August 14, 2013

The narrow thrashing of Australia

In which Ian Bell goes solo the way Wally Hammond did back in 1928-29

One Test after securing the urn, England had their proper moment of triumph. Jimmy Anderson, whose first-Test brilliance laid the foundations for the retention of the urn, took the catch, then javelined the ball skywards like Jan Zelezny trying to down a passing condor for his breakfast. That image, and Stuart Broad's spectacular dismembering of Michael Clarke's stumps, have thankfully supplanted the pictures of England sitting in the Old Trafford gloom, twiddling their thumbs, whilst journalists pored over their thesauruses for different words meaning "anti-climax".

This series had begun with some pundits predicting that England would thrash Australia. Others suggested it would be a closer contest than many had anticipated. Both viewpoints have been proved correct. England have narrowly thrashed their old enemy.

Three-nil is an emphatic scoreline in anyone's book (unless that book is about a rugby match) (or the very beginning of a frame of snooker) (but particularly if that book is about a cricket series). As emphatic scorelines go, however, it has been unusually un-emphatic. If a few crucial umpiring decisions had been different, if the Manchester weather had relented, if the edge of Haddin's bat had been a couple of millimetres to one side in Nottingham, if Rogers or Warner or Clarke could have just lasted a little longer at the Riverside, it could have been 3-1 to Australia.

That said, if all of those things had happened, it might still have been 3-0 to England. The umpires might have pulled other crazy fingers out of their pockets. Anderson might have knocked Haddin's middle stump out with the next ball. England might have written another chapter in their Encyclopaedia of Successful Rearguards. Broad might still have run through Australia like an uncooked chicken curry through a delicately stomached grandmother. The point is that the 2013 Ashes has, overall, been quite close, but in the two close Tests, England, with their superior players, greater experience and home advantage, have taken the decisive moments.

Or, more correctly, England have taken the most decisive of the many pivotal moments in those games. In Durham, as in Nottingham, and as in any tightly contested Test match, there were numerous individual balls and passages of play that shifted the likelihood of victory one way or the other, and Australia were never able to seal control.

The fact that it is 3-0, and not 2-1, 1-2 or 1-3, is testament to England's quality, as displayed in their march to the top of the Test rankings in 2010 and 2011. The fact that it could have been any of those other scores is testament to the fragilities they revealed throughout the first eight months of 2012, and again in New Zealand in March. Likewise, Australia have shown individual excellence, but have also revealed Achilles heels on both legs, plus Achilles elbows and a bit of an Achilles chin.

A brutally conclusive burst by Stuart Broad finished the Riverside Test, and Australia's faint hopes of emerging with a drawn series. He has had a curious international career of peaks and troughs. He made the decisive strike in the 2009 Ashes, when his five-wicket spell of pitched-up penetration helped to reduce Australia from 73 for 0, replying strongly to England's 332, to 111 for 7, heading for almost certain defeat. Between that day and the Durham Test, he had bowled in 11 Ashes innings and taken nine wickets for 544 runs. In this series he had made important runs in all three Tests, but had been peripheral with the ball, bowling better than his figures suggested, but having little impact. Then, suddenly, 11 for 121, the best match figures by an England seamer against Australia since Fred Trueman's 11 for 88 in Leeds in 1961, and the third-best such return since 1902. Boom.

On Monday, after Bresnan ended Warner's brilliant and potentially match-winning innings with a waspish lifter, Broad, as in 2009, attacked Australian stumps. He bowled out three of his six victims (one, admittedly, playing on off a bouncer), and pinned two leg before. At The Oval, his five wickets included two bowled and two lbw. Excluding those two spells, exactly one-third of his Test wickets have been bowled or lbw. He has lacked the consistency to be a great bowler but is capable of great bowling. Often (but not always) when he pitches it up and bowls fast.

So England revelled in their series victory, whilst Australia added another bundle of indigestible "what-ifs" to their smouldering barbecue of missed opportunities. They have had three first-innings leads, and totally undermined England's strategy of grinding opposition bowlers down with their top-order immovability - England's third wicket has fallen on average at 71 this series, the third-lowest such figure in the 45 Ashes series played since the First World War. Only two England players have had what could be definitively described as good series - Bell and Swann. And yet they trail 3-0, and can probably ink in a maximum of five names to their team-sheet for Brisbane in November. Such is the lot of the thrashed. However narrow that thrashing has been.

