January 7, 2014

How would a treacle-smeared poodle bat?

Or: an investigation into England's remorselessly bar-lowering performance in Sydney

Mitchell Johnson indicates how many minutes England would last in his medieval torture chamber © Getty Images

"Always leave them wanting more" is a showbiz maxim dating back deep into the murky mists of entertainment history. Some claim it originates from when ancient Greek epic poetry celeb Homer was asked by his editor to trim down his smash-hit swords, sex and sandals blockbuster The Iliad to a more "consumer-friendly" length, and crank up the love interest a bit more. Others argue that it was first used in the 1543 publication King Henry VIII's Guide To Marriage.

Either way, it is a phrase that England's cricketers have clearly taken to heart on their not-entirely-triumphant Ashes tour. They left their fans wanting to see more than a combined total of 252 overs of English batting in the four innings played at the MCG and SCG. They left their opponents thinking that perhaps ten Tests in six months against their oldest cricketing foes was, as it transpired, not quite enough. They left themselves wanting more runs, wickets and catches, and perhaps even another crack at a series that went well for about three hours, and then unremittingly disastrously for the following seven weeks.

If anything, England were slightly flattered by the 5-0 scoreline. Their batting in their final three innings of the series, after taking their only first-innings lead since Lord's - all out for 179, 155 and 166 - merited a one-match deduction. They were thrashed in all five matches, and the margins could have been even wider but for some game-accelerating declarations in the first three Tests and Australia's tail trying to hit every ball for six in both innings in Sydney. England's one success of the series, Stokes, was something of a selectorial accident after the unfortunate loss of Trott.

This has been probably England's worst ever series, in terms of the quality of their performance relative to their career records and the cricketing status of the team. Even in 1958-59, when a similarly garlanded squad was annihilated by Benaud's Australians, England's captain had a decent series with the bat, they had two other batsmen averaging over 30, and four bowlers averaging 30 or less. In their UAE whitewash two years ago, England's bowling was excellent, and, had the batting not been record-breakingly inept, they would probably have won the series. The 1989 Ashes drubbing must be seen in the context of years of persistent failure. The 1999 defeat against New Zealand was millennium-endingly awful, but England at least won a Test and bowled reasonably. The 2013-14 Ashes, however, has been an all-round failure as complete as cricket can imagine, culminating in Sunday's 31-over journey into the darkest recesses of England's cricketing psyche that brought the series to an appropriately numbing conclusion more than two days before its scheduled end.

Conversely, it has been one of Australia's greatest wins. Their bowling has been close to flawless. The batting has faltered, but has been bold and resilient at crisis points in each match, and rampantly obliterative when in a position of dominance. Tactically, they have alternately squeezed and flogged England, like a boa constrictor in an S&M parlour (coincidentally, one of Mitchell Johnson's tattoos) (if you look at it for long enough after a bottle of whisky).

All in all, the back-to-back Ashes extravaganza has been curious, disappointing in many ways, yet compelling. The destiny of the urn was decided after three matches in both series. Only two of the Tests were close - Nottingham and Durham (if we exclude the Oval contrivance). But there have been extraordinary individual performances, beginning with Agar's reality-bending 98 and Anderson's double five-for at Trent Bridge. Bell, Johnson and Haddin have constructed series that stand comparison with the best in Test match history, as does Australia's collective bowling in their home Ashes. And there has been a simultaneous collapse and resurgence of the two teams; it must rank amongst the most pronounced and dramatic reversals of form and fortune in any sport.

Tactically Australia have alternately squeezed and flogged England, like a boa constrictor in an S&M parlour

* A pair of 2013-14 Ashes Performance Disparity stats for you now.

1. This was England's 30th tour of Australia comprising five or more Tests. It is the first time that none of their batsmen has scored 300 runs in the series.

2. Australia became only the fourth team in Test history for whom four players have scored two or more centuries in the same series. (See below for details.) (If you want.) (I appreciate that you might have better things to do with your day.) (I had better things to do with my day than look that stat up in the first place.)

* Some SCG Hyper-collapse numbers. Australia's wicket every 27 balls is their best match strike rate in an Ashes Test since the MCG Test of March 1904 (when England subsided on a rain-affected wicket).

In terms of batting endurance, England's was the feeblest performance by any team in a Sydney Test since 1894-95 (when England subsided on a rain-affected wicket), and the third-worst the SCG has seen, behind that and the 1887-88 Test (when Australia subsided on a rain-affected wicket).

Overall, both sides' bowlers combined took a wicket every 34 balls, the second-best match strike rate in an Ashes Test since 1904, after the Brisbane Test of 1950-51 (when both teams subsided on a rain-affected wicket).

England thus at least provided a nostalgic journey into the past for those who hanker for old-style uncovered pitches, by batting as if they were playing on an old-style "sticky dog". This they achieved by envisaging how a treacle-smeared poodle would bat, and emulating it flawlessly.

