February 28, 2014

The cuddly-bear mystery and other stories

Whatever was Dale Steyn referring to when he spoke of those beasts? All will be revealed here

Not, repeat not, currently thinking of huggable animals © Associated Press

The CSECESU (Confectionery Stall Elite Creative, Editorial And Statsnalysis Unit) (i.e., me) was away on holiday during the Port Elizabeth Test, on a pizza-wolfing and volcano-monitoring expedition in Naples with Mrs Confectionery Stall and the kids.

We therefore missed South Africa's object lesson in how to play against Clarke's Australians, a lesson from which England would do well to learn. And then go back in time to the beginning of November and have another go. Ideally with Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers in the team.

The second Test proved the age-old cricketing adage: when trying to defeat a rampant side, it is strategically wise to have amongst your personnel the greatest bowler of the era and the world's current best batsman.

Since 2010, de Villiers has averaged 66 in Tests and 64 in ODIs. He is strategically flexible and versatile in his strokeplay. He can defend for hours and destroy in minutes. He can hit the ball to anywhere, but chooses when to do so almost flawlessly. His timing could melt granite. He is now the complete batsman.

He was not always so - in 23 Tests, from December 2005 (after an excellent debut year), he did not score a century, and averaged 27. Perhaps these failures shaped the batsman he is today. Perhaps, like the young Roger Federer, he needed to learn how to harness the infinite shot-making options at his disposal. Perhaps he was just playing rubbishly for a bit. Whatever the reason, the patience of the selectors has been rewarded, as it was by JP Duminy, de Villiers' century-making partner in South Africa's first-innings blunting of the previously stiletto-sharp Australian attack.

Duminy, after a briefly stellar start to his Test match life, had averaged just 26 in his previous 20 Tests, spread over five years. If only he could overcome his innate endecaboreiogenicantagonistophobia - a newly discovered psychological condition in which the sufferer fears playing against 11 people originating from the northern hemisphere (thanks be to internet translation sites) - he will be a world-beater. As it is, he is only half a world-beater. In nine Tests against Australia and one versus New Zealand, he averages 58. In 13 Tests against opposition from north of the equator, he averages 20.

De Villiers is one of the principal contributors to one of the landmark features of the 2010s. This decade will be remembered by historians for many reasons, ranging from the discovery that all human communication can be reduced to 140 characters, to the collapse of the old order in Northern Africa, via Justin Bieber's surprise win in the 2016 US Presidential election. But most of all, if current trends continue, it will be remembered as the first decade ever, in the entire 450-million-plus-decades-long history of the planet, in which Test wicketkeepers have averaged more than all non-wicketkeepers combined.

The gap has been closing for a while. Up to 1929, keepers collectively averaged 17.2; non-keepers 25.9 (a 50% advantage). From 1930 to 1969, the figures were 22.9 to 30.6 (33%). From 1970 to 1999: 26.1 to 30.4 (16%). Nevertheless, had 16th-century soothsaying celeb Nostradamus prophesied in his unmistakably French way that wicketkeepers would out-bat other Test cricketers in the first decade of the 21st century, people would have thought him even more deluded than normal. "No way," they would have spluttered into their morning baguettes, "zis is not possible. Le keepeur du wickets - zis is a specialist position, incompatible avec being a top-class homme-du-bats. Zis Micky Nostradamus, he is a few oeufs short of ze full omelette, n'est-ce pas? Next he will fait un prophésage cricketique que l'Angleterre will lose 5-0 in an Ashes series to an Australian team which had lost sept of its previous neuf matches de Test, and who have only one top-class homme-du-bats."

As it transpired, however, the self-styled Provençal Prognosticator would have been almost right - in the first decade of the 21st century, the stumpers lost by just 31.8 to 32.0. Thus far since 2010, glovemen have continued to improve, averaging 34.0; non-keepers have remained steady at 32.0. If the trend continues, in the 2250s, wicketkeepers will be averaging close to 100 with the bat. You read it here first. Lay down some literal gauntlets for your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren; it will be a worthwhile investment. Pimply ones, preferably. The gauntlets, that is. And the great-great-great-great- great-great-grandchildren.