● Few batsmen have had a bigger impact on a Test series than Ian Bell has had on this one. His numbers - 500 runs at 71, with three centuries and two more half-centuries - are stellar enough, but do not reveal the full scope of his influence. With him, England's collective batting average is 29.1 to Australia's 23.4. Without him, it is 24.4. Collectively, the rest of England's top seven - Cook, Root, Trott, Pietersen, Bairstow and Prior - average 28, and none has scored over 300 runs or averages over 38. England, extraordinarily for a team with a 3-0 lead, have made only six individual scores of 70 or more. Bell has made four of them.

His three centuries were scored in innings in which no other batsman scored more than 70, and all began in positions of difficulty - he came in the second innings at Trent Bridge with England effectively 56 for 3, and was out having guided them to a lead of 306 with two wickets in hand; at Lord's, on day one he lifted England from 28 for 3 to 271 for 5; and in Durham, again in the second innings, he took his team from (effectively) 17 for 3 to 219 for 6. Each time, he has significantly enhanced England's likelihood of victory - and each time, that victory has ultimately been achieved.

Hang on to your underpants, stats fans. By my reckoning, in consort with my trusty statistical sidekick Statsguru, Bell is only the fifth player to have been the sole centurion in three innings in a series in victorious matches.

Shoaib Mohammad did so for Pakistan against New Zealand in 1990-91, but in a team whose bowlers utterly dominated the first two of the three Tests.

Australia's Greg Chappell did so in the 1975-76 series against West Indies - two of his three victorious unaccompanied hundreds were scored in the first Test, and Australia were dominating the match by the time he first came in to bat, so his innings led to only two of Australia's five victories.

West Indian great Everton Weekes achieved the feat in New Zealand in 1955-56, although, like Sadiq, he was part of a completely dominant side.

Perhaps the nearest equivalent to Bell's extraordinary run of winning solo centuries is Wally Hammond's spectacular 1928-29 Ashes, when the Gloucestershire legend scored four centuries in three successive victories, in innings in which no other England batsman reached three figures. He hit 251 in the second Test at the SCG, with support all the way down the order - it was one of only two innings in Test history in which ten players have scored 20 or more - then 200 in the first innings at the MCG, out of a total of 417 in which only two other players passed 25. He was run out for 32 in England's fourth-innings chase, but Herbert Sutcliffe's century saw England home by three wickets, despite a late clatter of wickets.

In the fourth Test, Hammond scored an unbeaten 119 out of 334 all out, coming in as Hobbs and Sutcliffe were both out at 143, and with significant support thereafter only from Chapman's 39. Then, in the second innings, after England's two great openers fell early to leave the team two down and still in arrears, he scored 177, aided by Jardine's 98, to take England to 383 all out, setting Australia 349 to win. In another spine-tingling finish, England eventually won by 12 runs, to go 4-0 up in the series.

In those three wins, Hammond scored 779 runs at the tidy average of 194. England's next highest scorer was Sutcliffe, with 285. Australia's batsmen mustered seven centuries in the three Tests, but none individually scored over 400 runs.

In the rest of his career, Hammond scored only five more Ashes hundreds in 29 Tests, averaging 40, but those three Tests remain one of the great feats of series-winning batsmanship. If Hammond had failed - or even if Hammond had succeeded less spectacularly - it would, almost certainly, have been 2-2. Bell's performance, if not quite as numerically Himalayan, is fit to stand alongside it. It has certainly been one of the most influential individual batting performances in any Ashes series, perhaps even in any Test series. And it is made more remarkable by the fact that, over the previous 18 months, the other players in England's current top seven, except Bairstow, had all averaged between 42 and 48. Bell had averaged 32.

Being the sole centurion in an innings is not, of course, a definitive measure of batting influence, but the rarity of such performances gives some idea of quite how significant the Sledgehammer of Eternal Justice has been in helping England to narrowly thrash, or overwhelmingly squeak past, or lightly annihilate, or obliterate by a nose, their oldest cricketing adversary.

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