November 26, 2013

How growing a moustache can improve your all-round skills

A review of the first Ashes Test reveals startling facts about the weather and facial hair

"Look, the ghosts of Australia's Ashes past are finally cracking a smile" © Getty Images

Many words have been spoken before, during and after the incandescent Brisbane Test. Too many, some would argue. It was a thrilling, fascinating match, but a gobby one. Intense, passionate, 21st-century cricket does not appear to be easily compatible with basic manners. Not amongst the words exchanged, it is safe to assume, was anyone English saying: "Mmmm. Well, that went well."

Cook and his team face the greatest challenge of his captaincy. England have shown the capacity to rebound from poor performances several times in recent years. Whether this series proceeds like the come-from-behind victory in India last winter, or like the recurring spin-induced nightmare against Pakistan early in 2012, remains to be seen.

They recovered from a heavy loss in Ahmedabad this time last year, but the recovery process had begun during the defeat, with the skipper and Matt Prior puncturing the early dominance of the Indian spinners in a defiant fourth-day rear guard. In Brisbane, Cook was in the process of at least establishing a personal foothold in the series with an innings of precision and determination, but he failed to heed the timeless old cricketing saying, "Massive Hailstorm Always Takes A Wicket".

He tossed his wicket away with a limp cut at Nathan Lyon, and, another middle-order speed-subsidence later, there were few bones of positivity to be picked from the chicken carcass of defeat. The precious, much-sought-after "momentum" had dressed up in yellow, cracked open a tinnie and started a barbecue. Several of the cornerstones of England's success had been successfully and surgically undermined, and even Ian Botham was downgrading his 5-0 forecast to a 5-1.

This defeat had more in common with the Dubai debacle than the Ahmedabad aberration, but, despite the sad loss of Jonathan Trott, England have the capabilities to prevent it following the same pattern, and Australia, for all their fire, brilliance and tactical dominance in Brisbane, are still unproven as a team.

I will admit that, so soon after last summer's curious contest, my pre-Ashes excitement levels had been probably at their lowest since before the 1978-79 series, when I was four years old and had never heard of cricket. But the performances of both teams at the Gabba have ignited the series - as an Australian win at Trent Bridge would have done last summer - and transformed what could have been unnecessary scheduling overload into a fascinating examination of both sides, collectively and individually. Well done, cricket. You are an excellent invention.

* The Anderson's Broken Arm Sledge Schemozzle has occupied an irritating amount of airtime and column inches. Was TV at fault for not shielding the world's sensitive little ears from the linguistic unpleasantries of these highly honed sporting technicians? Was Clarke retaliating? Or, was he, in fact, politely alerting Anderson to the physical threat posed by Johnson's imminent bouncer, enabling the England bowler to take appropriate evasive action, ensuring his fitness for the rest of the series?

In rugby, particularly in the days before the all-seeing eye of the television match official, it has often been the case that the retaliator is punished, whilst the original perpetrator grins and toddles away scot-free. One player could have been furtively inserting his fingers into one or more unsanctioned orifices of another, or chowing down on an opponent's arm like a late-night kebab, or sawing his opposite number's leg off with a contraband chainsaw, but if the referee happened to turn around in time only to see the victim swinging a pained half-punch towards his assailant, the former would inevitably be penalised. The commentators would have a good laugh about it being a man's game and laugh it off as a "wee bit of skulduggery", even if it had actually involved one player's skull being dug at by another player's elbow, and everyone would get on with the proper above-board good-natured violence instead.

In cricket, threats of violence, bile-faced personal abuse and general playground-level intimidation are passed off as "banter". The dictionary-writing boffins who have attempted to convince the world that banter is in fact "the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks" had better switch their lexicographs back on and do some updating.

Clarke's words were both unnecessary, and partly justified. They were simultaneously not in the "Spirit Of Cricket" (that nebulous and selectively invoked abstraction that occasionally hangs around the sport like a forgotten great uncle with a banjo at a slightly fractious wedding), and "part and parcel of the game" (whether something can be parcel of the game without also being part of it has never been adequately clarified). They were tactically calculated, but strategically high-risk. Premature verbals have a tendency to echo back into the shouter's face. But revenge, in Australia's cricketing book, is evidently a dish best served loud.

* Mitchell Johnson's performance was not only a personal Ashes redemption of seismic brilliance that earned him the right to keep his proto-Lilleean moustache for at least another year, it was also an extremely rare feat of all-round excellence over all four innings of a Test. With a match-shifting 64, a series-shuddering 4 for 61, and nose-into-dirt-grinding 39 not out, and a potty-mouthed, dominance-confirming 5 for 42, Johnson became only the fifth man ever to score at least 30 and take at least four wickets in both innings of a Test match.

All five occurrences have been in the first Test of the series. Before Johnson, Daniel Vettori almost single-handedly won New Zealand a very tight match in Bangladesh in 2008-09; Chaminda Vaas took five in each innings and chipped in with a couple of useful 30s in a big Sri Lankan victory against the Kiwis in 1994-95; Australia's Alan Davidson performed all-round miracles in the tied Test against West Indies in Brisbane in 1960-61 - 5 for 135, 44, 6 for 87 and an almost-match-winning 80 after coming in at 57 for 5 with Australia still needing 176 more to win. Eight of his 11 wickets were top-five batsmen, and his 80 was the highest fourth-innings score by anyone batting seven or lower for more than 50 years.

The first occurrence was at the SCG at the start of the 1894-95 Ashes series, when Australian allrounder George Giffen scored 161, took four wickets in both innings as England followed on. He then made 41, taking Australia to 135 for 4 in pursuit of 177 to win. When he was out, on a rain-affected sixth-day pitch, Australia collapsed and England stole a ten-run victory.

Giffen went on to become the only cricketer ever to score over 400 runs and take more than 30 wickets in a series. But still lost 3-2. Cricket can be a cruel mistress. Goodness knows what he would have tweeted at the end of that series. It would probably have contained an unnecessary number of exclamation marks.

To put Johnson's performance into further statistical context, even scoring 25 and taking three wickets in both innings is a relatively rare all-round feat. It has happened only 34 times in Test history. The last two players to accomplish it in Australia were those legendary all-round Imran-Sobers clones, Merv Hughes and Eddie Hemmings. The moral of that story: grow a moustache.

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