August 18, 2015

Let's talk about Canterbury

Why those who say the somnolent pace of (some of) the recent Test proves women's cricket is not worth watching are wrong

Jess Jonassen: Debutant who? © Getty Images

If I had to describe the 2015 Ashes in just 46 words, they would be these: a dramatic, unpredictable, disappointing, one-sided, captivating, unsettling, evenly matched, fluctuating, heroic, limp, brilliant, average, feisty, unsettling, invigorating, tired, worrying, brutal, flimsy, intense, uncompetitive, sensational, anticlimactic series, adorned with high-class, inept, tough, supine, thoughtless, anaemic and vigorous cricket, which produced fascinating, drab, unmissable, humdrum, spectacular, monochrome matches.

Coincidentally, 46 is also the number of runs scored off the bat in Australia's alleged first innings at Trent Bridge, Stuart Broad's spectacular urn-clinching apotheosis, and one of the low-water marks in the history of Test batsmanship. In some ways, the series has defied rational explanation. In others it has been one of the simplest of recent Ashes - England played well, then Australia played well, then England bowled brilliantly on successive first days, Australia disintegrated with record-breaking crumblability, and that was that. England's batting had been worryingly permeable at Lord's. England's incandescent pace attack, and Australia's clueless, stiff-handed, pseudo-positive batting, ensured that it has not been put under severe strain since.

It has been a magnificent victory in an unsatisfying series. As Woody Allen might have written, had he decided to make more films about being a cricket fan supporting a team in the Ashes: "An Ashes victory without a defining contest or a satisfactory denouement is an empty experience. But as empty experiences go, it is one of the best."

The scale of England's achievement, and the quality and potential of their exciting team of emerging stars and re-energised veterans, will be judged in the context of their winter performances against Pakistan and South Africa, two teams that have been sidelined by the Ashes mania of England's recent schedule, but who should be among their defining opponents.

Australia's campaign has gone an impressively long way towards matching England's 2013-14 effort in the annals of Cricket Tours In Which The Most Possible Things Have Gone Wrong. Amid the wreckage and recrimination, England's seamers have ripped back the tiddliest trophy in international cricket, winning the series with an unprecedented sequence of four consecutive innings in which a different bowler has taken six or more wickets (this after no bowler had taken six in the match in Cardiff, in a complete team performance). Anderson and Finn did the damage at Edgbaston; Broad and Stokes in Nottingham. Only three times in Test history had four different bowlers on the same team taken a six-for in a series (all by Australia in Ashes series - Armstrong, Macartney, Laver and Cotter in 1909; Miller, Johnson, Toshack and Lindwall in 1946-47; McGrath, Warne, Gillespie and Kasprowicz in 1997). Never had they done so in the space of just two matches.

It has all been very weird. Magnificent from an England perspective. Puzzling, perplexing and concerning for Australia. And weird.

A rather more traditional pace of cricket was on display in Canterbury, where Australia won the women's Ashes Test to take an almost unassailable lead in the multi-format series.

Not all of the coverage has been entirely complimentary, with Mike Selvey in the Guardian advocating the abolition of women's Test cricket, highlighting the "excruciating" English batting, which produced 436 dot balls from 513 deliveries faced in the first innings. Martin Samuel in the Mail, under the headline, "It's patronising to pretend the Women's Test was good", wrote that "anyone tuning in to the Women's Ashes Test match… would have been turned off cricket for life".

I did not see all of the game, but watched a fair amount of it on television, much of it with my children. I found most of what I watched engaging and, at times, engrossing. The first day was a proper wrestle for supremacy, Australia fighting back gradually into a position of advantage, guided by a superb debut innings of 99 by Jess Jonassen, who batted like the long-form veteran that she emphatically is not. She resisted, consolidated, expanded and eventually controlled. It was a masterclass of Test batting craft, which, after the frantic, harebrained surrender-batting that has scarred much of the men's series, including its decisive passages, was a delight to watch. She followed with an attacking second-innings match-accelerating half-century that broke the scoreboard torpor with crisp, wide-ranging strokeplay. Many Australians currently engaged as professional batsmen in this country would have done well to watch and learn from her approach, her pacing, and her patience. Although whether they would have recognised what strange form of cricket Jonassen was playing might be open to question.

As Woody Allen might have written: "An Ashes victory without a defining contest or a satisfactory denouement is an empty experience. But as empty experiences go, it is one of the best"

Much of England's batting was counterproductively tentative - not the first time those words have been written about an England cricket team in recent years (albeit generally one of a different gender, as fans of, for example, the 2015 World Cup would testify; as would aficionados of the 2011-12 Test series in the UAE, or the 1998 Oval Test against Sri Lanka, or INSERT YOUR FAVOURITE UNSUCCESSFUL ENGLAND GRIND HERE.)

