justifiable carefulness. (The previous anti-record was the 24 singles tinkled by Zimbabwe in the first 80 overs of their first innings in Chittagong against Bangladesh in 2004-05.) (Use that information wisely, it could open doors for you.) (Seriously.)

Last Thursday, England managed one single every 22 balls faced. On average, in Tests since 2001, batsmen have scored a single every 7.3 balls faced - three times more often than England managed on day one. And note, that this was day one - it was not a backs-to-the-wall salvage operation like the last innings they had played in a Test, in Auckland, when they managed 29 singles in the first 80 overs, their previous record fewest. Or a series-confirming grind like the second innings in Nagpur in December, when they managed 33 singles by the time the new ball was due - their previous-previous record fewest. It is a habit that, however justifiably fallen into, they must break.

On day one England crawled along at two runs per over with the methodical joylessness of a Soviet cabbage peeler preparing for the Politburo's annual borscht-off

Cook and Bell, both veterans approaching their 100th Tests, were the worst single-avoiding culprits. Cook's 32 off 115 was the slowest innings of 25 or more by an England opener since Tim Curtis obliterated West Indies with 30 off 121 in 1988; Bell's 31 off 133 was the slowest innings of 25-plus in the opening innings of a Test since Boeta Dippenaar's unforgettable 29 off 138 against India in Port Elizabeth in November 2001.

The captain tinkled four singles in his 115-ball innings (plus 11 other scoring strokes); the Sledgehammer Of Eternal JusticeTM managed three in his 133 balls (with ten other scoring shots). England's two most experienced batsmen thus managed to eke out a single every 35 balls faced - five times less often than the overall Test average. This was not a textbook display of the batsmanship, craft and nous you might have expected from these two high-class Test stalwarts.

Admittedly they were playing in testing run-scoring conditions, on a Mogadon-infused outfield, and against a captain who rather inconveniently refused to follow the modern trend of letting the opposition off the hook by thoughtlessly plonking men on the cover- and square-leg boundaries at the first hint of anything even tangentially resembling aggression (and congratulations to McCullum for that) (others, please take note).

England rectified the matter somewhat as the game progressed. In the rest of the match, they scored 60 more singles in 610 balls, still below average, but roughly in line with what you would expect in a relatively slow-scoring encounter. In the end it did not matter, and the case will remain eternally unproven, as England's batsmen were bailed out by the brilliance of their bowlers, brilliance that has been too seldom seen since the middle of last summer. As the summer progresses, however, and particularly if Pietersen is absent or playing himself back into form, England will need their senior professionals to reveal a greater range of the run-accumulating skills they ought still to possess.

● Bell's batting has become increasingly constipated over the last year, brought about in part by a lack of form, enforced defensive rearguards, and some tedious pitches. However, his numbers since the start of the South Africa series last July are alarming. In his ten Tests since then, he has averaged 33, and scored at just 31 per 100 balls - comfortably the slowest scoring rate of the 56 batsmen who have faced at least 500 balls in Tests since last July (with Compton and Root in second and third places), and with the 40th best average.

In his previous 20 Tests, dating back to the start of the 2010-11 Ashes, he had averaged 66, and scored at 59.5 per 100 balls - in that period, he was the 16th-fastest of the 80 batsmen who faced 500 or more balls (with the sixth-highest average).

● Forty-three pairs of openers have opened in ten or more Test innings in the past ten years. Cook and Compton have the fifth-highest average partnership - 60.2 - but the fifth-lowest scoring rate, at 2.64 per over.

● If slow scoring is possibly a growing problem for England, scoring in general is the major issue for New Zealand. They found themselves six wickets down for less than 40 runs for the third time in six Tests in 2013 - and for the third consecutive away Test - after being skittled in the first innings of both Tests in South Africa in January (45 all out at Newlands, then 121 all out, after being 62 for 9, in Port Elizabeth). The Kiwis had been six down for under 40 only three times in their previous 300 Tests, over 47 years, dating back to when England had them 22 for 6 in Christchurch in 1966.

● New Zealand's top six were all out in single figures in the second innings. This is only the 19th time this has happened in Tests, and the second for the Kiwis - the psychological scars of the Dhaka Test against Pakistan in 1955-56 have clearly not entirely healed.

However, of the 19 teams whose top six have failed to trouble the second digit on the scoreboard, New Zealand's total of 29 runs is the joint highest. So, within the category of Teams Whose Top Six Have All Gone in Single Figures, they actually batted very well.

● Five of England's top six were out between 30 and 49 in the first innings - only the second time that has ever happened in a Test innings. In New Zealand's second innings at Edgbaston in 1965, five of their top six were out in the 40s.

● Tim Southee in his first 12 Tests away from home: 17 wickets, average 48.8. In his last four away Tests, since the Bangalore match last August: 30 wickets, average 13.5. Here endeth the stats.

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

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Posted by Herbet on (May 21, 2013, 12:04 GMT)

Englands slow scoring rate in India was excusable by the nature of the pitches, and the bowling, over there, it was the only way to go. The backs to the wall effort in New Zealand was fine too, but I think the slow scoring the rest of the time is a bit much. This New Zealand team are disciplined and McCullum does not allow easy singles, but with all those suffocating close in fielders, and fairly unthreatening fast-medium, or exceptionally slow in Martin's case, bowling surely somebody should have tried to hit over the top and force a change in script? England have allowed New Zealand to get on top of them just by bowling outside off to offside fields. It shows the benefit of having Pietersen in the side with his ability to dictate the flow with unorthodox shots. For all of Cook, Trott and Bell's experience and technical proficiency, they have allowed themselves and their team to become bog downed.

Posted by   on (May 21, 2013, 8:09 GMT)

Stop moaning Andy. This was glorious retro cricket from the 60's and 70's. I for one applaud England's attempts to educate the public in old fashioned test cricket. IPL scoring of 7/8 an over and hitting sixes is equally boring. Crawling at 2 an over makes the rare boundary much more appreciated. All club cricketers who have had to stodge their way through a damp green top on a Saturday afternoon, will appreciate the fine efforts of the England top order. What happened when everybody went gun ho? The all got out for less! Totally irresponsible and I expect the ECB to have strong words with Cook and Co about not scoring slower. They've had to refund a whole day's cricket because of England's cavalier attitude in the second innings.

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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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