May 29, 2013

Cat-skinning, and a drunken donkey's driving test

England beat New Zealand comprehensively, but that doesn't mean we can't quibble about some of their tactics, which brought domesticated animals to mind

England emerged from the Headingley Test with a thumping win, a series whitewash, a new batting star confirmed after a century of striking quality, and a bowling attack brimming with its old menace. It also emerged with more criticism ringing in its ears than a team with those four things would traditionally expect to receive. Much of it was justified, some a little excessive. They played some spectacular cricket. They also played some baffling cricket. They played much more of the former than the latter, which served to make the latter stand out all the more.

New Zealand were completely outplayed, the spirit of their admirable seam attack finally broken by the failures of their own batsmen in the face of a relentlessly demanding technical examination, which they failed as convincingly as a drunken donkey in a driving test. "It is supposed to be 'Mirror, signal, manoeuvre,' Mr Donkey. Not 'hoof through windscreen, bray, graze on the steering wheel'. No, you have not passed. Yes, you may have a carrot."

After an 18-month period in which England have often fallen well short of the high standards to which they aspire - they lost badly in two series, and were saved from a third defeat, in New Zealand, largely by a set of Auckland bails that refused to obey (a) the laws of physics and (b) the traditions of cricket when reprieving Matt Prior early in his match-saving hundred - Cook's team have, since that crackpot final morning at Lord's, begun to resemble the team that dismantled their opponents in 2010 and 2011, and crushed India in Kolkata. They ultimately steamrollered their opponents, as the rankings and form-lines suggested they should, albeit that, at times in Leeds, the steamroller was moving almost indiscernibly slowly, whilst the driver had a bit of a snooze.

Were England's tactics "vindicated" or "justified" by the result? Perhaps. Perhaps not. They almost certainly made no difference to the result. If they had enforced the follow-on, England would have won anyway unless something truly, epically extraordinary had happened, and they would have won by a similarly massive margin, probably without so much anxious cloud-gazing. England playing in England in May are, by all measures, a significantly superior side with significantly superior players than New Zealand playing in England in May. To update a stat from a couple of weeks ago, England have now won 26 and lost two of their 36 early-summer Tests since 2000, and the Kiwis have now won two and lost 26 of their last 32 Tests against top-eight opposition since 2004, including seven out of eight in England.

"There are many different ways of skinning a cat," said Alastair Cook in a post-match interview. Cook has a background in farming, and still dabbles in the agricultural arts, so I am prepared to bow to his superior knowledge of animal-skinning. But the point remains that, by the end of their largely woeful first innings, New Zealand were a dead cat. England could choose a number of methods of skinning that cadaverous mog. The fact they ended clutching a successfully skinned cat does not necessarily mean that they chose the most efficient one.

A team can win a match convincingly despite having passages when they play moderate-to-unimpressive cricket - and Jonathan Trott's batting on Sunday evening was pointlessly ineffective, particularly given that he is such a high-class, established and experienced Test player. Personally, like many others, I found England's strategy and caution to be at best curious, but, given the team's dominance in the match by that stage, the only influence that their periods of negativity had was to increase viewing figures for the weather forecast.

As a Test captain, Cook's on-field strategy is likely to be less significant than his ability to maintain a unified, focused and determined dressing room, as Andrew Strauss did so effectively during his wildly successful first three years in charge. He also has an arsenal of attacking bowlers that enables him to exercise restraint and patience, safe in the knowledge that, often if not always, their qualities will force a breakthrough.

He did not need a great deal of patience in this series, given that England's bowlers took a wicket every 32.5 balls. This was the third best team strike rate England have achieved in the 229 series (including one-off Tests) they have played since 1896, and the eighth best by any bowling attack in the 582 series of two or more matches that have been played in that time.

The only two series in which England's bowlers have taken wickets struck more frequently since Queen Victoria was still parking her enormous royal bloomers on the throne were the 1912 series against South Africa, when England struck every 30.8 balls, and the 2005 series against Bangladesh (strike rate: 29.3). For fans of irrelevant historical precedents, England also played an Ashes series in both of those summers - and won them both. Whether Australia are more concerned about this curious coincidence, or the form of Anderson, Broad, Finn and Swann, who all averaged under 21 in this series just completed, is none of my business.