Unusually by the standards of Ashes Tests in 2015, the match-winning bowling performance occurred in the final session of the final day (the first final day of the Ashes summer, if you exclude the four final days in the men's series that were not supposed to have been final days), as Ellyse Perry made up for a rare batting disappointment by obliterating England when the draw was within their grasp.

Whether you think the criticisms about the pace and quality of play have any validity is clearly a matter of opinion. However, it should be pointed out that:

1. There are two sides in a Test match. As a cricket fan, you are allowed to watch both of them.

2. There is so little long-form cricket played in the women's game that, on the rare occasion of a Test match, there is bound to be an understandable degree of learning on the hoof, unfamiliarity, and caution.

3. Sarah Taylor's wicketkeeping is a pure cricketing joy whatever the match situation, even when England are being thrashed.

4. The previous women's Ashes Test (i.e. one Test match ago), in Perth in January 2014, produced a closer match than any of the last nine men's Ashes Tests. The run rate in each innings was between 2.2 and 2.6. It twisted and turned through three and a bit days of ratcheting bowler-dominated tension. If it had been a men's match, played out on television instead of an internet stream, it would have been revered as a classic.

5. Australia not only played some excellent cricket in this latest women's Ashes Test, they produced some excellent stats. Perry's 6 for 32 was the second-best fourth-innings analysis in women's Test history, behind England hall-of-fame allrounder Enid Bakewell's 7 for 61 against West Indies at Edgbaston in 1979 (in her final Test, a match in which she also scored 68 and took 3 for 14 in the first innings, then carried her bat for 112 in a total of 164 all out) (imagine what would happen to the internet if Stuart Binny does something similar for India in the second Test against Sri Lanka).

Ellyse Perry: now there's a clichéd Australia v England performance for you © Getty Images

Jonassen scored the only two half-centuries of the Test - no woman had ever achieved this feat, in 137 previous matches, and in the 2176-Test history of men's cricket, only three batsmen had played the only two 50-plus innings in a game (most recently, Dilip Vengsarkar, who made 61 and 102 not out in India's Headingley victory in 1986, where no other batsman on either side reached 40; New Zealand's John Reid scored 74 and 100 but still ended on the losing side as England recorded a half-century-free win in Christchurch in March 1963; and, in the second ever Test, at the MCG in 1877, George Ulyett batted England to their first Test triumph with 52 and 63, although England's first innings did include two 49s and a 48).

Jonassen was also the first woman to score two half-centuries batting at six or lower in a Test. It was, given the context, some of the best batting of the summer - stylish, significant, and statistically striking. Something for all cricket fans to savour. Whether or not they thought that England batting slowly, before ultimately buckling under the pressure of the final session of a Test and a remarkable opponent, meant that women's Test cricket was pointless.

6. Picking on the dull phases of a single match as evidence of a general malaise is a risky approach. Explaining why he thought viewers would have been turned off cricket for life by what they saw from Canterbury, Martin Samuel wrote: "Dot after dot. Leave after leave. Dreadful, stupefying cricket, bearing no relation to the modern game. The England innings featured 436 dots in a score of 168 and that isn't how the sport is meant to be played…"

Now apply those words, or similar, to the one or more of the following efforts by England's men's team in recent years:

Exhibit A: May 2013, day one v New Zealand, Lord's
England crawl to 160 for 4 in 80 overs: 421 dot balls blocked, out of 485 deliveries faced, and just 22 singles scored, in one of the least initiative-filled days of cricket in English history. A stultifying, aimless, supine grind. The batsmen: Cook (91st Test), Compton (nine years of first-class experience), Trott (42nd Test), Bell (87th Test), and towards the end, relative newcomers Root and Bairstow. A line-up unquestionably more seasoned at long-form cricket than England's Canterbury dawdlers, whose run rate and dot rate were very similar. The following morning, England anti-rocket along to 232 all out in the 113th over, their 2.06 run rate their slowest in a home Test innings for 13 years.

Exhibit B: Nagpur, 2012, India v England
A dismal morass of cricketing sludge, played out on a pitch that could have neutered an entire herd of randy elephants. England needed a draw to win the series. So they batted for a draw. The pitch was dreadful. The cricket was dreadful. Not wrong, from England's point of view, but dreadful. I will write no more of this travesty of a cricket match, as I am trying to restrict myself to fewer than ten coffees a day, and I need to stay awake to finish this piece.

Exhibit C: May 2013, day three v New Zealand, Leeds
England, 1-0 up and with a first-innings lead of 180, in total control of match and series, begin their second innings after tea. Forty-one overs remain in the day. In those 41 overs, Compton and Trott between them score 18 off 114 balls. Cook begins positively, at almost a run a ball, then slows. The world stops turning. Birds fall out of the sky, drained of will, hypnotised by the sense of inexplicable stasis.

