The unpredictable charm of cricket August 8, 2006

Predict and perish

Tim de Lisle warns against the Ashes fever gripping England way ahead of schedule and looks ahead to a trying contest against Pakistan

The groundsman at Old Trafford said the ball wouldn't turn but Monty went on to turn it like Warnie © Getty Images

An apology is in order. A fortnight ago, reflecting on England's decision to go down to four bowlers in the first Test against Pakistan, I suggested that if they did it again in the second, you, dear reader, might like to put some money on Pakistan. Well, England did stick to four bowlers, and far from missing the fifth, they only needed two. They cruised to a crushing victory thanks to Steve Harmison, with an unforgettable 11 wickets, and Monty Panesar, with an almost equally admirable eight. So if you took that bet, or even if you didn't, it's time for me to come out with the Englishman's favourite word: sorry.

Prediction is a mug's game. But so, to an extent, is sportswriting, and we hacks persist in issuing the odd forecast when we know we shouldn't. As I sat at Old Trafford with part of me cheering Harmison's sudden return to form and another part cursing him, I resolved never to make a prediction like that again. The trouble was, I had made that resolution before.

In 1990, as the rather inexperienced cricket correspondent of the Independent on Sunday (it was a new paper, they couldn't find anyone better), I covered the Benson and Hedges Cup final at Lord's. This was the county 55-over competition, now defunct, and tradition dictated that the final was Lancashire against someone - in this case, Worcestershire.

England players were not on central contracts, and quite a few of them turned out. Lancs had the bright young star of English cricket, Mike Atherton, plus Neil Fairbrother, Phil DeFreitas and Paul Allott. Worcs had the grand old man of English cricket, Ian Botham, plus Tim Curtis, Neal Radford, Steve Rhodes and Richard Illingworth; those were the days when England selection policy consisted of trying to give a Test or two to everyone in the country.

Worcester also had Graeme Hick, who would go on to be the cause of many a dud prediction, but he wasn't the problem that day. Writing about Mike Watkinson, Lancashire's superior bits-and-pieces player, who made 50, took two wickets and won the match award, I blithely added that he would never play for England.

Sure enough, five years later, England were being managed by a superior bits-and-pieces player in Ray lllingworth, and he saw something of himself in Winker Watkinson. Coming from Illy, there could be no higher praise. England sent for Winker, and even teamed him with another ageing offspinner who could bat, in John Emburey. Winker saved a Test match against West Indies by making 82 not out, went on one England tour, returned to Lancs with four caps, and in due course became a respected coach. You could never have predicted that he would get a Test, but equally, there was not the slightest need to predict that he wouldn't.

Luckily, the Independent on Sunday was a well-kept secret - flying back from covering a tour for them, I once asked a British Airways stewardess for a copy of the paper, and she assured me it didn't exist - so Winker probably never knew he had been written off. Or if he did, he used it to spur his late bid for stardom.

Even proper cricket writers get it wrong. Before the Old Trafford Test, one or two of the main correspondents were advocating dropping Panesar to play four seamers. And the man best placed to read the pitch, the groundsman Peter Marron, said firmly that the ball wouldn't turn, whereupon Monty went out there and tweaked it like Warnie. The truth is you could never have seen that match coming. Harmison had not bowled that well for two years. Panesar had never bowled that well, though he had certainly dropped hints. And Matthew Hoggard hadn't gone wicketless through two innings of a Test for nearly four years.

Cricket is just highly unpredictable, and this is a key component of its subtle magic. Glenn McGrath was so sure Australia would win last year's Ashes series, he announced that it would be 5-0. Events soon proved that even McGrath was capable of being wildly inaccurate. Many observers then decided that England would win in Pakistan; they lost 2-0. We all set too much store by the last result.

After needing just the two bowlers at Old Trafford, England could have done with about eight at Headingley, as Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf piled up that staggering stand of 363. Staggering to most people, that is. One prescient fellow had warned of the danger before the series began, noting that the two Ys were averaging more than 100 per partnership. I'll leave you to work out who it was.

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Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden and now edits