December 3, 2013

Four unarguable statistical reasons why England will play well in Adelaide

And for the superstitious, there are anti-stats to ward away evil with

Kevin Pietersen is the megalord of second Tests, but will Lady Luck decide she's not ready to make a serious commitment to him? © Getty Images

There has been little comfort for England on or off the field since the beginning of the Ashes series. After Stuart Broad bounded through the Australian top order on the first day in Brisbane, they have been ineffective with the ball and alarmingly fragile with the bat. They have lost a cornerstone of the team, played sludgily against a minimum-octane team in a pointless two-day "practice" match in the middle of a desert, and had to field more questions about sledge-spats than is medically advisable.

When things are not going well, as all wise people know, the safest refuge is in statistics. The phrase "strength in numbers" refers not, as many rashly assume, to the idea that being in a large numerical group gives you a better chance of survival. That theory flew out of the window when the first abattoir was opened. (Unlike the chickens who were mechanically de-alived at its gala opening night.)

The words "strength in numbers" in fact refer to how, in times of trouble, a well-aimed, carefully extricated and selectively presented statistic can convince us that all will soon be well. It is as true in cricket as it is in politics, or economics, or romance ("Well, darling, 67% of my previous wives have slightly regretted leaving me, so you might want to consider unpacking that suitcase, and/or putting the goldfish back in its bowl, and/or seeing if the airline will give you and Rico a refund for those one-way tickets to Brazil").

The Confectionery Stall therefore presents: Four Unarguable Statistical Reasons Why England Will Play Well In Adelaide; each rated out of ten for the mathematical reassurance they should give Cook's team; and, for the sake of balance, each presented with an opposite anti-stat that suggests that Australia can start booking their open-topped surfboard parade down Bondi Beach for January 8.

COMFORT STAT #1: Flower's England are second-Test specialists.

As various sage fact-crunchers have noted, England have lost only one second Test in their 18 previous series under Flower's guidance - in Abu Dhabi, two years ago, a match they were on course to win until a rather unsightly mega-choke against Pakistan's wily tweaksters. When you factor in that 12 of the last 13 Ashes series, dating back to 1989, have been won by the team that has won the second Test (the exception being 1997, when Australia dominated a rain-ruined draw at Lord's, bowled England out for 77, and went on to win the next three matches), then an England win seems as mathematically inevitable as Vladimir Putin winning an election by a suspiciously large number of votes. In five of the last nine Ashes, the eventual winner has not won the first Test. Australia could not be in a worse position.

STATISTICOMFORT RATING: 8/10. The second Test often shapes a series. It can confirm dominance, or launch a comeback. England won in Mumbai a year ago after a first-Test clonking - albeit not as comprehensive a clonking as they were clonked with in Brisbane - and, as Ashes holders, know that one good performance in Adelaide will ensure that they will have a chance of retaining the silly but magnificent trophy come Christmas, regardless of what happens in Perth.

ANTI-STAT: England might have been good in second Tests under Flower, but there are almost equally inept in third Tests - just two wins in 13 (albeit with seven draws and only four defeats).

COMFORT STAT #2: Kevin Pietersen is a bowler-eating, scoreboard-conflagrating rogue dragon of a batsman in the second Tests of series away from home. Particularly in Adelaide.

As I highlighted earlier in the year, Pietersen tends to be consistent across series at home, but peaks spectacularly in second Tests away. In first Tests outside England, he averages a fraction under 29. In third, fourth and fifth Tests, his average is 34. In second Tests away from home, he averages 76.7 - and in the first innings of those 2nd Tests, 91.1, with six centuries (only one of them below 140), and three more fifty-plus scores, in 14 innings.

His scores in Adelaide have been 158 and 2 in the soul-destroying 2006-07 defeat, and 227 in the soul-restoring 2010-11 victory. This decade, in six second Tests away from home, he has scored 813 runs at an average of 116. Australia, beware. And Pietersen, try not to spoon it to midwicket or plank one directly into long leg's oesophagus when well set.

STATISTICOMFORT RATING: 7/10. Pietersen has seldom been a consistent batsman, but, for most of his spell-binding career, he has been a series-changing one. And, outside England, the second Test is where he tends to do that changing.

ANTI-STAT: Pietersen might have twice pounded the Australian bowlers into the Adelaidian dust, but that only means that mathematical unlikelihood is going to bark in his face should he even consider trying to do so again. Only one visiting batsman has scored three Test centuries in Adelaide - Jack Hobbs. And it is 89 years since the Surrey Sorcerer scored the third of those, in 1924-25. In a match which England lost.

COMFORT STAT #3: Graeme Swann will come into play.

Swann too has become a formidable second-Test beast - 45 wickets at 16.7 in six second Tests in 2012 and 2013, compared with 52 scalps at an average of 41.0 in all his other Tests in that time. Furthermore, whilst he has a moderate Test record in Australia, he fared well in Adelaide three years ago - 7 for 161 in the match (he averages 65 on other Australian Test grounds).

