August 6, 2013

Hurry up, please, it's time

Why has cricket got so snail-pleasingly slow in recent years?

As moments of triumph go, England's 2013 Ashes retention is unlikely to be high on anyone's list. By the end of the series, their overall victory may prove to be one of their best and most decisive. But sitting in a dressing room, watching puddles grow, after a match in which they were comfortably inferior to opponents whom they had demolished two weeks previously, and in which their dawdling had been one of the best-functioning aspects of their cricket, was not the most glamorous way to secure the holy urn. If Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had woken up to find that the top of Mount Everest had fallen off in the night, leaving them snoozing on the new top of the mountain, would that have lessened their achievement? No. But it would undoubtedly have taken some of the thrill out of the moment of conquest.

It was, I think, England's most anticlimactic moment of Ashes triumph. This was only the third time that England have clinched their smallest but biggest trophy with a drawn match. They did so when batting out a couple of hours to hold on to a 1-0 lead in the third and final Test in 1893 - also at Old Trafford, which must have irked Australians who had travelled over to Manchester for both matches - and, rather more memorably, at The Oval in 2005, when, as yesterday, they confirmed their hold on the 130-year-old six-inch memento whilst off the field.

Their 2005 Oval stalemate-success came at the end of a mesmerisingly dramatic series, against a legendary team, and after a final day that had swooped and swerved from taut anxiety to pessimism to despair to disbelief as Pietersen attacked Lee after lunch in one of the great passages of Test cricket: 35 off 11 balls, as Lee melted the speed gun - to nervous anticipation, to confidence, to joy, to increasingly wild elation, before a slightly anticlimactic but pleasingly surreal denouement. This year it was grey, soggy and slow, as England's cricket had been for much of the match.

In 1893 and 2005, draws won back the Ashes for England in the final Test. Here they retained the Ashes with a draw, with two games to spare. More comfortable. Less exciting. And on the back foot. England's recent history suggests that, even from 37 for 3, they might well have saved the game. If Australia were denied the chance of winning, England were also denied the opportunity to save the game properly. And cricket was denied a fascinating and satisfactory conclusion.

On the other 29 occasions when England have won or retained the Ashes, they have done so with a victory. Australia, by contrast, are no strangers to the anticlimactic urn-clinch. Although they have regained the Ashes with a draw only once - in the final Test of the 1982-83 series - they have retained them with an impasse on 11 occasions. These included, ironically, four matches at Old Trafford, as well as four consecutive series in the strikingly tedious 1960s, and four times when, as England have done this year, a drawn third Test gave them an insurmountable 2-0 lead - twice in the '90s, and in the two series after the Second World War.

To put England's dip in some context, Don Bradman's 1948 Invincibles, regarded as one of the best teams of all time, went to Old Trafford after hammering England in the first two Tests (also at Trent Bridge and Lord's, as this year). England gained a 142-run first-innings lead, and were 316 ahead with seven wickets in hand when rain washed out the fourth day, and most of the fifth. The greatest cricketer in history, leading one of its finest sides, retained the Ashes at a damp Old Trafford, blocking it out with 30 off 149 balls.

Australia then won the next two Tests by seven wickets, and an innings and 149. The point being that, whilst the manner of retaining the urn may have been anticlimactic and unsatisfactory (particularly for a team whose stated aim is to be the world's best), as long as England secure one or two victories in the rest of the series, that will be rapidly forgotten. The drama of Nottingham and the powerslam of Lord's will be in the forefront of cricket's collective memory, with Anderson's persistence and brilliance in the first Test, and Bell's two match-shaping, career-defining centuries the highlights. Whatever happens in the remaining Tests, the Sledgehammer of Eternal Justice would be my Man Of The Series, as the most decisive influence on the destination of the urn.

