July 22, 2014

One of England's stupidest quarter-hour brainmelts

Andy Zaltzman
Ishant: good bounce, swing and volume. And that's just his hair  © Getty Images
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A brilliant Test match, in which two teams out of the habit of winning probed at each other's several weaknesses over 13 compellingly undulating sessions, was decided in 13 minutes of compellingly insane batting in the face of Ishant Sharma's well-directed and persistent aggression, and the high-risk captaincy of MS Dhoni.

The Hunch Before Lunch may not go down alongside The Rumble In The Jungle and The Thrilla In Manila in the annals of seminal global sporting moments, but the Indian skipper made what proved to be the decisive gambit when he launched his pacer's bouncer barrage, just as the English batsmen's minds were turning towards their Sizzling Slicelettes of Suavely Sauteed Salmon, Served On A Pert Cleavage Of Beetroot, Blotched In An Arrogantly Lemony Vinaigrette (or whatever dish from the ECB recipe booklet is considered scientifically optimal for a fifth-day luncheon during a delicately poised run-chase).

First Matt Prior, achingly reduced from his former brilliance, then Ben Stokes, so fearlessly decisive in Australia but now exuding the confidence of a penguin in a Flying Across The Sahara Desert race, and then Joe Root, contagiously afflicted with the silly stick after what had been shaping up to be a defining innings, followed each other to the pavilion. It was like watching a man lose two arms and a leg in three back-to-back attempts to rescue a digital watch from the mouth of the same stubborn crocodile.

It all added up to one of the stupidest quarter-hours in England's illustrious cricketing history of game-losing brainmelts, and one of the finest Indian victories, particularly given the recent second-innings failures of the team collectively, and Ishant individually, to secure Test wins in Johannesburg and Wellington. In those innings, Ishant took 1 for 91 in 29 overs, and 0 for 164 in 45. He was the only member of the current Indian attack ever to have bowled in a fourth-innings win, but the last of those was more than three years ago. Doubts must have been surfacing in him and his team-mates as Moeen Ali and Root approached lunch undefeated. It was a majestic performance at a crucial moment by a bowler who has endured much criticism from commentators, writers, fans and his own statistics, and ensured that the batting brilliance of Ajinkya Rahane's beautiful first-innings counter-attack and Vijay's equally silken second-innings resistance was rewarded with a striking and deserved triumph.

England began poorly, ended pitifully, and were fitful in between. Too much can be read into such matter, but some of England's body language should have been pixellated out of the TV coverage for fear of offending any watching children. No doubt it emanates from frustration and competitiveness, but it conveys desperation, fatigue and vulnerability.

Amongst the several-hundred-strong backroom staff of the infinitely resourced England set-up, there surely must be a body language coach (or corporeal physicality expressiveness consultant). Leg-before-wicket appeals that hit the batsman on the glove, outside the line of off stump, while heading over and wide of the timbers, now prompt the kind of reaction that would just about be understandable if you had been denied victory in a quiz, after the quiz master announced that the answer to the decisive question, "What was WG Grace's middle name?", was not "Gilbert", as you had written, but "Ethel".

Cook's captaincy now survives by default and desperation. With the departure of Prior, Cook has lost another fundamental component of the long-departed successful times. Only the struggling Bell, the wearied and decreasingly effective Anderson and Broad, and Cook himself, remain, each currently significantly diminished from his peak. The new players have generally done creditably, but without giving Cook the attacking arsenal, with bat or ball, that a captain needs. Especially a captain around whom the vultures are now not merely circling but tucking their napkins into their collars and asking for the wine list.

The Hunch Before Lunch may not go down alongside The Rumble In The Jungle and The Thrilla In Manila in the annals of seminal global sporting moments, but the Indian skipper made what proved to be the decisive gambit when he launched his pacer's bouncer barrage

* Whatever else happens in this series, India have already set a record. Their numbers 8 to 11 have scored six half-centuries in the series - three by Bhuvneshwar (the first player ever to reach 50 three times in a series batting at 9 or lower, and only the fifth to do so batting at 8 or lower); Mohammed Shami's bowler-sapping 51 not out at Trent Bridge; Stuart Binny's wobble de-wobbling 78 in the second innings there; and the match-transforming 68 by Ravindra Jadeja at Lord's.

Just two Tests into the five-match series, this is already a record for most half-centuries scored by a team's numbers 8 to 11. Only four times in Test history (encompassing more than 600 series of two or more matches) had a team registered even five 50-plus scores by its last four batsmen. Australia's tail irritated England in the 1907-08 and 1924-25 Ashes, before repeating the trick in the West Indies in 1955. All of those were five-match series. Most recently, the Botham-inspired England managed five half-centuries from 8 or lower in the six-Test 1981 Ashes.

Only once previously had a team scored four tail-end half-centuries in the first two Tests of a series - New Zealand's tail did so against India in 1998-99, in the two matches played after the scheduled first Test was abandoned without a ball being bowled. So having your numbers 8 to 11 score six half-centuries in the first two Tests of a series is not merely unprecedented, it is scarcely believable.

* In sacking Kevin Pietersen, England took an enormous gamble. You could argue that in keeping Pietersen they would also have been taking an enormous gamble. What they failed to do in selecting their new era of batsmen was take any form of gamble, by introducing a player who could dominate an opposition attack. Ballance has been excellent, Moeen highly promising, albeit with a major emerging technical glitch against the short ball, and Robson a qualified success. Root has thrived back at No. 5, and he and Ballance have shown the ability to accelerate effectively when well set, but England's true aggression begins at No. 7.