STATISTICOMFORT RATING: 6/10. Swann has shown the ability to regain control over batsmen who appeared to have tamed him. But few have tamed him quite as aggressively as Clarke and Warner did in the first Test.

ANTI-STAT: Spin may not be a significant factor. All spinners collectively in Adelaide since 2006 have taken 55 wickets in seven Tests, at an average of 56.2, striking once every 18.3 overs. (By comparison, pace bowlers have taken 146 wickets at 38.0, with a strike rate of a wicket every 11.4 overs). And whilst Swann had a good match three years ago, Nathan Lyon has also taken ten wickets for 251 in his two Tests there.

COMFORT STAT #4: England's middle order will improve.

It simply has to. If it gets worse, it will be medically dead. England produced a collapse for the ages in the Brisbane first innings, alchemising the relative parity of 82 for 2 to the cataclysmic depths of 91 for 8 as if it was a 1980s theme night, and they thought the Australians were all dressed in Malcolm Marshall costumes or Richard Hadlee outfits. In the course of this, they sank from 87 for 4 to 91 for 8.

In the second innings, they did their best to prove this was no flash-in-the-incompetence pan by flunking their way from 142 for 4 became 151 for 8. Their combined total of 13 runs in both innings whilst losing their fifth to eighth wickets was the third most incompetent display of lower-middle-order batting in Test history.

The two sides to beat them in this hall of fifth-to-eighth-wicket shame: the 1957 West Indians - a side featuring Weekes, Worrell, Walcott, Sobers and Kanhai ¬¬- collapsed from 85 for 4 to 89 for 8, then from 69 for 4 to 75 for 8, in the course of a disastrous Oval thrashing by England; and, in the first post-war Test in 1945-46, New Zealand's sixth-, seventh- and eighth-wicket partnerships managed to add a grand total of six runs in the match, subsiding from 37 for 4 in both innings, to 39 for 8 in the first, and to 41 for 8 in the second.

In the driver's seat, powering the collapsing clown car down Ducky Drive, were Gordon Rowe and Len Butterfield, each in his only Test appearance, who became the only Nos. 6 and 7 both to score a pair in the same Test. In mitigation, the match was only awarded Test status retrospectively, so perhaps if they had known they were playing for their places in cricketing eternity, they would have been inspired to raise their game. Also, in further, mitigation, there had just been a massive war, so they might still have understandably been a little on edge.

Their retrospective Test debut double-double-blob-blobs do, nonetheless, raise an important philosophical question: If it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, as pro-poet Alfie Tennyson claimed so catchily in 1849, before getting down to business and grandfathering a future England cricket captain, then is it also better to have unwittingly played in a Test match, been completely useless, and never had the chance to be slightly less useless in another Test match with a bit of advance warning, than never to have played a Test match at all? Even if you effectively did not actually play a Test match, because it was not a Test match when you played it. Answers on a postcard or papyrus to: Philosophy Faculty, University Of Verkhoyansk, Siberia.

And, for a tie-breaker question: If you had scored two ducks and been part of a historically inept batting display in what you thought was just a regular game of cricket, would you be pleased or disappointed when the match was subsequently elevated to become an immutable entry in the annals of the international game?

Anyway, what was the point? Oh, yes, England's middle order will function better in Adelaide than in Brisbane. You have the Zaltzman Guarantee of that.

STATISTICOMFORT RATING: 2/10. Conditions will probably be easier for batting, players have snapped out of deeper and longer form-troughs than the one in which Prior is currently grazing, and an enforced change could energise the team. All that said, they could significantly improve on Brisbane and still be useless.

ANTI-STAT: Prior might not snap out of his slump. He is nearly 32. Jeffrey Dujon, another stylish wicketkeeper batsman and middle-order archaeologist - he dug his side out of some awkward-looking holes - averaged almost 39 at the end of West Indies' 1988 tour of England, when he was 32. He then averaged 19 in his final 26 Tests. Alan Knott barely played for England after his 32nd birthday; Godfrey Evans diminished as a batsman in his later years; so too, markedly, did Adam Gilchrist.

ANTI-ANTI-STAT: Don't be ridiculous. Alec Stewart kept wicket in 69 Tests from the age of 32 onwards, with a healthy batting average of 37. Andy Flower averaged 74 as a 32-plus-year-old gloveman. Picking out individual stats as symptomatic of a wider trend is silly, and frankly you should know better.

CONFECTIONERY STALL ADELAIDE PREDICTION: Don't know. Depends on the pitch. And the players. I wouldn't be surprised if England win, though. Or if they lose. Or if it is a draw. What? You want something more precise than that? OK… mmmm… tough one… England to win by 37 runs; or by three wickets. Or both.

[Note for pedants: in the above stats, I have counted what was technically the third Test of England 2009 series in West Indies as the second Test; the technical second Test only lasted a few minutes due to someone having forgotten to put an outfield in a cricket stadium, so, in terms of the structure of the series, the third Test was effectively the second Test. No arguments. Here endeth the stat.]

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