Concern for endangered species of large mammal can distract a fast bowler from his task; it is thought that Maurice Tate's later career with England was badly affected by his obsession with Yangtze River dolphins

* Some statistical coincidences of no particular importance:

Shaun Marsh's selection for the first Test, backed by indiscernible statistical support from years of first-class cricket, was one of the great selectorial hunches of recent times. His second-Test pair, however, takes his career tally to a spectacular six Test ducks in 15 innings, or one every 2.5 innings. The average duck rate for top-six batsmen this decade is one every 13.3 innings. The batsman with the best ducks-per-innings ratio, of the 278 batsmen to have batted 75 or more times in Tests, is the man who caught Marsh in the first innings in Port Elizabeth - de Villiers (whose highest Test score is, coincidentally, 278). The man with the second-most Test innings played with three or fewer ducks, after de Villiers: Geoff Marsh, father of quack-specialist Shaun, who blimped out just three times in 93 innings.

* Marsh was, by my reckoning, just the ninth player to follow a century with a pair in the next Test of a series. He was, by anyone's reckoning, the second to do so against South Africa this season, after Khurram Manzoor's first-Test-hero-to-second-Test-zero-zero effort for Pakistan in the UAE last October. The previous player to plummet from bat-waggling three-figure glory straight into a twin-duck twofold-debacle was Adam Gilchrist, who came in at 99 for 5 in Mumbai in 2001, and promptly flayed India with one of his greatest innings, a 112-ball 122. The seemingly unbeatable Australians and their record-splattering wicketkeeper-batsman then moved confidently to Kolkata. Laxman and Dravid turned cricket on its head, and Gilchrist lasted a grand total of two balls in two innings.

(The other champ-to-chump metamorphosers: Graeme Wood, for Australia v New Zealand in 1980-81; Pakistan's Majid Khan, in Australia in 1978-79; Dilip Vengsarkar, for India v West Indies in the same season; Ross Edwards, for Australia in the 1972 Ashes; Russell Endean, for South Africa in England in 1955; Collie Smith, for West Indies v Australia, also in 1955. Vengsarkar scored 157 not out in the second innings of the third Test; 0 and 0 in the fourth Test; and 109 in the fifth Test, a truly unique duck sandwich, fit to serve at any Michelin-starred cricket-stat-themed restaurant. Of which there are depressingly few.)

* Dale Steyn is arguably more unchallenged as the pre-eminent bowler of his age than any of his world-leading predecessors, and, as a habitual shaper and decider of Test series in all conditions, is the most influential Test player of his time. He will always be best remembered, however, as the author and speaker of this sentence, uttered this week: "If I was running in thinking of cuddly bears, I would be dishing out half-volleys and hamburgers for guys to smash."

Please select your favoured interpretation of these frankly glorious words:

(a) A cryptic crossword clue.

(b) A subconscious and deeply chilling recollection of a previous career working in a low-grade fast-food emporium (where cuddly bears were given out free with children's meals, fitted with a microchip that made them squeak, "I'm hungry, feed me some nuggets and fries" every 20 minutes; "half-volleys" was rhyming slang for "ice lollies"; and "smashing" a hamburger was a speed-eating technique adopted by regular clients to enable the burger to be glowped down in a single three-bite megamouthful, without the taste buds ever being engaged).

(c) An insight into how concern for endangered species of large mammal, such as the Venezuelan Cuddly Bear, can distract a fast bowler from his task; it is thought that Maurice Tate's later career with England was badly affected by his obsession with Yangtze River dolphins.

(d) A song lyric by the cult 1960s New York rock geniuses the Velvet Underground, from the as-yet-unreleased album track, Ian The Turkey's Naughty Windmill.

(e) An explanation of the mental processes that adversely affected Mohammad Sami whilst running in to bowl for Pakistan during his almost remorselessly ineffective Test career. Sami reportedly owns a collection of more than 417,500 vintage Steiff teddy bears.

(f) Code. Steyn's words activated a dormant worldwide cell of secret agents. Stay alert. Something big is afoot. I think they might be about to unleash an army of cloned Darrell Hairs.

* David Warner's post-match ball-tampering bleats smacked, in the words of South Africa's team manager Mohammad Moosajee, of "sour grapes". By inferring that South Africa's surgical splattering of Australia's batting line-up was not achieved by entirely legitimate means, Warner squidged those sour grapes down and fermented them into a rather bitter Australian whine.

Of late, Warner has, as they say, been doing his talking with his bat. Unfortunately, this seems to have given him confidence to also do some of his talking with his mouth. Warner is a compellingly brilliant and flawed cricketer, who has played some of the finest innings of the decade, but, most would acknowledge he is not the most refined verbal communicator that Australian cricket has ever produced.

"Hardly anyone takes anything David Warner says seriously anyway," continued Moosajee, generously inferring that there might indeed be at least someone who does take Warner's utterings seriously. I doubt that even David Warner takes anything David Warner says seriously. He is, at least, refreshingly loose-tongued in a sporting age of trained conversational restraint.

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