December 31, 2013

A statistical breakdown of England's breakdown

What do you do when your side has been on the wrong end of a leathering? You seek solace in the numbers is what

The search for positives in the after-wreckage of a crushing defeat has become a recurring theme of this blog. It has, indeed, been a recurring theme of top-level sport as a whole, ever since Sclutus Malvinius, the Roman gladiator, fronted up at a post-match press-conference in the Coliseum media room, claiming to take confidence from the fact that the lion would probably not be quite so hungry come tomorrow's rematch, before asking if anyone had a set of limbs, a lung, two ventricles and a spare head they could lend him.

For England, after a 24-hour masterclass in anticricket at the MCG, the only positive was that at least the agony is nearly over. So too for the poor journalists who have been chronicling the carnage with diminishing reserves of goodwill towards a team and management they have often praised. The hacks have been burning through thesauruses at an alarming rate. Some were even reduced in Melbourne to using German words for "rubbish", Sanskrit terms for "inexplicable", and ancient hieroglyphs meaning "What in the name of Anubis was that?" Others could only express themselves by drawing childlike pictures of sad faces, or smearing their tear-stained handkerchiefs all over their laptops, or transliterating a series of low groans and muffled sobs. One seasoned writer was even overheard phoning his mother, begging her to send him a doctor's note excusing him from having to write about the fifth Test, in Sydney.

Amidst all the flagellation, a common refrain is that this is not a great Australian team. This claim would have a high truth rating - perhaps nine out of ten - but a relevance quotient of 0%. They are not a great team. At the start of the series, Australia had one batsman (a) averaging over 37 in Tests, and (b) ranked in the top 30 in the ICC rankings. They had a good but far from all-conquering bowling attack, featuring a returning paceman with a mediocre record over the previous three years. They recently lost six Tests in succession, five of them convincingly.

However, in this series they have played unquestionably great cricket. They have been bold, clinical and often brilliant. They have rescued themselves from their few moments of crisis, and exploited their opponents' fragility like a rhinoceros trampling on a slightly cracked vase. Their play would stand comparison with that of any of the truly great Test teams of the past. Were the England of 2010-11 and 2011 a great team? The evidence of the last two years, and the two years before that garishly purple patch, suggests that they too were also a good team playing great cricket against imploding opposition. In many ways this is more impressive than a great team playing great cricket.

I watched some of the final session of the third day's play with my daughter, who is approaching her seventh birthday (approximately the age at which my cricket-obsessing gene first manifested itself), and, having been born five days after England last slumped to a 5-0 drubbing in Australia, had never previously witnessed England lose an Ashes. She takes some interest in cricket. Also, daddy was sitting on the sofa looking a bit pale and confused, so she joined him. (I should add that we were watching on delay, rather than live; as much as I love the sport, even I would not wake my children up to watch a Test match at 5am. Unless it was really exciting.)

England were in a shaky but reasonable position, 220-odd ahead, with four wickets in hand. Pietersen was batting astutely, Bresnan was newly at the crease, short of form but with a decent defensive pedigree. There was a drinks break. I explained to my daughter what Bresnan would try to do. (The following dialogue may not be word for word what was actually said - our living-room stenographer was on his post-Christmas coffee break. But it is close to what was said.)

"Bresnan will defend for as long as possible, to give support to Pietersen, England's best attacker. So he won't try to hit fours and sixes. He will just try not to get out. It doesn't matter if he doesn't score any runs, as long as he stays in for a long time. He's good at that."

Two balls later, Bresnan goes for a wafty pull shot, misses it, and is bowled out. "Daddy, you said a bad word." "Sorry, dear." "Why did Bresnan do that, daddy?" "Erm, er… well… erm…" "I thought you said he would just try to defend." "Er, well, everyone makes mistakes." "Who is the next batsman?" "Broad." "What will he do?" "He will also try to defend. After him, the last two aren't very good at batting, so he just has to stay in as long as he can. He's done it before." "Okay, daddy. Are England winning?" "Not entirely."