● For Australia, a curious cocktail of disappointment, frustration and hope. They played the better, more enterprising cricket at Old Trafford, and could have been 2-1 up instead of 0-2 down. They have made inroads into England's batting in all six innings, and were only dominated when Clarke withdrew his pacemen in the latter stages of England's second innings at Lord's. This should have been enough to avoid conceding the Ashes with two matches to spare, but their batting fragility, and lack of effective spin bowling, have been decisive.

Regaining the Ashes away from home is historically difficult - since Australia avenged Bodyline with victory in England in 1934, only two of 15 attempts to win back the urn in the opposing hemisphere have been successful - Ray Illingworth's England managed it in the 1970-71 series, as did Allan Border's 1989 Australians. (By contrast, in the same period, teams attempting to regain the Ashes on home soil have succeeded on nine of 22 occasions.)

Attempting to win back the Ashes in England with a spluttering batting line-up - only Clarke and Warner of the Old Trafford XI have scored centuries in Australia's last 31 Tests, since December 2010 - and with a tweak attack that has snared just seven victims at 63 runs apiece in the first three Tests, has proved understandably impossible.

● England's spinners, by contrast, have taken 22 wickets at an average of 25.1, with a strike rate of a wicket every eight overs and two balls. England's pacers, effective at Trent Bridge and Lord's, persistent but blunt in Manchester, have collectively taken 30 at 34.1. Australia's seamers have taken 43 wickets at an average of 27.5. This currently puts the 2013 Australians third of the 26 touring pace attacks who have played Tests in England since 2001, behind the brilliant but naughty 2010 Pakistanis (43 wickets at 26.0), and the 2007 Indian swingsters (41 wickets at 27.2).

● Back to that 1893 Old Trafford draw, when, England were set 198 to win in two and a quarter hours. Protecting a 1-0 lead, they elected to play safe. That might not sound like an unusually cautious approach, but because of the over rates of the time, a run rate of around 3.8 per six balls would have won it. Australia bowled 63 five-ball overs in those 135 minutes, at the equivalent of 23 six-ball overs per hour, which is roughly twice the amount that England were motoring through on Sunday.

This is not to criticise England for their shameless sluggishness. At one point, Anderson, one of the finest athletes in cricket, appeared to be walking back to his mark at roughly the pace of a 98-year-old man trying to sneak unnoticed out of a lion enclosure without waking up anything carnivorous. But it is spurious to blame the players, given that (a) it is decades since slow over rates were allowed by the game's authorities to become the norm; (b) the umpires seemed about as concerned about England's time-frittering as Allen Stanford was about American financial regulations; and (c) any professional team that claims that it would have done anything different is almost certainly lying.

Are slow over rates a significant issue? They have always irritated me as a cricket fan. Many cricketing generations ago, 20 overs per hour used to be the norm, and 23 was far from unusual, even with pace-dominated attacks. Now, anything close to 15 is considered an almost superhuman effort of sustained high-speed movement.

I appreciate that there are more interruptions in the game, due to the demands of television for drinks breaks in which to advertise, due to every change in the field being necessarily preceded by a philosophical discussion between captain and bowler, due to global warming having reduced average human walking speeds by around 18.4%, and, more recently, due to technology being considerably slower at returning umpiring verdicts than human beings are, and fractionally more competent.

But despite all these time-sapping difficulties, surely 15 overs per hour should be (a) possible, and (b) the minimum required (and I mean actually required, not hypothetically hinted at)? Would cricket not be a slightly more attractive spectacle, for spectators, broadcasters and sponsors if everything moved slightly faster?

● An Ian Bell stat: the Sledgehammer has made 16 scores of 50 or more against Australia in 37 Test innings - the same number as Colin Cowdrey managed in 75 innings, and Wally Hammond in 58. Bell has reached 50 every 2.3 innings in Ashes Tests. Of the 70 England players to have scored five or more 50-plus scores against Australia, only two have reached the half-century mark more regularly than Bell - Herbert Sutcliffe (24 in 46, once every 1.9 innings) and Kenny Barrington (18 in 39, once every 2.2 innings).

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