We should also remember that Cook was heavily criticised for a tactically bold decision in the Auckland Test, when he inserted New Zealand on a flat batting pitch in an effort to give his bowlers the greatest opportunity to take 20 wickets. The match ended with England hanging on grimly, and luckily, for a draw, not because the strategy was wrong - I think it was a good decision, and an aggressive one - but because England bowled and batted limply, and New Zealand played an excellent match.

In that game, McCullum decided not to enforce the follow-on, with his side 239 ahead. As with Cook's similar decision in Leeds, his choice further reduced the possibility of defeat from barely discernible to almost non-existent, and slightly increased the likelihood of failing to win. Bell, Prior and Broad, a hopelessly inert surface, and lashings of luck saved England in Auckland. Cook's bowlers, a more sporting Headingley pitch, and some meteorological good fortune condemned New Zealand in Leeds.

● In his post-match chats, Cook also mentioned the "one-percenters", those marginal improvements sports teams and individuals seek to make in the hope of tipping the balance crucially in their favour. Perhaps this 1% figure explains why the follow-on was not enforced. By my calculations, in company with my old buddy Statsguru, who is a little less forthcoming on follow-on-related issues than with most other matters, the follow-on has been enforced 298 times in Tests. The enforcing team has lost only three of those matches - 1.007%. They have won 228 of those games, and drawn 67.

I could not tell you, without a more time-consuming research foray than my children's school half-term has allowed, the results for teams which have not enforced the follow-on, but I could find only one instance of a team losing after electing to bat a second time rather than stick their opponents in again. That was the Durban Test between South Africa and Australia in January 1950, an extraordinary match in which South African captain Dudley Nourse, after having the entire rest day to stew over the "to bat or not to bat" quandary, chose not to put Australia back in, and saw his team skittled for 99. He then watched in horror as Neil Harvey scored 151 not out to help Australia recover from 95 for 4 to reached their victory target of 336 with five wickets and 25 minutes to spare. If Kolkata 2001 preyed on Cook's mind, Durban 1950 clearly did not. Understandably.

● Some more on England's bowlers… Graeme Swann became the first England bowler to return three ten-wicket matches in Tests since Ian Botham, who took his fourth and final ten-for at The Oval in 1981. The only other England bowler of the last 50 years (since Freddie Trueman in 1963) to take three or more ten-wicket hauls is Derek Underwood, who had six ten-wicket matches between 1969 and 1974-75.

● Stuart Broad now has 195 Test wickets. He will turn 27 by the time he plays his next Test, leaving him five scalps short of becoming the 11th bowler to take 200 in Tests by the time of his 27th birthday. Only Botham has taken more Test wickets for England in his first 26 years on the planet - 251, in 55 Tests, at an average of 23.6 - and, Broad is the fifth-highest 26-and-under wicket-taker amongst pace bowlers, behind Dale Steyn (211), Botham, Waqar Younis (267) and Kapil Dev (281).

● It is likely that, at some stage during the Ashes, barring injury (or the rapid resurrection and cloning of Bradman), Broad, Swann and Anderson will become only the second trio of England bowlers to take the field in a Test with 200 or more wickets under their belts. The only previous time England have had an attack containing three 200-plus-scalpers was when Botham, Bob Willis and Underwood played together in six of England's seven Tests in the winter of 1981-82. Flintoff, Harmison and Hoggard came close - they last played together in Melbourne in 2006-07, at the end of which they had, respectively, 196, 187 and 235 career wickets.

● James Anderson took the last wicket in both innings, his only two wickets in the match. He thus managed to maintain a sequence of having taken at least one wicket in his last 36 innings in home Tests, dating back to his wicketless performances at the Leeds and the Oval in the 2009 Ashes. Anderson does not generally specialise in tail-mopping - 154 of his 307 Test wickets have been top four batsmen.

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