Confectionery Stall blogger and comedian Andy Zaltzman's audio show

'The single greatest display of mass childishness'

Fire-breathing umpires, a preview of the England-South Africa Tests and more lies about cricketers (17:06)

December 16, 2009


Andy Zaltzman's World Cricket Podcast

'The single greatest display of mass childishness'

December 16, 2009

Hello, cricket world, and welcome to episode 2 of Andy Zaltzman's World Cricket Podcast.

I am comedian and Confectionery Stall blogger Andy Zaltzman, and I was born with a cricket bat in my hand. A medical curiosity, to be sure, but sadly I never really found out how to use that cricket bat particularly effectively. So I put it down, picked up Wisden and started learning people's batting averages. I was an odd child.

In this week's show I'll be telling you who will win the South Africa v England series, naming my favourite South African cricketer of all time, celebrating a crazy one-dayer between India and Sri Lanka, reflecting on the outstanding New Zealand v Pakistan series, and not speaking to my guest on the show this week, because I couldn't get my computer to do what I was telling it. So it's just me again this time. Technology is a worthy foe, and it has defeated me. But I will return, and vengeance will be sweet. Although to get that vengeance, I may have to consult someone who knows what they're doing. Which, when it comes to setting up recording equipment, I patently don't.

As I record, England and South Africa are about to begin their eagerly awaited series, on what looks like it might be not merely a bowler-friendly wicket, but a wicket that follows the bowlers home and propositions them on the doorstep whilst wearing nothing but an umpires coat, a pair of suspenders and a judicially placed sun hat. And a good thing too, if that proves to be the case. Batsmen have had it too easy for too long. Two thousand and nine has been the second-highest scoring year in Test batting history (including only years in which at least 10 Tests have been played), behind 1989, when bowlers were clearly too worried about the imminent collapse of Communism and the Berlin Wall to really focus on their jobs.

Back in my day... come to think of it, in terms of cricket, I never actually had a day... but back in the 20th century, do you remember that, I know it was a millennium ago... back in the 20th century, any batsman averaging over 50 was pretty much nailed on to be an all-time great. Hang on, I can feel something brewing... what could it be... oh yes, it's a statistic. Strap in, people...


Out of those who have scored at least 1000 Test runs, 23 batsmen have averaged over 50 in this decade. In each of the 1990s and 1980s, only six men topped the half-century average.

And as for bowlers averaging under 27, well, you've guessed it, out of the 91 who've taken 40 Test wickets since 2000, only 11 average sub 27. In the 90s it was 20 out of 65. The pendulum has swung. And it's smashed bowlers full in the face.

Back to reality. As an England supporter, I hope England win. Obviously. Partly out of support for the land of my birth, partly in the hope that it will end the recurring nightmares I've had for the last 12 years about Gary Kirsten's double-hundred at Old Trafford in 1998. Which remains the closest I have ever come to joining the church of Scientology, just to give me something else to worry about.

It's been supplemented by Kirsten's 275 at Durban on 28, 29 and 30 December 1999 - as if enough tragedy hadn't already struck the world in the 20th century. That was the painstaking 14-and-a-half hour final cherry on that desolate cake for me. Sure, Kirsten was a fine player, and that was an impressive rearguard. But I still wanted to throw a javelin into my own eyeballs so I didn't have to watch it. Sure I could have turned my TV off. But better safe than sorry.

And the nightmare has also been supplemented by Graeme Smith's successive double-hundreds in 2003. What is it with awkward but effective South African left-handers hitting double-centuries against England. I'm sick of it. Put your money on Ashwell Prince to go big.

Anyway, having predicted in my blog that South Africa will win, it seems silly not to cover myself by predicting here that England will win. Sure thing. Can't believe anyone even thinks that they won't, let alone writes it down and posts it on the internet. If England play as they did in the Oval Test, they'll win. If they play as they did in the Headingley Test, they'll lose, and probably be arrested for treason on their way back into the country.

I thought at the start of the Ashes that Jimmy Anderson would be the key man. It turned out he wasn't. But that doesn't mean he won't be the key man this time. Him and Broad. And Pietersen. And Strauss of course. And Swann maybe, too, if it turns. And if Onions can hit his straps, he could be the key. And Collingwood so often plays the key innings. And Bell and Prior in the middle order could swing the course of the series. And Cook, too, if he's ironed out, or preferably steamrollered out, the glitches in his game.

Actually the key man is probably Dale Steyn. Anyway. It could be a cracking series.

On to my favourite South African cricketer of all time... well, I know Cricinfo have been selecting their all-time South Africa XI, and there are so many top players to choose from: Kallis, Pollock, Donald, Pollock, Richards, Pollock, Procter, Pollock, Pollock and Pollock, but for me, my personal favourite would have to be Gerhardus Liebenberg. Effortless elegant, classically stylish, and useless. (In Test-match terms, at least.) Five Tests, average 13. That is what I like to see from my South African batsmen.