Three balls later, Broad mistakes himself for Brian Lara on 120 not out and tries to slap Lyon through the covers. He edges and is caught. I looked at my daughter. On her face, there was an expression of confusion and disbelief. Her nascent cricketing brain is probably already sufficiently aware to know that what Bresnan and Broad had done was not the most tactically intelligent cricket she would ever see. But that was a face that, above all, said: "My daddy lied to me. Why?"

(I imagine similar conversations were held across India when Ravi Jadeja completed his alleged "innings" in Durban.)

Time now for some statistical illustrations of the relative performances of each side.

* The only England player whose series average is better than his previous career average, in either discipline, is Stuart Broad, who is averaging 26.8 with the ball, compared to his pre-megadebacle average of 30.5. He has, however, made up for this by averaging 11.8 with the bat, a little under half of his career figure. The rest have not merely fractionally underperformed. They have been vastly inferior knockoff counterfeit copies of themselves, the cricketing equivalent of cheap DVDs with misprints on the covers sold for £2 a pop in a dodgy street market - The Godfeather, Saving Private Ian, Schindler's Lost, The Vacant Third Man.

* For Australia, the only players with worse averages in this series than they had previously are: Clarke with the bat (49.7, a less than disastrous microslump from 52.0, and featuring two superb series-establishing centuries); Harris with the ball (a hugely influential 26.0, slightly down on his striking career figure of 22.2); Smith with both bat (fractionally) and ball (irrelevantly); and Siddle with the bat (England have restricted the 21st-century Bradman to just 8.5 runs per dismissal, compared to the 15.0 with which he was decimating sides previously).

* Australia have only one player averaging under 27 with the bat - Siddle. They have only one bowler averaging over 30, or being hit for more than three runs per over - Smith, in both cases, who has only bowled 11 overs in the series. Even Bailey, the player who has contributed least, made an important first-innings half-century in Adelaide, launched an iconic, last-vestiges-of-morale-shattering assault on Anderson, and has taken seven catches. It has been a superlative collective effort, with the bowling of Johnson and the batting of Haddin raising it to the levels of greatness.

* England have no players averaging more than 36 with the bat; all of their top-six batsmen are scoring at under 50 runs per 100 balls (with the exception of Trott, who faced only 28 balls in the series). Only Broad (and, in his one Test, Tremlett) are averaging under 40 with the ball; none of the eight bowlers England has used have been able to keep their economy rate below 3 runs per over. Only one of their players has passed 30 more than once in four first innings (Carberry, who has done so in all four Tests).

You could argue that this has been England's worst series performance of all time. You would not necessarily win that argument, but you would have a fighting chance. You could support your case with a smorgasbord of stats. You could support it with a fully illustrated catalogue of batting bloopers, fielding fluffs, captaincy confusions and bowling bluntness that would have been impressive if culled from a two-year period in England's depths-plumbing late-1980s phase. You could support it with a printout of the ECB's expenditure, with the broken timbre of commentators' voices, with the calculations by travelling fans of exactly what would constitute worse value for money than their current trip to one of the world's most expensive countries to watch a team of proven quality fold quicker than a surfboard business in Kathmandu. And you could support it with the look of incomprehension in my daughter's eyes when Stuart Broad edged that swish of final resignation.

And finally, some more stats:

* Mitchell Johnson needs seven more scalps in Sydney to break Bill Whitty's 103-year-old record for most wickets by a left-arm bowler in any Test series. The only bowlers to take more than Johnson's 31 wickets in the first four Tests of an Ashes series have been Rodney Hogg (33, in 1978-79), Jim Laker (39, in 1956) and Alec Bedser (36, in 1953).

* Haddin became the first man ever to score four first-innings half-centuries in a series batting at 7 or lower, and the third wicketkeeper ever to reach 50 five times in a series.

* If Australia field an unchanged XI in Sydney, they will become only the fourth side ever, and the second since the First World War, to make no personnel changes in a series of five or more matches (the previous unchanged XIs were: West Indies at home against Australia in 1990-91; the South African team that beat England 4-1 in 1905-06; and England's victorious 1884-85 Ashes tourists). In their first ten Tests this year, they used 23 different players.

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