June 10, 2014

An emotional jigsaw puzzle on an unlicensed roller-coaster

It's all up in the air for England selection-wise, goody

"Boys, if we're going to look into the past, we need to be staring in the same direction, I think" © PA Photos

On Thursday, the English Test summer begins. England - losing finalists in the 2013-14 Ashes - take on Sri Lanka, world champions in a form of cricket so unrelated to Tests as to be almost a different sport. It is the most eagerly anticipated two-Test series against Sri Lanka that England will ever have played on home soil. Admittedly, it is the first two-Test series against Sri Lanka that England will ever have played on home soil, but even so, a combination of factors has conspired to make the forthcoming ten days of cricket the most intriguing early-season rubber since the split Test summer was introduced in 2000.

Amongst these factors are:

- England, after years of seemingly impenetrable selectorial stability, have fallen to pieces like an emotional jigsaw puzzle on an unlicensed roller-coaster. Assuming Woakes is omitted from the selected XI, England will have three debutants (for the second consecutive Test), a player in his second Test, and another in his first Test since Tony Blair was still prime minister. They will have used 24 players in their past seven Tests, since the selectors started getting uncharacteristically funky at The Oval last summer. By contrast, they selected just 26 different players in the 48 previous Tests, dating back to the end of the Flintoff-Harmison era four years earlier.

- The Test matches are following the one-day series. As Test matches almost always should. The rivalry, a narrative, and some of the form lines, have been established. Furthermore, the tourists have had more time to acclimatise to English conditions, which will hopefully make a wholesale capitulation at the first sign of swing and seam movement considerably less likely. Since 2000, England have not lost any of their early-summer series. Only Pakistan, in 2001, and Sri Lanka, in 2006, have won a match, both in series that ended 1-1. Other than these, England have won all 12 series, by a total of 24 Tests to nil. The later-than-usual start, and the chaos from which England are attempting to emerge, give Sri Lanka a better chance of breaking this trend than any of their recent predecessors, even if their bowling attack is not likely to have Alastair Cook sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night, shouting: "Oh my god, it's like Mitchell Johnson all over again."

- Moeen Ali. I hope he does well. England need some poetry amidst the prose.

- Not only will there be five new or newish faces in the England line-up, you could have made a reasonable case for leaving out five of the remaining six on grounds of form. Cook, Bell, Root, Prior and Anderson all face legitimate queries from Dr Stats, numerically verifiable concerns that, in isolation, might have left each of them vulnerable to at least a temporary selectorial axe, had England not already sloughed off half a team. Broad is exempt, as a bowler at least, but even he is returning from a knee injury. This is the most fascinating England line-up in years. It might not play the most fascinating cricket, but it is the most fascinating line-up.

Here are some of those statistical questions that England would like to see resolved:

Alastair Cook
Since Cook surgically demolished the rather insipid Sri Lankan tourists in 2011, in the aftermath of his megalithic 2010-11 Ashes, he has had just one good series out of 10 - his magnificent, series-shaping three-century effort in India late in 2012. Other than that, he has had seven series in which he has only reached 50 in one innings, and the two recent Ashes, in which he averaged 27.7 and 24.6, despite scoring three half-centuries in each rubber (his 24.6 average in Australia is the lowest series average by a batsman who has scored three fifties).

Ian Bell
Has had two good series in England's last nine, since his 2010 and 2011 golden period ended. His batting in last summer's Ashes was the pinnacle of his career, with hard and important runs scored under intense pressure, but aside from that, has averaged 30.6, scored at 38 per 100 balls, and reached 80 only once in 24 Tests since the start of 2012. He has averaged below 30 in five of those nine series.

Joe Root
Since his maiden hundred a year ago, scored fluently against a good New Zealand attack after England had made a poor first-innings start, he has passed 30 in just one first innings out of nine (68 at the Oval), and scored at a strike rate of 33. His two major Ashes contributions - 180 in victory at Lord's, and 87 in defeat in Adelaide - were both made in the second innings of matches that had been effectively decided by a mammoth first-innings lead. Root has much to prove about his Test credentials. The selectors have stuck by him in the short term, when a period re-finding and refining his game with Yorkshire might have done him long-term benefit.

Matt Prior
Has averaged under 20 in five of England's past eight Test series, and 17.6 in his last ten Tests. He had averaged 46.5 in his previous 55 Tests, since his recall in 2008-09, so unquestionably has earned some selectorial faith. Whether they needed to apply that faith now, rather than waiting for him to prove form and fitness, and taking the opportunity to examine one of the alternative glovemen in the Test arena, is open to question.

James Anderson
Twenty-six wickets at 42 in the nine Tests since his decisive 10-wicket performance at Trent Bridge that shaped last summer's Ashes. In mitigation, he had taken 177 at 25 in his previous 41 Tests. After a uncommonly lengthy break from the remorseless demands of the international circuit - Anderson has bowled more international overs in the past five years (2864) than anyone else - he looked fit and sharp in the one-dayers. However, his form was patchy in 2012 and 2012-13 (he was outstanding in India, but moderate against South Africa and in New Zealand), and England will want evidence that his Ashes decline was temporary.

