July 23, 2013

Should have been Bell, not Root

A case for a different Man of the Match for the Lord's Test, and musings on whether Australia are the new West Indies

The baggy green has seldom sat baggier on the heads of Australia's cricketers. Outclassed by an opponent whom they once habitually pulped into a fine paste, spread on a croissant and fed to a crocodile; stymied by injuries, indiscipline, an unhelpfully timed retirement, and their own carelessness, they careered in a few traumatic days from the verge of one of their greatest victories to the depths of one of their most humiliating defeats.

An Ashes that began with six days of vibrant, undulating drama, was effectively ended in two hours of almost rancid incompetence last Friday, beginning with Chris Rogers' flailing thwoick at a Graeme Swann full-bunger that was heading unerringly towards what might be described in polite society as his Herberts. Umpire Erasmus was so discombobulated by the mind-expanding combined uselessness of the delivery and the shot, that he joined in the fun by erroneously triggering the batsman, when the ball would have comfortably missed leg stump.

Rogers compounded the trilogy of bloopers by failing to refer his dismissal to the TV umpire, his thinking skewed by the fact that Australia had only one review left, after Shane Watson had blown their first on a referral that was located somewhere between optimistic and delusional. Thus was created arguably the single most error-strewn ball in Test cricket history. All it lacked for perfect imperfection was a fielder picking up the ball and hurling it into his own face.

Up to that moment, Australia had played a decent game. They had bowled well enough, dismissing England for a reasonable but unimposing total of 361, and had begun their innings soundly. Even after Watson's wicket, they had reached 50 for 1, shortly after lunch. Then came the Swann Rogers Oops Oops Box Before Wicket Schemozzle. Shortly after tea, they were 104 for 9. The game had been lost. So too, barring miracles, the series. And, barring even more miraculous miracles, the urn. Plus: Australia's cricketing dignity; any sense that their Indian debacle might have been a glitch; any hopes they had harboured of neutralising Swann, as South Africa had so effectively this time last year; and the fading first-Test memory of Phillip Hughes batting like a man who once scored two hundreds in a Test in South Africa. From 42 for 0, Australia's first nine wickets had fallen for 62 - their lowest such total in an Ashes Test since Laker spun them silly on his way to 19 wickets in the 1956 Old Trafford Test.

Only once has a team recovered from a 2-0 deficit to win a series. And that team had Donald Bradman in it, not Hughes. Not to mention Stan McCabe and Bill O'Reilly, rather than Steve Smith and Steve Smith.

As a cricket obsessive who has followed England since 1981, through the decades of Ashes drubbings that were meted out to my country with numbing inevitability from 1989, I never imagined that I would enjoy seeing England clobber Australia as little as I enjoyed watching the Lord's evisceration. It was a surgical disembowelling, but one at which the patient said to the surgeon, "Don't worry, save your scalpel, I've brought my own electric carving knife," before slicing himself open, anaesthetising himself by clonking himself on the head repeatedly with his own copper-based frying pan, and collapsing like an overstretched metaphor.

England played an excellent match, apart from their poor starts in both innings, and mildly irritating but harmless spells of excessive caution on day three. They became only the fifth side since 1890 to win a Test despite losing their first three wickets for 30 or less in both innings; the Oval Test of 1890 was the last time it happened in an Ashes match, a game that was also, coincidentally, the last time England went 2-0 up after two Tests of a home Ashes series.

However, this Test match reignited my smouldering concerns about the future of Test cricket. The five-day game has been scarred for too long by one-sided hammerings, and by teams in apparently irreversible decline, scuppered by endemic technical and temperamental failings, exacerbated by the relentless and confused multi-format diet of the international cricketer, and the skewed and incompatible financial priorities of the professional game.

Like most fans of Test cricket, I want to see contests, not crushings. This series has had a contest followed by a crushing, but the latter countered the hopes raised by the former with the fear that another of cricket's great powers is entering a tailspin.

Are Australia heading the way of the once-mighty, now relentlessly unsuccessful West Indies Test side? It is too early to know, but the alarm bells are now ringing like the security system in a china shop that has just been broken into by a herd of acquisitive porcelain-obsessed bulls.