I will write no more of the travesty of a cricket match that was Nagpur 2012, as I am trying to restrict myself to fewer than ten coffees a day and I need to stay awake to finish this piece

Exhibit D: July 2013, days two and three v Australia, Lord's
England have taken a 233-run first-innings lead. They lose three quick wickets, but Root and the nightwatchman rebuild, and England remain totally dominant. Root bats slowly. Very slowly. After 71 overs, they have scored 142 for 4, at exactly 2 per over. No one minds particularly, as it is merely a temporary stodge during a rampant England win, but in terms of grind-justifiability, it is some way short of the Canterbury go-slow.

Exhibit E: March 2008, days two through four, Hamilton
Replying to New Zealand's first-innings 470, England bat for the draw from midway through the second day. All six of their specialist batsmen, and wicketkeeper Ambrose, score between 25 and 70. None scores at a strike rate of over 40. Not even Pietersen (42 off 131). They end 348 all out in 173 overs. Play is interrupted due to the ground shaking and disturbing the TV cameras. It transpires to have been caused by the simultaneous snoring of spectators. Nearby fish attempt to drown themselves to alleviate the ennui. They die of confusion instead. England match their two-runs-per-over scoring rate in the second innings, but at least have the decency to do so while subsiding to 110 all out and a resoundingly merited defeat.

Exhibits F-Z: Pick your own.
You might include The Oval 2013, when England, 3-0 up in the Ashes and having already slightly embarrassed themselves by posting nine men on the boundary to Australia's tailenders, flump their way to 269 for 5 off 122 overs, before Prior and then Swann perk things up. Again, the top six all score between 25 and 70. Again, none scores at more than 40 per 100 balls. Not even Pietersen (50 off 133). Root bats slowly. Very slowly. You might also include Root's determined but strokeless Adelaide rearguard in 2013, when he made 10 off his first 76 balls, before hitting his only four, then getting out for 15 off 80.

Root appears in several of these examples from 2013. Now, he is a lethal, proactive, versatile destroyer who might transpire to be England's most successful batsman for 50 years. His career to date shows how exposure to Test cricket is a learning process, which, if persisted with, can result in a player improving and learning to bat with habitual positivity and purpose. He had a strike rate of 40 in his first 15 Tests, before being briefly dropped; he has had a strike rate of 64 since. If he played one Test match a year, he might well still be prodding around at two an over.

I digress. The point is that any claims that the somnolent pace of (some of) the Canterbury Test proves the inadequacy of women's cricket for the modern sporting marketplace ignore the facts that: (a) sometimes, breakneck-paced cricket can produce uninteresting matches; (b) cricket when a bowling side has basically stopped trying to take wickets can be just as dull, and often much more dull than cricket when batting teams have basically stopped trying to score runs; and, most importantly, (c) that teams and players can and do learn and improve, often quite quickly.

I can make no claims to be a long-term supporter of women's cricket. I have rarely if ever written about it before, have limited knowledge of it, and before today, had never combined it with Statsguru. Given how much time I have spent with Statsguru, this is frankly a bit of an embarrassment. But I did not find that Canterbury put me off cricket for life. In the same way that Chris Tavaré did not put me off cricket for life in the 1980s. My love of the game survived even Gary Kirsten's Old Trafford double-hundred (which cost me a week's holiday, a degree of sanity, and almost a girlfriend and future wife). I enjoyed the struggle. My children enjoyed the bits of the struggle that they watched with me, still at an age when they do not really care whether they are watching men, women or robots. I hope that if they become long-term cricket fans, they will follow the women's game as well as they do the men's.

Women's cricket has a rare opportunity. Its Test game had almost died, reduced to a sporadic trickle (Charlotte Edwards: 23 Tests in 19 years; Mithali Raj: 10 in 13 years; Suzie Bates: zero Tests in nine years). The growing appetite and market for women's sport, the nascent professionalism of some of its nations, the innovative multi-format cricketing triathlon that marks it apart from the men's game, a moderate but significant influx of money and exposure, and the almost blank canvas available to its administrators, all offer a rare, perhaps one-off, opportunity for women's cricket to advance and expand. It can (and I believe should) do so while embracing the Test format as the ultimate Test of cricketing skills, regardless of its run rates, audience, or perceived lack of modernity.

Women's Test cricket will need commitment from its authorities, good pitches that do not Nagpurise batting, patience from its followers and its critics, and an acknowledgement that positive cricket does not have to equate to recklessly flinging the bat at everything.

Canterbury showed that the women's Test game has flaws and vast scope for improvement. The age of professionalism brings closer scrutiny and harsher judgements. That scrutiny should be accurately targeted. Those judgements should be fair, balanced, and properly contextualised.

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