* Some slightly ominous stats for Sri Lanka:

All Sri Lankan bowlers in Tests in England this millennium: 98 wickets, average 48.7, economy rate 3.35.

Muralitharan in Tests in England this millennium: 32 wickets, average 21.9, economy rate 2.57.

All other Sri Lankan bowlers, excluding Murali, in Tests in England this millennium: 66 wickets, average 61.7, economy rate 3.53.

In all, Muralitharan took 48 wickets in his six Tests in England. Sri Lanka's next-highest Test wicket-taker on these shores: Chaminda Vaas, with 9 scalps in six Tests, averages 77.6.

* The controversy over the Mankading run-out of Jos Buttler in Sri Lanka's series-deciding ODI victory last Tuesday, disappointingly for controversy fans, brought near unanimity from the English media that the dismissal was fine, Sri Lanka were within their rights in executing and maintaining the run-out, and that Buttler should have been more careful. However, it was nevertheless a disappointing incident, in that:

(a) The Mankading is an objectively rubbish way for a batsman to be dismissed, as the bowling team has done nothing to earn the wicket, and the ball is, essentially, not yet in play. It is, roughly, equivalent to the batting team being awarded 25 runs for the fielding captain doing something slightly silly on the outfield, such as sacrificing a dolphin to a long-retired Incan deity, putting three fielders behind square on the leg side, or screaming the lyrics to "Born to Be Wild" while the batsman is taking guard.

Non-striking batsmen should adopt a sprinter's crouch outside the crease, holding their bat grounded safely behind them, before blasting into action once the ball is delivered, like a fully juiced Ben Johnson in his late-'80s cheating prime

(b) Buttler was merely doing what many, if not most, batsmen do - starting to back up, and turning his eyes and attention to the striker's end as the bowler began his delivery stride. Yes, he was trying to gain an advantage. But he was probably doing so subconsciously, out of a widely shared cricketing habit. And the advantage he was trying to gain was nothing that he could not have gained legitimately anyway, by standing a yard down the pitch, with the end of his bat still on the ground behind the crease. On the scale of surreptitious advantage-gaining, it was some way short of the full Lance Armstrong.

(c) Senanayake effectively threw a dummy. He did not catch Buttler leaving his crease too soon. He tricked Buttler into leaving his crease (slightly) too soon, exploiting his run-of-the-mill backing-up (see b, above). The aforementioned ICC regulation allows this. Does cricket want to see bowlers dummying non-striking batsmen?

(d) It distracted from the failure of England's bafflingly underpowered top-order batting.

None of these invalidates the suggestions that the dismissal was fine, that Sri Lanka acted within the laws and even the spirit of the game, and that Buttler should have been more careful, especially given the warnings issued.

Point (a) is a minor one, as such dismissals are thankfully rare, and are likely to become rarer, given the publicity generated by the Buttler dismissal.

Point (b) suggests that Buttler might have been unaware of the ICC's tweaking of the cricketing law governing running out a backing-up batsman. It defies belief that an international cricketer in the 21st century does not lull himself to sleep every night by painstakingly reciting all the laws of the game, plus relevant ICC supplementary playing regulations, in the form of a Gregorian chant, whilst wearing Dickie Bird pyjamas, to ensure that he awakes every morning fully aware of all the obscure nooks and crannies of cricketing legality.

Point (c) raises the exciting possibility of increasingly intricate and creative means of bowlers hoodwinking batsmen into thinking they are about to bowl, possibly with a short mid-on fielder sledging the non-striking batsman with words suggesting he is too scared to take a quick single.

And point (d) will have its moment in the sun, probably repeatedly, as England build up to the World Cup.

Such incidents are easily avoided. Non-striking batsmen should adopt a sprinter's crouch outside the crease, holding their bat grounded safely behind them, before blasting into action once the ball is delivered, like a fully juiced Ben Johnson in his late-'80s cheating prime. Ideally the ICC should allow athletics-style starting blocks to be placed in the turf to facilitate the blast-off. Or an electronic touch-sensitive metal plate should be buried under the turf a yard outside the crease, so that if the non-striking batsman steps out of his ground before the bowler has released the ball, he receives a non-fatal electric shock to dissuade him from such heinous advantage-seeking in the future.

I do think that a Mankading warning should be introduced into the laws of the game. Perhaps any batsman caught crease-sneaking twice should be forced to run without his bat for the rest of his innings, or have lead weights attached to his pads, or be made to hop instead of run.

What the incident showed, once again, is that "the spirit of cricket" is a nebulous and indefinable beast, which England, and others, tend to invoke rather selectively. Even if you think that the Buttler Mankading was wrong, it was far less wrong, in my view, than England's refusal to withdraw their appeal for the Grant Elliott run-out in 2008.

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