After their humiliation in the final two Tests of the 2010-11 Ashes, Australia won 12 of their next 20 Tests, and lost only three. They posted similar results to England in several series during that period. Then, the still-productive Mike Hussey retired, following the long-faded Ricky Ponting. They have lost six Tests in a row since then. David Warner, who, after Hussey and Clarke, was Australia's only consistently effective batsman in that run of success, is on the naughty step, leaving only the captain, with his dodgy back and the burden of skippering a sinking ship, and being forced to front up in press conferences, saying: "Ah, look, I've always wanted a go in a submarine."

Australia rebounded from a previous decline, hauled upwards by Allan Border, and players such as Steve Waugh, David Boon, Dean Jones and Merv Hughes, who began their careers in a failing team but persevered to establish an era of almost unbroken success. Back then, however, the Test game was the sport's absolute pinnacle and Australia's undisputed priority - as it was for England when the Fletcher-Hussain era, and central contracts, began to drive them towards the top of the Test rankings. Back then there was no competing interest from T20, transforming the way that current and future cricketers shape their careers, hone their techniques and build their experiences.

It was a surgical disembowelling, but one at which the patient said to the surgeon, "Don't worry, save your scalpel, I've brought my own electric carving knife," before slicing himself open, anaesthetising himself by clonking himself on the head repeatedly with his own copper-based frying pan, and collapsing like an overstretched metaphor

Is this an over-reaction to one grotesque mismatch? Or was my excitement after Trent Bridge an over-reaction to one stunning humdinger? I do not know. But when I look at the Australian batting averages for this series so far, or think about the results West Indies have posted in Tests over the past decade and more, and the gaping chasm apparently facing Sri Lankan batsmanship when their generation of ageing greats departs the scene, and when I see this table of Test averages of batsmen in the top seven under the age of 30 this decade, and read this article about the Big Bash League, my cricketing heart sinks. Australia are still ranked the world's fourth-best Test team; on the evidence of Lord's, the Test world has problems.

● Does the Man-of-the-Match award matter? Not really. It gives a player a nice personal boost and the priceless opportunity to bang on about how it's all about the team to an interviewer who cannot quite believe he is being paid to ask the same questions over and over again. But, given that the Man-of-the-Match award exists, how should it be judged?

At Lord's, Joe Root took the cheque, the champagne, the commemorative porcelain figurine of Giles Clarke, and a complimentary frame of snooker against England legend Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, or whatever the prize is these days, for his 180 and two wickets.

But Root's influence on the match began only in the second innings, which was a largely ceremonial affair. The game had been decided by England's massive first-innings lead. Teams with a 200-plus first-innings lead hardly ever lose - just over 1% of the time, over the course of Test history (eight matches out of 637, one of which was The Hansie Cronje Magic Jacket Match, in which the 200-plus lead England overturned was a technicality after each side forfeited an innings). Once Haddin and Clarke had formed a generous guard of honour to escort an early edge off Root's bat to the boundary, spurning the opportunity to exert some pressure on one of the few points of possible selectorial contention in the England team, Root squidged out that 1% chance with a ruthless elegance, under rapidly decreasing pressure.

When Ian Bell came in on day one, England were 28 for 3. Teams batting first in Tests and losing their first three wickets for under 50 have won 24%, lost 55%, and drawn 21%. Bell was out at 271 for 5. Teams losing their fifth wicket between 250 and 299 in the first innings of a Test have won 41%, lost 16% and drawn 43%.

These patterns may have changed over time - one day, if you ask nicely, I might commune further with Statsguru to find out - but these figures suggest that, from the time Bell came to the wicket, to the time that he was dismissed, England's prospects of victory had almost doubled, and their chances of defeat were less than a third of what they had been at the start of his innings.

Bell's innings was technically masterful, played when the destiny of the game was being shaped, and, I would suggest, the most impactful individual performance of the match, ahead of Swann's five first-innings wickets (the first of which was a freakish fluke, and the last two of which were the ninth and tenth, by when the damage had been irreversibly done).

Root's innings was bigger and longer, and his wickets helped give the catering staff at Lord's an extra day off on Monday, but even if he had been caught on 8, England would almost certainly still have won. It should have been Bell, the Sledgehammer of Eternal Justice himself, who won the opportunity to try to overcome Heyhoe-Flint's far-famed break-building game.

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