What a game between India and Sri Lanka. Nearly 830 runs, a nailbiting finish, and for the first time in limited-overs history, the world has been able to say: sure, they were chasing 415, but they really should have won.

I am by no means an unquestioning devotee of 50-over cricket. But there are two types of game I really like. The low-scoring thriller - 150 plays 150 on a treacherous green-top. And the high-scoring thriller - 400 plays 400 on a snooker table. The mid-scoring thriller, I can take or leave.

This was a classic to set alongside the ridiculous SA-Aus game from a few years ago, and featured catapulting hundreds from two of cricket's most idiosyncratic talents, the formidable Sehwag, who I would back to smash a run-a-ball fifty even if someone saws all his limbs off, and Dilshan, the most surreal batsman currently operating in the world game, a man with no regard for his own dental safety.

His latest strokeplay improvisations include: The Mole Shot, in which he sledgehammers his bat down on a yorker so hard that the ball tunnels its way to and under the boundary; and the Samurai Salad Chef shot, in which, using the sharpened inner edge of his bat, he swipes at the ball, and slices it in half like a tomato, sending both bits over the ropes for six each. Twelve runs. Super shot.

And a quick word for New Zealand and Pakistan, who have played out a brilliant series. Vettori's Kiwis were denied victory by rain on the final day. Vettori himself scored another hundred, and I think, all arguments over exactly who is New Zealand's greatest ever left-arm-spinning allrounder. And I'm sorry if that upsets any Evan Gray or Bryan Yuile fans out there.

As for Pakistan, well, compelling cricket, teenage geniuses bursting onto the scene, rumours of dressing room bust-ups, an ex-captain who's disappeared. It's good to have you back.

Umpiring The much-discussed umpire review system will be used, and will almost certainly lead to some mid-level bickering. The version used previously can easily take its place in the all-time top 10 list of most inept things the human species has ever developed. Alongside the soluble submarine, and the Christmas-tree raincoat, which, due to a design flaw that resulted in it being covered with exposed wires, left the wearer with a 98% chance of fatal electrocution.

The latest, more advanced, version is the next step towards the ultimate goal of having robot umpires officiating out in the middle. And, with their phenomenal robotic powers of sight, hearing and computer analysis, all decisions will be 100% right. And with the added capability of firing bolts of fire out of their mouths, it will also see an end to bad behaviour on the pitch. That, my friends, is a win-win situation.

One aspect of the system that hasn't been much commented on is how it completely spoils the sensation of a watching umpire-decided wickets fall. The aesthetic of the moment of dismissal has been ruined. The umpire raising his finger has lost its unarguable finality, and the moment of justice is diluted by the fact that you then have to wait to see if the batsman will appeal, and then wait whilst the third umpire puts another coin in his electricity meter and waits for technology to pass its verdict. I want to be able to roar my excitement or curse my fury at the rising finger, without wondering whether or not it's actually out and having to wait for a stupid cartoon on a big screen to tell me. I realise that cricket has issues of more importance than this, but it's the kind of thing that really annoys me.

Like batsmen waving advertising logos on the backs of their bats at the nearest available camera when they reach 100, which to me is equivalent to a vicar adding product endorsements to his readings from the Bible. "And lo, Jesus turned the water into wine. A fine and mellow cabernet sauvignon from the vineyards of Ernest and Julio Gallo. Perfect for that special evening. We will now sing hymn number 214."

Anyway, to give you the listeners of the World Cricket Podcast the chance to test how you would do as an umpire under the new system, here is my Umpire Review System Challenge.

You Are The Umpire. It is a key stage of an absolutely vital Test Match. The batting team needs one to win. The bowling team needs one wicket to win. A fired-up fast bowler comes charging in like a rhinoceros trying to learn to play the trombone. He flings one down, the ball thwacks into the batsman's pads.

The entire fielding team erupts like 11 Vesuviuses in an appeal that can be heard in space. The batsman sprint through for a cheeky leg-bye and start hugging each other as if they've just discovered a scientific formula for turning Darrell Hair into solid gold.

Unfortunately, due to the diminished responsibility engendered by the umpire review system, you weren't paying attention. You were thinking about whether your already outstanding recipe for Spaghetti Bolognaise could be improved any further - maybe a tweak of nutmeg. You suddenly realise that both sets of players, a crowd of 30,000, and a worldwide TV audience of up to seven billion are staring at you waiting for your decision. What do you do?

A. Give the batsman out. It doesn't really matter. He can refer it to the third umpire anyway. So you giving him out is really little more than you pointing at the sky.

