August 26, 2013

The interactive Ashes review

Andy Zaltzman
Michael Clarke sought inspiration in the field, England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 5th day, August 25, 2013
Clarke: wily campaigner or wretched wastrel?  © Getty Images
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An interesting but curious series ended with an almost wilfully weird final Test that offered a rare cocktail of grinding negativity, reckless abandon, numbing tedium and a pulsating if contrived climax that bore no relation to the four days of cricketing and climatic drudgery that had preceded it.

England finished slightly disappointed not to have won a game they had done nothing to win until the final session, and in which they had played some alarmingly passive cricket in the field and with the bat. Australia finished perhaps relieved not to have lost a series 4-0 in which they had held four first-innings leads, not allowed their opponents to score 400 in any innings, and in which only one England batsman averaged over 40. Had they done so, it would have been one of cricket's greatest statistical anti-achievements.

In many ways, 3-0 was not a fair scoreline. And in many ways, it was a perfectly fair scoreline. It matters little. England were decisively better at enough crucial moments, Australia's shortcomings scuppered their progress far too often. With different luck and different umpiring, the baggy greens could have won the series. With different luck and umpiring, England could have won by a street at Trent Bridge, and who knows how the series would have progressed then?

Appropriately enough, given the controversies that have scarred/enlivened the series, the umpires called time on proceedings, and denied the teams, the spectators and Test cricket four final overs of frenzy in the London gloom. But, of critical importance, the rule book was adhered to, so everyone could go home happy. In fact, the parting memory of the 2013 Ashes for me will be of 22,000 cricket fans chanting, "Give me a P, give me an R, give me an O, give me a T…", before being overwhelmed with excitement and being unable to complete the phrase "Protocols were correctly applied".

Admittedly, that may not have happened. I write this from a ferry somewhere in the Bay of Biscay, on the way to a holiday in Spain, where I will endeavour to reconnect with some things in the world unconnected with the Ashes (for example: wife, children, reality, high-quality hams, and anything that does not involve a psychologically unhealthy amount of time with Statsguru). But I hope it did happen. A match being snipped off in its prime against the will of both teams and cricket in general became inevitable once the ICC placed responsibility in the restricted hands of the umpires. Thankfully, nothing too important was at stake, but still, a little piece of cricket died.

Clarke's declaration will no doubt be dissected, analysed and interpreted like a medieval rodent's intestines. Having not seen the final day's play, and now being officially on holiday, and sitting in a bar on a ferry listening to a Boney M covers band (yes, my career is going very well indeed, thank you), I will allow you, the reader, to make your own conclusions. Delete as many or as few of the given options, as you consider appropriate.

Setting England 227 to win in 44 overs was: bold / inventive / good for cricket / a rare act of consideration for the paying spectator / clinically insane / a pipe dream / strategically baffling given the minuscule likelihood of taking ten wickets in 44 overs on a pudding of a pitch on which all of England's top seven had scored at least 25 in the first innings / more reckless than training your dog to eat nothing but sausages and scotch eggs and then taking it with you to a nudist colony.

If Australia had won, it would have been: a crucial confidence boost ahead of the return series later in the year / fun but meaningless, given that the Brisbane Test is (a) months away, (b) in different conditions and a different hemisphere / a massive important staging post for an emerging new team, who have shown they can compete with, if not yet beat, one of the world's top teams in its own backyard, and whose batsmen's selfless batting in the pursuit of quick wickets suggested a group of players that is rapidly unifying in a common cause.

If Australia had lost, it would have been: a price worth paying for proving they are a team with a burning desire to win / fun but meaningless / a morale-shattering squandering of the progress made over the final three Tests of the series - instead of beginning in Brisbane having lost only one of the previous three Tests, and that narrowly after playing much good cricket, and having had the better of the two draws, they would have begun after losing eight of nine Tests this year, and suffering a record-equalling margin of Ashes clobbering / the almost inevitable result of setting a target that, in the time available, gave England a risk-free opportunity to construct a low-risk chase, knowing that they could always fall back on their well-honed fifth-day resistance act for a couple of hours if necessary.