* A Ben Stokes stat to cheer up fellow glum-faced England fans. Stokes became the second player, after Kapil Dev, to score 250 runs and take 15 wickets in a Test series before his 23rd birthday. Kapil did so twice (against West Indies in 1978-79, and against Pakistan a year later). Besides these two, only Ian Botham and Jacques Kallis have performed the 250-15 double before the age of 24; Garfield Sobers and Wally Hammond did so before turning 25. Stokes is in illustrious company.

Whilst his batting and bowling both boded well for England's fascinatingly uncertain short-term future, one aspect of his game will have to be worked on. He has a strange habit of turning round as soon as he has finished his follow-through, and marching back to the end of his run-up with an almost military speed and sense of purpose. Clearly, this results in the game progressing at the pace at which it is supposed to progress, and could thus be disastrous for England's over-rate management. It is one of the many things that England's coaches must address as a matter of urgency. And the ICC, which traditionally goes out of its way to ensure that time-wasting flourishes and is encouraged, must step in and have a word before such 19th-century behaviour spreads.

* Another Stokes stat: his SCG match figures of 8 for 161 in 29.5 overs gave him an economy rate of 5.39 - the highest ever by a bowler who has taken eight or more wickets in a Test.

* And, finally, a gripe. The fact that the two series were played consecutively may have been a factor in England's dismal showing, but it was a minor one, and it does not detract from the brilliance with which Australia prised open the frailties in their opponents' game and poured chilli-infused vinegar into the wounds. It was, however, utterly needless scheduling, which raises the following question: Why could the series in Australia not have been put back to 2015-16, rather than forward to 2013-14, with the English series remaining in 2017, as per the existing quadrennial sequence?

Please attempt to answer that question without using the following symbols: £ and $.

You cannot do it, can you? Do not pretend that you can, because you cannot. It is impossible.

* Staddendum: Clarke, Warner, Smith and Rogers were Australia's twin centurions. Previous instances of four players from a team scoring two centuries in a series: Gambhir, Sehwag, Dravid and Dhoni, for India against Sri Lanka in 2009-10; Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan and Shahid Afridi for Pakistan against India in 2005-06; and Richardson, May, Cowdrey and Graveney for England against West Indies in 1957.)

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jackson on January 8, 2014, 21:32 GMT

    "Tactically, they have alternately squeezed and flogged England, like a boa constrictor in an S&M parlour"

    Literally the best sentence in cricket writing I've EVER come across, can't wait for more Andy in 2014

  • Pelham on January 8, 2014, 7:27 GMT

    ah ha! Great article as always. Loving the question about putting the series back to 2015/16 - I asked this question 3 years ago now, as soon as I found out about this back to back scheduling. I emailed both the ECB and CA to suggest this - and raised concern about diluting the Ashes appeal because of so many matches in a short space of time.

    CA didn't bother replying, ECB said they'd consider feedback but nothing has been confirmed at that time...even though it clearly had!

  • Ragavendran on January 8, 2014, 4:44 GMT

    Wonderful article! Please keep writing more but still ensure that we are left wanting for more.

  • Andrew on January 8, 2014, 3:42 GMT

    I can give you a quirky Stokes stat, that I am sure won't make him unique, but possibly also puts him ahead of Dev, Kallis, Botham, Sobers and Hammond. In an official junior club match, in Wellington, about a year before his departure to England he had the distinction of hitting the only boundary in a match, and that was a towering 6 over "cow". The opposition (home) coach who dictates the boundary length insisted on using the full senior men's boundaries (in a junior game)?? It certainly was a towering hit for an 11 year old. As Ben Stoke's coach before he left NZ, I'm with Kepler22b, leave Durham to look after him, he's not going to badly. And lets hope the sudden high profile he's attracted doesn't affect him. I'm hoping he's got some good people around him?

  • James on January 8, 2014, 2:59 GMT

    Tip to readers. If you have seen some of the videos of Zaltzman and then have only the text you will see his face appear as a hologram under the type. Strangely, it is green and not red.

  • disco on January 7, 2014, 22:49 GMT

    Andy, I'm almost afraid to ask how it came to pass that you were staring at MJ's Popeye like forearm for an hour after draining a bottle of whiskey.

  • disco on January 7, 2014, 22:38 GMT

    "If anything, England were slightly flattered by the 5-0 scoreline.", In those ten* words, Andy has captured the essence and magnitude of this defeat.

    *I'm counting '5-0' as a word and indeed it has been etched so deeply into the English psyche that it will forever be associated with defeat of a such a magnitude that it may never be able to be properly quantified.

  • Jackie on January 7, 2014, 12:57 GMT

    Good stuff Zaltzie. Like 'leave them wanting more'. The ups! The downs! That's entertainment!

  • glenn on January 7, 2014, 10:26 GMT

    Gotta love stokes; I hope he's not coached to oblivion by Flower and his cronies. He certainly leaked runs but he was brave and pitched the ball up to get wickets (Jimmy are reading this?)

    Thanks Andy, your humour and wit have been a revelation to me. I will be looking out for your contributions in future.

    Can we have one more Zaltzone please?

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