February 18, 2014

Mitchell mayhem, and a Wellington Vesuvius

A refreshing dip in the numerical magma chamber of the second New Zealand-India Test, and more

Yes, he got a triple, but why isn't he being criticised for it being the joint smallest Test triple of all time? © Getty Images

English cricket is back. After a Winter Of Wretchedness, in which Cook and his men were thrashed on the field in all three formats by their greatest cricketing rivals, dismantled on the field by their erstwhile anti-nemesis Mitchell Johnson, and dismantled off the field by themselves, things have finally taken a positive turn.

In fact, this week has been comfortably England's best of the 2013-14 season so far, and a stirring comeback from the depths they have inhabited for most of the last few months. And it has all been achieved without the drab hassle of having to take the field.

They have watched Australia dole out an identikit clobbering to the world-No. 1-ranked South Africans, and they have seen India's bowlers, against whom England will play five Tests this coming summer, ground and macerated into a record-breaking pulp by New Zealand's middle order. The glory days are back. Relatively.

It may be, arguably, too early to attribute England's Lazarusian renaissance of the past week to the ECB catapulting Kevin Pietersen into the international afterlife, but at least it has become clear that England's failures in Australia were not (a) something that would never happen to a genuinely good team like South Africa, (b) a Baggy Green flash in the pan, or (c) all Pietersen's fault.

Johnson's obliteration of South Africa in Centurion was even more complete than his demolitions of England had been, a rampaging eruption of targeted venom, and one of the great match performances by a quick bowler. Ten of his wickets were top-seven batsmen, five in each innings.

A seam/pace bowler has taken 12 or more wickets in a Test on 43 occasions. Johnson's match strike rate of a wicket every 16.5 balls was the third-best of those 43. The only two men to beat him were Surrey's medium-pace genius George Lohmann against South Africa in February 1896, and George Lohmann, the medium-pace genius from Surrey, against South Africa in March 1896. (The South London Sorcerer took 15 for 45 and 12 for 71 in the first two Tests of the series, and, after three innings of the series had the tidy figures of 24 for 73 off the equivalent of 33.1 six-ball overs. Thereafter, he tailed off disastrously, taking a paltry 11 more wickets at the frankly profligate average of 11.8 in the final three innings of the rubber.)

Even the most rabid 19th-century fan would concede that the 2013-14 Proteas are a rather more testing challenge for a bowler than EA Halliwell's rather underwhelming team of 118 years ago. The only thing those two sides have in common is that Jacques Kallis is not playing for them. He understandably ruled himself out of the 1895-96 series due to being 79 years away from birth, and his somewhat inopportunely timed retirement this year left a vulnerable and unbalanced batting line-up. Johnson duly and thrillingly brutalised it, defied only by the sublime talents of AB de Villiers.

If Johnson can continue his landscape-shifting barrage of speed, and bowl Australia to another series victory, his performance in the 2013-14 season will stand high in the pantheon of individual cricketing greatness.

Meanwhile, in Wellington, a Vesuvius of statistics buried India's hopes of drawing their series with the increasingly impressive New Zealanders. Matt Prior's magically adhesive bail denied the Kiwis an almost-certain series victory a year ago, and a limp first innings in Wellington, subsiding to the at least temporarily resurgent Ishant Sharma, appeared to have cost them again this time. Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling, however, set about rewriting, defacing and shredding the record books. The highest sixth-wicket partnership in Test history turned the match on its head, the captain and Jimmy Neesham then plonked a sombrero on the match's now-upturned feet, and India, despite having a richly promising and almost unfeasibly stylish top order, lost yet another away series. On the plus side, they at least bowled well in half of each match. On the minus side, they were series-losingly ineffective in the other halves.

Among the stats emerging from the numerical magma chamber:

* Since their tour of the West Indies in 2011, India have played 12 Tests away from home. In only two of those Tests have they not conceded at least 450 an innings - at the MCG and Perth on the disastrous tour of Australia two years ago. They have shipped 700 once, 600 three times, and 500 four times.