All in all, Australia emerge from the series: disappointed, but confident that the worst is over, and the core of a functioning team has emerged / frustrated, having had winning positions in three of the Tests against opposition who, on paper, had been vastly superior to them at the start of the series / terrified, having lost 3-0 to an England team carried by the sublime centuries of Ian Bell, the consistent threat of Swann, and sporadic bursts of brilliance by their seamers, but whose recent batting bulwarks malfunctioned throughout, and aware that conditions in Australia will probably suit England's batsmen / excited to their very cores about the prospect of their impending 25-match one-day series in India and another unmissable season of the Big Bash League.

England, for their part, will be: thrilled, having emerged from several pressurised situations undefeated, and with a convincing series win / pleased of course, but also disappointed that they failed fully to exploit the vulnerabilities of weak, fragmented opponents / terrified that Ryan Harris has not fallen to pieces, that Steve Smith has batted with such skill and cojones, and that Shane Watson has re-found his elusive mojo / burning with justified pride that, as a result of their scientifically applied caution, they avoided defeat / embarrassed that, as a team that aspires to be the best it can be, it resorts to a tactically questionable negativity at the first sign of danger, willing to plonk nine fielders on the boundary when three of the world's top ten bowlers are bowling at Australia's No. 10.

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

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Posted by davidlister on (August 27, 2013, 11:31 GMT)

The vast majority of sportsmen do pretty much the minimum required to achieve their aim. England's aims of retaining and then winning the Ashes in this series were achieved with a couple of gears unused as the gap in quality between the sides is large. Barring a host of injuries to England and /or the unearthing of an array of new Australian cricketing geniuses, England are highly unlikely to loose possession of the urn in Australia in a few months time.

Posted by   on (August 27, 2013, 10:01 GMT)

"Australia emerge from the series..." a refreshed unit, that is how I see it. They tried to apply all their might as a unit, and as a first exercise of a new team, weren't too unsuccessful. Results are not everything; what is of value is what is happening on the field. And I thought Australia gained more than England in this Test series.

Posted by Leed1975 on (August 27, 2013, 0:03 GMT)

One of the things that makes test match cricket so fantastic is the human aspect. It's not just about field placements and bowling changes. Clarke was duped by England. In the match wrap up, Cook noted that the Australians would do anything for the win so it was Englands job to make it harder for them to win, thus making it easier for England. Normal practice would presume that when a team scores 500 in the first innings, the results available are a win for that team or a draw. Clarke makes it a win or a loss. Because Clarke will set a total, all the other team has to do is bat time and avoid the follow on. Clarke will then make up for any other shortcomings in the remaining innings by declaring and wiping out the benefit of the first. Cook knew that a big Aus first innings would be sabotaged by Clarke valuing a win more than he feared a loss. It was day 3 when England took a potentially winning position thanks to predictable Clarke.

Posted by fifth_ump on (August 26, 2013, 14:53 GMT)

"Give me a P, give me an R, give me an O, give me a T…", before being overwhelmed with excitement and being unable to complete the phrase "Protocols were correctly applied".

how on earth?

only you could have conjured this up!

Posted by   on (August 26, 2013, 11:39 GMT)

I think England realised on day 1 that their team selection with Kerrigan and Woakes had been a massive mistake and that they were never going to win the match with that attack, so after that it just became about damage control, hence the slow batting on day 3. I think it might have been a different story had Tremlett played instead of Kerrigan.

Posted by   on (August 26, 2013, 9:29 GMT)

hahah, veyr good Andy. It may interest you that the word "prot" is, in fact, Flemish Dutch slang for "fart". (True.)

Posted by ballsintherightareas on (August 26, 2013, 9:16 GMT)

Mr Zaltzman, if this article were a packet of Angel Delight, I'd whip it up, chill it, and serve it to foreign dignatries sprinkled liberally with hundreds and thousands.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.

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