This would not be such a problem if the aggression shown by numbers 7, 8 and 9 was working. Or even coming close to working. In this series, however, Prior has been sabbatical-inducingly ineffective, Stokes has scored three more ducks than would have been ideal from his three innings to date, and Broad now seems to be a swing-and-hope tailender rather than the innings-building bowling allrounder he promised to become in his early England years. (He has not lasted 50 balls in any of his last 20 Test innings, and has done so only three times in 45 innings since February 2012; he batted for 50 or more deliveries six times in his first eight Test matches, and 17 times in 57 innings up to and including January 2012.)

At Lord's on Monday, Root and Moeen batted expertly in the morning session, but without inflicting significant damage on India. In all, their partnership added 101 at 2.26 per over; 14 of them came from Ishant Sharma's first over back in the attack, just before hunch/lunch. Even a slightly swifter scoring rate could have made a significant difference to the narrative of the final day. None of England's current top six batsmen are scoring at more than 50 runs per 100 balls in this series (or have done in the past two years). If England's bowling attack obviously lacks balance, so too does their batting.

* England's series bowling averages after Lord's make for uncomfortable reading, not because they are so awful but because they are so ordinary. James Anderson has taken nine wickets; the other four bowlers have taken seven each. All five are averaging between 33 and 43. None has taken more than five wickets in either match. The four seamers' strike rates are all between 74 and 85. Individually and collectively, they have failed to make decisive impacts on the Tests. Stuart Broad, whose occasional meteoric spells have so often helped England to victory, has taken three or four wickets in each of his last eight Tests.

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

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Posted by   on (July 26, 2014, 2:18 GMT)

At least on paper, this Indian team should have folded like nine pins, like their last outing. They are without the giants of yester years: the Indian Bradman (as anointed by Bradman himself), the Great Wall of India, and the VVS Miracle Artist. Furthermore, their best batsman in Test Cricketing history (at least by statistics) who has scored ALL their triple hundreds ever, is not selected, whether be due to politics or lack of form (as they would like to have us believe: don't need to look past the IPL DD vs CSK game to see past that joke), and Mr. Dhoni himself, while a sensational limited overs player no doubt, has NEVER really stamped authority in the longer format of the game.

Yet what has pulled them up is the self confidence and belief, that the previous teams with bigger names were lacking. Look at Jadeja's counterattack. The only other Test no.7 who would have dared to pull that off from that game position would be Gilly.

Posted by Robertito on (July 25, 2014, 21:41 GMT)

Yeah, Anderson would get dropped from any team I coached on body language alone. There are other jobs out there, mate, you don't have to be a cricketer. Similarly, Broad's batting would earn him a stint in the counties. To go out there and swing the bat as if it's an exhibition match is not good enough. If Monty Panesar can take himself seriously as a batsman, why can't Broad?

Posted by kurups on (July 24, 2014, 7:39 GMT)

sublime Andy...yet again! If only England's batting was half as good as your writing!!

Posted by Fifthman on (July 23, 2014, 15:49 GMT)

"a captain around whom the vultures are now not merely circling but tucking their napkins into their collars and asking for the wine list". Classic - and bang on the money as usual, Andy.

Posted by   on (July 23, 2014, 11:16 GMT)

To avoid quarte-of-an-hour brain-melts, we need a batsman who: 1. Can pull and hook the short ball safely and is not afraid of fast bowling; 2. Doesn't give his wicket away; 3. Bats time and frustrates the opposition, wearing them down to give the strokemakers a better chance; 4. Has experience of making Test centuries; 5. Is a brilliant slip fielder. Bring back Nick Compton!

Posted by Vilander on (July 23, 2014, 10:58 GMT)

Andy, Moeen was out several times in day 4 and 5 before he got out eventually..Broad decision i suppose is what you are speaking about but the bad decisions evened out.

Posted by jackiethepen on (July 23, 2014, 10:13 GMT)

"None of England's current top six batsmen are scoring at more than 50 runs per 100 balls in this series (or have done in the past two years)." That is misleading. Very low scores can provide low SR but do not represent the scoring rate of the batsman in bigger scores.

In the Sri Lanka Series only two months ago - I am counting only scores over 50 - three of the top six had higher SR than 50.

Bell: 56 @ 74.66; 64 @ 71.11 Root: 200 @ 67.11 Prior: 86 @ 65.64

We even had Broad 47@ 123.68

Great article btw. Keep the stats free from hyperbole....

Posted by Dafffid on (July 23, 2014, 8:27 GMT)

Excellent as always. But why did Broad not become that innings building all-rounder? Why did Flintoff's batting promise then fade to little or nothing? Both were used as opening bowlers in four man attacks, run into the ground and exhausted or broken before their time, and their batting completely neglected. What fate awaits Stokes? Exactly the same unless there is a change in management and direction. If we ignore his terrible returning from injury form, in the long run he is as Swann remarked - "a genuine top 6 test player" - and should be used as such, and as a fourth seamer in a five man attack, allowing him to remain in the centre of the innings for at least a decade. I fear too much will be asked of him and Jordan and they will never be allowed to deliver their potential - or at least not for long before injury or some other coaching shambles (Finn?) sends them tumbling back to the counties.

Posted by Benbow on (July 23, 2014, 7:37 GMT)

Whilst it must be said that Stuart Broad looks a little jaded, I too would be calling for sedatives if I had crucial match changing catches dropped off my bowling every match. Its hardly surprising he can't get his average below the magical 30 mark that everyone complains about with monotonous regularity. England's bowling and batting are woeful at times but their catching is the real problem. To expect Anderson and Broad to keep performing at peak when the slips and keeper can't catch for toffee is a little unreasonable methinks.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on ESPNcricinfo.

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