* In those 12 away Tests, India have now conceded eight double-hundreds, including triples by Clarke and McCullum, and Cook's 294 at Edgbaston in 2011.

* McCullum's 302, rightly lauded for being New Zealand's first Test triple-century, was insufficiently slammed for being the joint-smallest triple-hundred in the history of international cricket. Only Lawrence Rowe's 302 against England in 1974 has ended as soon after passing the 300 mark. McCullum has, in the past, failed to capitalise on good starts. On this occasion, he did capitalise on his good start. And then he capitalised on having capitalised on that good start. And kept on capitalising on that capitalisation for two days, whilst memories of India taking the previous 28 New Zealand wickets for 404 disappeared like an absinthe-addled mirage. But then, having passed a historic milestone for his nation's cricket, McCullum failed to knuckle down and capitalise any more. Deeply irresponsible batting.

The highest sixth-wicket partnership in Test history turned the match on its head and the captain and Jimmy Neesham then plonked a sombrero on the match's now-upturned feet

* New Zealand's 680 for 8 was the highest second-innings score in Test history.

* The undefeated 137 scored by New Zealand No. 8 Jimmy Neesham was the highest score ever on Test debut by anyone batting lower than 6, beating Romesh Kaluwitharana's 132 not out, at 7, for Sri Lanka against Australia in 1992.

* The highest debut scores by numbers 6, 8, 10 and 11 have all been scored in the past 18 months (No. 6: Rohit Sharma, 177, for India v West Indies, November 2013; No. 8: Neesham; No. 10: Abul Hasan, 113, for Bangladesh v West Indies, November 2012; No. 11: Ashton Agar, 98, for Australia v England, July 2013). The second- and third-highest scores by a No. 2 on debut have also been made in that time, by Shikhar Dhawan and Hamish Rutherford.

* Zaheer Khan took 5 for 170 in 51 overs in New Zealand's second innings (his first Test five-for since October 2010), thus becoming the first pace bowler to take a five-wicket haul and bowl more than 50 overs in the same innings since Kapil Dev took 5 for 130 in 51 overs Adelaide in 1991-92. Since then, spinners have performed the partially successful feat of endurance wicketry on 48 occasions.

* McCullum finally ended India's suffering by declaring after 210 overs - 172.4 overs after the fifth wicket had fallen. The 586 runs added in that time did not just break the existing record for Most Runs Added After the Fall of the Fifth Wicket in a Test innings, they smithereened it like a killer whale in a shop specialising in full-scale porcelain replicas of baby seals.

Previously, the most runs added by the sixth- to tenth-wicket partnerships was 474, by Pakistan, against the Kiwis, in 1955-56, one of only previous five occasions on which more than 400 had been scored after the fifth wicket fell.

* The almost-all-knowing Statsguru only has full information on balls faced by partnerships dating back to 1998, but in that time, the longest the final five wickets had batted in a Test innings before McCullum and Watling began the Kiwis' 172.4-over epic was the 123.1 overs it took England to recover from 47 for 5 to 446 all out against Pakistan in the naughty-off-the-field-activities-overshadowed Lord's Test of 2010. The longest in a second innings was when Zimbabwe's lower order batted for a barely noticeable 97.3 overs, against New Zealand, in September 2000.

* It was the first time a team has batted for more than 200 overs in the second innings of a Test since South Africa's 209-over Gary Kirsten-inspired rearguard against England in the 1999 Boxing Day Test in Durban, and only the third such occasion since 1975. The other instance was in the innings in which Martin Crowe missed out on becoming New Zealand's first ever triple-centurion, scoring 299 out of 671 for 4 in 220 overs against Sri Lanka, also in Wellington, in February 1991, in a similarly shaped match to the one just completed.

* And a couple of Mitchell Mayhem Stats: Johnson's match analysis of 12 for 127 was the best by a pace bowler against South Africa since Alec Bedser took 12 for 112 in 1951; and he has become the fourth seamer in the last 25 years to take seven wickets in an innings on three separate occasions, after Waqar Younis, Glenn McGrath and Matthew Hoggard.

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