January 14, 2014

A golden age of cricketing travel sickness

In which we explore the magical world of whitewashes and why teams seem to be so rubbish at touring these days

"5-0? I don't know what you're talking about, Prime Minister. In fact, I don't know what I'm doing here" © Getty Images

Whilst many creatures have seen their populations ravaged by the harsh expediencies of human progress, the Test-match whitewash has been positively flourishing of late. Its natural habitat appears to be unusually fertile, and it has been breeding like a randy gibbon. Its numbers have rocketed, and this compelling if unattractive species has caught the imagination of the world's media.

Whether this is due to global warming, the world financial crisis, the will of Almighty Zeus, 1960s miniskirts, Elvis, and/or tragically inept batsmanship by a series of touring teams is a matter for History to judge, the judgemental busybody that she is. The Confectionery Stall is concerned only with cold, hard stats, the kind of numbers you can put in your lemonade on a hot summer's day, or crush down and use as a compress on a face wound after painfully headbutting your television in frustration when one of your team's batsmen spooned yet another simple catch to an obviously positioned fielder. As may have happened quite often in certain island regions of north-west Europe of late.

Before 2011, there had been just 12 unblemished thrashings in 207 series of four or more Tests. Australia's ceremonial disembowelment of England in the recent Ashes of Which We Must Never Speak Again was the fourth such whitewash in since 2011.

It followed India's almost heroically incompetent visits to England and Australia in 2011, and Australia's own cack-handed, cack-brained jaunt to India early last year. Bearing in mind that there have only been six series of four or five Tests in the past three years - those four powerdrubbings, plus last summer's Ashes and England's Indian tour late in 2012 - it is clear that Test cricket has of late seen unprecedented levels of sustained incompetence. Or perhaps unprecedented levels of sustained brilliance.

There are contributory factors to take into account. Firstly, three of the recent clobberings have been in four-Test series, which have become more common occurrences in the past decade and a half. Secondly, drawn matches are far less common than they were (25% of Tests since 2000 have ended in stalemate; 40% did so between 1920 and 1999).

Nevertheless, it is still the case that in four of the six long series played since 2011, a team has gone 4-0 up after four Tests, which had only happened 12 times in those 207 previous series of four or more Tests (the 12 whitewashes, plus the Ashes of 2002-03 and 1950-51, when England won the final Test to avoid total demolition, the 1928-29 Ashes, when Australia did likewise, and the 1930-31 series in which West Indies triumphed in the fifth Test in Australia after being wallopingly spanked in the first four).

Three-match whitewashes have also become more regular blotches on the haggard visage of Test cricket - 18 in 89 series since the 1999-2000 season, at a rate of fractionally under one total whooping per five contests, compared with 17 in 151 rubbers prior to that (just under a clobbering every nine series). Even excluding Zimbabwe and Bangladesh - four three-match series between them since 1999-2000, three whitewashes - three-match whoopings have still been occurring once every six series in the past 14 years, almost 50% more frequently than they had done during the rest of cricketing eternity. Or indeed any form of eternity.

Perhaps this difference can be at least written off as a mathematical by-product of the decreasing proportion of drawn matches; perhaps it is evidence of the increasing propensity of 21st-century Test teams to cave in, and continue caving in until they are contractually entitled to either go home or play a less demanding form of cricket.

Here is another curiosity worth noting. If noting curiosities is your bag, or if you want a conversational gambit with which to impress / terrify / confuse / seduce / spiritually vacuum-clean someone (delete according to preference).

In all four of the whitewash hyperbliterations since 2011, the victims of the splatanking had begun the series ranked above their conquerors. Never, in the 12 previous drawless zilchings in Test history, had a lower-ranked team clouted a supposed superior, and most featured a certifiably stronger team putting its opponents firmly, unarguably and mercilessly in their place.

(The rankings are backdated to 1952, covering the ten trouncings from England's 5-0 clonking of India in 1959 to the other Ashes of Which We Shall Never Speak Again in 2006-07; in the first two unadulterated hammerings, Australia were clearly superior to South Africa heading into their 1931-32 annihilation, and when the Baggy Greensters sclotched England 5-0 in 1920-21, neither side had played Test cricket since for seven years whilst the world was pre-occupied with rather more pressing matters, such as [a] a massive war, and [b] thinking to itself: "Well, that got a bit out of hand.")

Furthermore, the four teams splattered over their scorebooks since 2011 all began their embarrassments in the top three in the Test rankings, with a rating of at least 115, as England did in 2006-07. Only once in the previous nine rankings-recorded whitewashes had the humiliated team begun the series either in the top three or with a rating of over 100 - when Bill Lawry's Australians (third, 109 points) travelled to South Africa (first, 117) in the 1969-70 season.

So we can conclude that never before in cricket have the Test game's strongest teams proved so prone to total disintegration, so vulnerable to the pressures of adversity, and so ill-equipped to haul themselves out of a cricketing mire.

Australia's Indian Implosion and England's Antipodean Anti-triumph also contributed significantly to the extraordinary statistic, widely observed of late, that away teams had their worst-ever Test year in 2013 - two wins and 29 defeats in 41 Tests (three wins, 30 defeats in 44 Tests, if you include Pakistan's visitors in the technically neutral UAE Tests).

Only 1967 even comes close for away-team ineptitude, with no victories and nine defeats, but as only 12 Tests were played that year, eight of them by touring India and Pakistan teams outside Asia (where, by the end of that year, they had a combined record of two wins in 57 Tests), it does not begin to match the scale of travelling travails that 2013 can boast. Certainly, Jimi Hendrix probably has the edge on Miley Cyrus for musical finesse, but in terms of away-team Test rubbishness, 2013 puts 1967 in a bin bag and dumps it in a disused canal. Last year was the undisputed golden age of cricketing travel sickness.

It is too early to say whether this represents a meaningful trend or a wacky one-off. Or perhaps even elements of both, an unusual quirk that signifies a cricketing shift. From 2010 to 2012, away teams won 39 of 114 Tests. Including visitors to the UAE as away teams, the figure is 40 wins (and 51 losses) out of 124 - a win percentage of 32, and a win-loss ratio of 0.78. In the previous ten years, those numbers were 29 and 0.63. So until last year this decade had been kind to touring Test sides.

Perhaps 2013 was a statistical glitch. An absolute beauty of a statistical glitch, if so. Let us hope that is was. Because if it was not, then cricket is in trouble. Rectifying the matter, as discussed by Ian Chappell on these hallowed pages, will require effort, sacrifices and complications. Striving for the common good of the five-day game is a hobby that cricket has proved itself to be approximately as adept at as Ms Cyrus is at dressing in demure religious cassocks for musical awards ceremonies.

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