December 4, 2015

A series to talk to your shrink about

The numbers in Nagpur, and South Africa's overall performance in this tour of India, will do your head in

Faf du Plessis: only allegedly a cricketer at the moment © Associated Press

"Mr Zaltzman, do come in." Dr Schlurpens, five-time sport-watching psychologist of the year, ushered me into his office. I settled into the padded chair, so familiar from my years of visiting a man who has set new standards in helping sports fans come to terms with the demands of following the unceasing deluge of 21st-century sport.

"So, Mr Zaltzman," he said, as day two of the Delhi Test played out on one of the 25 big screens on his special wall. "How has the 2015-16 Test match season been for you so far?"

"I won't lie to you, Doc," I replied, as Hashim Amla continued a pitiful series by adding a snicked cut to his catalogue of disappointing dismissals.

"It's been up and down. But mostly not as good as I was hoping. Australia-New Zealand ended well. The day-night Test was good. But a bit short. And the series had been somewhat spoiled by New Zealand's bowlers in the first Test being more undercooked than a chicken flying off your plate as you sit down for a Sunday roast, and a Perth pitch that made Lucy, the three-million-year-old Australopithecus Afarensis skeleton, seem bouncy and full of life.

"Pakistan-England was interesting after a dull start. Bangladesh-Australia really did not live up to expectations. On any level. And Sri Lanka v West Indies went largely as you would have expected. But I'm worried, Doc. Worried about Test match cricket. Is there something wrong with me?"

As I spoke to him, his eyes were transfixed by the alleged innings of Faf du Plessis. The South African No. 5, player of some of the most cussed innings of recent years, narrowly avoided a golden-duck leg-before dismissal, then consolidated by splurt-shovelling his second ball not very far over his shoulder to one of about ten waiting fielders. "No, Mr Zaltzman. Those concerns are justified."

"Doc, it is often said of batsmen who have popped the ball straight up in the air that they were 'giving catching practice' to the fielders. Well, if du Plessis had played that shot during catching practice, his team-mates would have said: 'Faf. Faf. Mate. Come on, make it at least slightly realistic. There is no way a Test batsman is going to play that shot in a match.'"

"Mr Zaltzman," said Dr Schlurpens, "I think you're taking out on one player your frustrations that a series that promised so much has been one-sided, short and somewhat tonally homogenous. Not unlike last summer's Ashes, but without the added intrigue of different teams winning."

"Doc, it's not the first time this has happened," I confided. "That was Faf's third duck of the series in just six innings, the longest of which lasted six balls. And he had a six-ball innings of 1 as well. And when you factor in Amla's dismal run, reduced from ethereally surgical dismantler of all attacks in all conditions to uncertain pokes and swipes, you do get the general feeling that South Africa's batting in this series has been like an ignoramus with a recent head injury playing a quiz machine in a pub. Just randomly whacking the buttons and hoping for the best."

"Mmm-hhh," responded Dr Schlurpens, making notes with intense focus. "And when did you last play a quiz machine? They're all touchscreen now, Mr Zaltzman. It's not 1995 anymore."

On the screen, Duminy missed a jewel of a ball by Umesh Yadav. Duminy's off stump, by contrast, absolutely middled it, like a prime-era Jacques Kallis. "Sixty-five for 5," I exclaimed. "That's the third time in six innings this series that South Africa have been five down for 65 or fewer - something that had only happened three times in their previous 102 Tests over 11 years."

Dr Schlurpens scribbled earnestly on his notepad as I continued: "With just one chance to redeem themselves, South Africa's top five partnerships this series are averaging just under 16 runs per wicket, comfortably their lowest in any series since the 1912 Triangular tournament in England."

"You do get the general feeling that South Africa's batting in this series has been like an ignoramus with a recent head injury playing a quiz machine in a pub. Just randomly whacking the buttons and hoping for the best"

Dr Schlurpens uncorked a second notebook. "So let's roll it back a little to Nagpur. How did you find the Indian bafflement at the comments, concerns and complaints about the pitch?"

"I found it baffling," I replied.

"The complaints?"

"No, the bafflement. The bafflement was baffling. Of course there were complaints. Of course you want variety in pitches in different parts of the world and different grounds. That pitch was beyond the 'reasonably tricky' mark."

"Says who?"

"Says Stats. Between the Kanpur Test between these same teams in April 2008, and the start of the current series, 31 Tests were played in India. Only one of the them did not include at least one century - the Delhi Test against Australia, early in 2013, a game which broke a run of 28 consecutive Tests featuring a hundred, 16 of which contained three or more centuries. Thirty of the 31 Tests had contained at least four 50-plus scores; the other had two centuries and a fifty. The first three Tests of this series brought no centuries; there were only three fifties in the first Test, and none - I repeat, none - in the third, with one in the admittedly truncated second game, when Dhawan was left on 45 not out when the rains sogged the cricket into oblivion). So a match which produced a top score of 40 - the second-lowest top score in a completed Test since 1890 - inevitably attracted scrutiny."

The doctor swivelled his computer screen towards me. ESPNcricinfo's Statsguru gleamed out like the beacon of universal hope for humanity that it is, the one remaining refuge of verifiable fact in the planet's storm-lashed ocean of lies. "I want you to look at this stat," he said, "and tell me what you see."

My eyes widened. "That's a stat that shows that both Ashwin and Jadeja have taken 20 or more wickets at an average of less than 12, something that had only happened once in a Test series between top-eight teams since Waqar Younis demolished New Zealand late in 1990 (when Dale Steyn took 20 at 9.2 against New Zealand in November 2007). An achievement no spinner has attained since Derek Underwood scuttled the Kiwis in 1969. Sure, that might change if during their second innings the Proteas suddenly start batting as if they have ever seen a ball turn before, but it seems unlikely."

"I've got to wrap this up, Mr Zaltzman. I've got an Indian client coming in two minutes who is struggling to come to terms with new BCCI president Shashank Manohar setting a strong moral lead for the sport. After everything that's happened, he assumes it must be some kind of trick. He's very confused."

As he ushered me out of the room, I frantically asked: "Quickly, Doc, tell me straight: am I right to be so worried about the state of the Test-match game?"

"Well," replied the shrink, "if South African batsmen keep playing basic defensive shots with their bats swinging a good 20 to 30 degrees away from straight, like Dane Vilas did when missing a straight one from Ishant today, then yes. Otherwise: maybe. Can you leave now, please?"

"Thanks Doc."

"See you next month for our biannual 'What's happening to the West Indies' session."

"Wouldn't miss it for the world."

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

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