B. Give the batsman not out. It doesn't really matter. The fielding team can refer it anyway. So you giving him not out is really little more than you shaking your head and answering the question, "What response would you get if you knocked on the door of the MCC Home For Retired 1970s Wicketkeepers on the day of their annual Christmas outing and asked, 'Is Alan in?'"

C. Announce, "I, a humble human, am not fit to make such an important decision. Nor is the umpire review system as it currently stands. This decision must be made by Almighty Zeus himself. O Great Zeus, tell us, did that hit in line and was it going on to take middle and leg, or was it drifting down the leg side and possibly going over the bails anyway. Zeus? Zeus? What, you want me to sacrifice one of the players before you'll tell us? Okay. Any volunteers? No? Let's call it a draw then."

And the correct answer, is C.

So, that's the last Andy Zaltzman's World Cricket Podcast of this decade. Coming so soon after the first one of the decade too. Funny old world.

My next Confectionery Stall blog will include my year-by-year highlights of the decade. But if there was one moment that stood out above all others, it would be the final day of the Lord's Test between England and Sri Lanka in 2002. This was not a match, or a day, that registers particularly highly in the annals of cricketing legend. On a flat pitch, England ground solemnly to a draw, scoring 208 for 3 in the day, decelerating funereally as the draw became increasingly unavoidable for no obvious reason other than to annoy the crowd. However, the crowd had more important matters on their mind - large-scale communal juvenility.

As the tedium unfolded on the pitch, the spectators began to entertain themselves. Initially, there was adulatory hero-worship of Russel Arnold, a cricketer who, to that point in his career, could only have dreamed that his name would be chanted repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly, at the hallowed home of cricket. But in the absence of anything resembling action in the middle, Arnold was chosen by the crowd as their temporary cricketing deity. As he prowled the outfield at deep point.

Their affections soon transferred, however, to the stewards who stood at the front of each section of the Lord's crowd, clad in unashamedly fluorescent jackets. Having begun with an imprecation to give the crowd a wave, a request eventually granted with some bashfulness, the two stewards at the front of the eastern end of the Grandstand and the western end of the Edrich Stand found themselves temporarily at the centre of the cricketing universe. Or, more specifically, the numbers on their jackets did.

The Grandstand crowd began chanting, "eighty-one, eighty-one, eighty-one," in honour of the two digits adorning their steward's glowing torso. "Ninety-six, ninety-six, ninety-six," responded the Edrich, bellowing support for their man as fervently as any army can ever have cheered a leader in battle. And battle it soon became, albeit a non-violent vocal battle, as the chants for the jacket numbers became louder and louder, spreading throughout the North-East corner of Lord's until literally thousands of grown adults were standing up, chanting the numbers 81 and 96 at each other, with increasing passion, for a solid 30 minutes. This was, without question, the greatest display of mass childishness I have ever had the privilege to witness. And it could only have happened at a cricket match - no, at a Test match. And to those who seem set on the marginalising of Test cricket, remember, no other form of the game can have people sitting around for so long with nothing happening, that they have to start chanting the numbers on stewards' jackets.

That's it for this podcast. I have now done the same number of episodes of the World Cricket Podcast as number of sixes hit by David Boon in his 107-Test career. That's one six for each mile of moustache he grew whilst playing for Australia.

I'll be back in the New Year with other people in the show, I promise, honest. I really mean it this time, even if it's just my wife telling me to spend more time with her and less time with cricket.

Thanks for listening. Last time, I played you out with some lies about cricketers. This week I'll play you out with some lies about the game of cricket itself.

The Australian baggy green is shaped the way it is because legendary giant early-20th-century Aussie legspinning allrounder and captain Warwick Armstrong liked to take a three-course meal onto the pitch with him when fielding. After initially taking the field wearing a refrigerated Abraham Lincoln-style top hat, Armstrong was persuaded to reduce his on-field snack to a single course, which could be accommodated under a new, expanded, baggy cap.

The famously rotund skipper made the rest of his team wear baggy caps too, so he didn't stand out. Teammate Charlie Macartney used to keep a coiled-up snake under his baggy hat, to help him concentrate when fielding.

Armstrong was known as the "Big Ship" not due to his size, but because he used to do a fantastic Titanic impression in the team bath whenever he took five wickets.

The first helmet in cricket history was used in the Gentlemen v Players match of 1932, when Percy Chapman walked out to bat with a live tortoise strapped to his head, as a dare with team-mate Bob Wyatt, who himself had to bat with a horseshoe crab down his trousers. Thus inventing the box.

Roman emperor Julius Caesar never played cricket, but if he had played it, he would have been useless at it, and then he would have banned it.

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