August 1, 2013

Australia in danger of breaking their 1979 record

How many more players will they use in sinking to an all-new low in 2013?

Two stats for you. (And some sub-stats, as a special treat. Happy August.) The first concerns Australia's current slump. The second is what may be (a) a potential contributing factor to it; (b) a symptom of it; or, more likely: (c) a bit of (a) and a bit of (b).

Statistic #1: Australia have lost six Test matches so far in 2013 - already the equal second-most Tests that Australia have lost in a year.

Given that they have had only seven opportunities to lose a Test match, it is clear that even the most positive of Australians would struggle to argue that the first seven months of 2013 have been amongst the greatest seven-month stints in baggy-green history.

Only once have the baggy greens sunk to more than six defeats in a single year - they lost seven out of 14 Tests in 1979, six of them whilst denuded of most of their first-choice players due to World Series Cricket. They also lost six Tests in 1978, 1982 and 1984.

Australia face seven further Tests before they can finish inking 2013 into the record books. All of them are against England. It seems increasingly inevitable that they will beat their own 1979 low-water mark of seven defeats. If inevitability can, indeed, increase. And, with the current form of the two teams, that now seems unavoidable.

The most Tests lost in a year by any team is nine, by Bangladesh, when they succumbed in every Test they played in 2003. Given that England have beaten Australia in their last four consecutive Ashes encounters, including twice by an innings and once by a street, that record is under serious threat.

Many in England have assumed that they have been poor for some time, but this is a not-entirely-justified impression created largely by the 2009 Oval Test, the way the 2010-11 Ashes ended, and the series in India earlier this year that many in England noticed only because it was happened to take place in an Ashes year. However, whilst it has been several years since Australia were a formidable Test side - sub-stat alert - 2013 is on course to become the first year that the baggy greens have lost more Tests than they have won since 1988.

This is, of course, assuming that Australia fail to win five more Tests than they lose in the seven Ashes matches this year. On current and recent form, that is about as presumptuous as blaming your Labrador for eating your dinner after leaving the dog alone in your dining room with your large, freshly-cooked rump steak, and a handwritten note politely asking the pooch not to eat the steak whilst you sprint ten miles to the nearest shop to buy some mustard, before returning four hours later to find an empty plate and a flatulent dog.

Australia's 24 consecutive years with an even or better-than-even win-loss ratio is a Test record, beating the 21 years that West Indies clocked up from 1976 to 1996. The longest sequences of winning or even years for the other Test nations are (counting only years in which they played Tests): South Africa 16 (1965-67, 1970, 1992-2003); England 11 (1883-1894, excluding a Test-free 1891); India 10 (2001-2010); Pakistan 7 (1982-88); New Zealand 6 (1981-1986); Sri Lanka 6 (2005-2010); Zimbabwe 1 (2001); and Bangladesh 1 (2009).

Australia should be warned. Once the West Indies' era of dominance had wound down (with even win-loss records in 1995 and 1996), they embarked on 15 consecutive losing years, broken only last year, when their two wins in Bangladesh in November enabled them to end 2012 having won four and lost four of their ten Tests.

To put in context the scale of Australia's recent decline, the six defeats they have suffered in their last six Tests equals the number of matches they lost in 63 Tests between October 2002 and January 2008.

Statistic #2: In their seven Tests in 2013, Australia have used 22 different players.

Only Siddle and Hughes have played all seven, and the latter's hold on his place in the team appears as secure as a toothless geriatric guard dog's grip on a well-greased postman's trouser leg. (With apologies for using two dog similes in one blog.) (Unacceptable.)

Australia seem set to make more changes for Old Trafford. If two of Warner, Wade, Bird and Lyon are introduced, they will have selected 15 different players in the first three Tests - only the second time they have chosen that many different players in the opening three Tests of a series in England (the first was 1953), and the first time they will have selected more than 14 players in an entire series here since 1985, when, having negotiated the first five Tests using 13 players, they introduced three new ones for the sixth and final match. And lost, heavily. If three of them are introduced, then the record books will have to be pulped. Or at least, appended with a very minor addendum in pencil that no one will ever read.

Furthermore - sub-stat re-alert - in those seven Tests this year, eight different Australians have batted in the top three (none of whom have been nightwatchmen), the most top three players that the baggy greens have had in a single year since 1986. Then they also had eight different top three occupants, but with nothing like this year's chaotic churn - Marsh and Boon opened in all 11 Tests, and Dean Jones batted at three in seven of them.

So is the Australian batting line-up struggling because of all the changes? Or are all the changes necessary because the batting line-up is struggling? Either way, for the sake of both the series and the broader health of the Test game, I hope they struggle significantly less for the rest of the summer. Whether that is more likely to happen with no changes to the team, or with several changes to the team, is anyone's guess.

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