November 20, 2013

The Official Confectionery Stall Ashes Preview

Andy Zaltzman provides the almost-definite preview of the Ashes series and why England should, could, or might not retain the urn

It made Watson and Rogers' day to learn about England's dedicated back-room staff member whose job is to weigh petits-fours © Getty Images

If Australia can make the ball swing consistently, they have a chance. If they cannot, they do not.


What? Do you want more detail than that? Do you not have better things to do with your time than read this? Yes, you do. But I suppose I am in no position to criticise anyone for not using their time to the maximum benefit of themselves and/or of humanity in general, so please, read on. If you want.

Three Key Factors

1. England have better players

This is often an important, if overlooked, factor in sport. Much is attributed to coaches, captains, luck, umpiring, destiny and fate, but what the summer's series proved, as had every Ashes series from 1989 to 2003, is that if you pit a team against opponents with significantly better players, that team will probably lose.

Australia's team in the first Test at Trent Bridge last summer had just one batsman inside the world's top 40, and one bowler in the top 20. England had five top-25 batsmen (including four in the top 15) and four top-15 bowlers (three of them in the top 10). As it was, the most influential player in the series proved to be lowest-ranked of England's established batsmen, Ian Bell, who came spectacularly good after a moderate 18 months. The rankings gap has since closed, but only by a little. Michael Clarke remains fifth, but is still the only Baggy Greenster in the top 30 batsmen; England currently have no batsmen with single-figure rankings, but five in the top 20. Australia have two of the top 8 bowlers; England have three in the top 11.

The rankings, for what they are worth (which is I think a reasonable amount), suggest that for Australia to win, they will need several of their players to accelerate their upward trajectories, and make England's continue their slight decline. This is entirely possible. Rankings show how players have been playing, and suggest how they might play. They do not, of course, show how they will play.

For all the talk about Alastair Cook's unquestionable tactical negativity and his equally unquestionable skill at fostering unity and determination in his team, his greatest strength as a captain is having five batsmen ranked in the top 20 and three bowlers in the top 11. And for all Clarke's tactical innovations and dressing-room spattery, his Achilles' heel as a skipper is being able to call on only one batsman inside the world's top 30 - himself - and having to work with a constantly-changing, injury-prone bowling attack.

It is often said that winning without playing well is a mark of a good side. This is sometimes true. But often false. It is often the sign of an adequate team playing adequately against inferior opposition

2. England have the bigger back-room staff

Nothing is left to chance with the high-tech 21st-century England cricket team, who now travel with a support staff of, at the most recent unofficial estimate, at least 450. There are the coaches, nutritionists, video analysts, sports psychologists, media liaison goons, fitness gurus, kit baggagistas, and cap-logo-direction-tweaking assistants. There are dieticians, chefs, sous-chefs, cous-cous grain-size controllers, recipe consultants and a full-time energy drink sommelier called Alphonse who used to work at the quadruple Michelin-starred La Jolie Fornicatrice in Paris ("may I recommend a bottle of the 2013 orange-flavoured isotonic glucose Chateau de Gatorade, Monsieur, it will go perfectément avec your mungbean curry").

There are Twitter spat guidance counsellors, post-umpiring-decision-stress therapists, wicket-celebration choreographers, high-five safety officers, a five-man sledge writing team on secondment from working on the script of a Hollywood gross-out movie, and a bed-time storyteller to ensure the players get a sleep well, efficiently and in the right areas. There is a motivational Shane Warne impersonator, a hologram WG Grace to ensure the team are aware of their historic responsibility to the shirt, and, just appointed, an exorcist. The last thing you want in the middle of an important Test series is for one of your key players to become possessed. Again. Australia are playing catch-up off the field as well as on it.

3. England will probably play better than they played in the summer. Then again, they might not. They might play worse. But they could play worse and still win. If Australia play at the same level as they did. But they might improve. Or decline.

It is often said that winning without playing well is a mark of a good side. This is sometimes true. But often false. It is often the sign of an adequate team playing adequately against inferior opposition. It is not so often said that losing despite playing well is a mark of a bad side. So how do you interpret England's 3-0 win and Australia's 3-0 defeat last summer? England almost stole a 4-0 win thanks to a contrived end to the final Test. Australia could conceivably have won at Trent Bridge, Manchester, Durham and The Oval. At a stretch. A gymnastic stretch, admittedly, which would have needed a rare combination of better weather, better cricket, and better cricketers. But it would have only taken a few moments to have had altered outcomes to have been a very different series.

So, complete the following sentence:

In the 2013 Ashes…

(a) a good team playing adequately beat a poor team playing well;
(b) an adequate team playing adequately beat another adequate team also playing adequately, but with decisive outbreaks of, respectively, brilliance and uselessness;
(c) a very good team playing poorly beat a useless team touching undreamt-of heights of sporadic competence;
(d) a fading-but-still-potent team playing fadingly but with potency beat a fragile-but-improving team playing with fragility whilst also showing improvement;
(e) all of the above, to varying degree; or
(f) none of the above.

Both sides, a little oddly, might be carrying some resentment from the previous series, and will be wanting to prove their actual and perceived critics wrong (whilst also proving their opponents' critics right, a motivation that is seldom aired in public, regrettably for the neutral).


England should win, Australia could win, drawn series fans could be in for a treat.

Official Confectionery Stall Prediction

Australia 1 England 3. England's batting, less vulnerable in less swingsome conditions, and with greater experience and depth, will prove too great an obstacle for Australia.

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