England made their now traditional and always captivating useless start to an away series, followed by a characteristic dogged second-innings rearguard on a pitch that could have been scientifically created by The International Society for the Proliferation of Dogged Second-Innings Rearguards. For the second Test in a row, England played out an ultimately tedious draw on a travesty of a cricket pitch. Dunedin was not in the class of Nagpur in terms of inflicting misery on (a) spectators, (b) bowlers, and (c) cricket, but it was dismal nonetheless.
It took a first innings of relentless, almost heroic, incompetence by England to make a game of it. With hindsight, it was a gesture that now looks like a selflessly public-spirited attempt to breathe some life into a match that could otherwise have been about as interesting as writing a 30,000 word dissertation on how to spell the word "dreary", particularly after a first-day sog-out. England's batsmen, aware that they are custodians of the game first and international sportsmen second, generously hurled their wickets away for the good of Test cricket. Their dismissals should be discounted from their career averages.
Another Mogadon-infused surface should not detract from the quality of Hamish Rutherford's spectacular debut innings, a performance that mixed flair, judgement, and an ominous range of strokes into a potent cocktail that England found utterly undrinkable.
Not since day two of the History of Test Cricket has an England team looked up at a scoreboard to see a batsman in his first Test innings with 165 or more runs to his name. In that inaugural Test, in 1877, Charles Bannerman, the first of many Australian batsmen to inflict pain on England, scored 165 before retiring hurt. Few in the commentary box or TV studios at the time would have predicted that the "Highest Debut Innings Against England" graphic they whizzed up that day would last for 136 years.
Rutherford departed the stage with an impressive haul of Test debut silver medals - the second-highest score by a New Zealander, the second-highest by a left-hander, and the second-highest by an opener (behind, respectively: Mathew Sinclair [214 v West Indies, 1999-2000]; Jacques Rudolph [222* v Bangladesh, 2002-03]; and Brendon Kuruppu [201* v New Zealand, 1986-87]). His 171 was, in fact, the second-highest by a debutant against England - George Headley hit 176 in the second innings of his first Test, in 1929-30.
Eagle-eyed cricketologists will notice that, with one exception, this is not exactly a list of legendary all-time batting megastars. Headley would go on to prove himself one of the greatest batsmen ever to lay hands on a plank of willow, but even a man with a tattoo of Sinclair, Rudolph and Kuruppu riding in a motorcycle pyramid emblazoned all across his back would admit that those three have not established themselves in quite such elite company. Headley scored a further nine hundreds (all of them in his next 16 Tests). Sinclair scored two more tons in 32 matches, Rudolph five in 47, and Kuruppu did not even pass 50 in the three subsequent Tests in which the Sri Lankan selectors generously invited him to participate.
In fact, from a career point of view, Rutherford would have been well advised to smash his stumps to pieces on 163. Javed Miandad scored 163 on his debut. He proved to be a tidy batsman - 22 more hundreds and a Test average of 52. But of the other 11 players who have scored more than that on debut, seven have never scored another hundred after their first match. And four of those seven never again even waggled their bat in celebration of a half-century.
Of the seven, Bannerman, RE Foster (whose 287 has been the highest debut innings for 109 years now) and Archie Jackson are looking long shots to add a second hundred to their tallies, having been regrettably dead for a combined total of 261 years. Billy Ibadulla, aged 77, looks too old even for the craziest of Pakistan selection panels to recall him after 45 years out of the Test game. Probably. The 51-year-old Kuruppu might harbour secret ambitions to become the oldest Test player in history, but Sri Lanka appear to be trusting in youth now, whilst Pakistan's Yasir Hameed - who scored centuries in both innings of his 2003 debut against Bangladesh - has gone 24 Tests and almost ten years without troubling the honours-board engravers again. Even if the tattooed man had added some Yasir Hameed ink to his shoulder blade, he would concede that the Pakistani resides in the Has Had Enough Chances folder of the selectorial filing cabinet.
"You may have carved your name into the record books against a bowling attack of proven class. But you will also need the strength of body to vanquish Statisticor, the Implacable Deity Of Cricketing Destiny"
The only one of the seven with a realistic hope of adding to a mighty debut megaton is Fawad Alam, who scored 168 in the second innings of his 2009 debut Test, a match in which only one other Pakistan player passed 40. A little mystifyingly, even by Pakistan's heroically mystifying standards, Alam played in his country's next two Tests, and has not been selected since.
Only two of the highest-innings-blasting debutants have ever improved on their highest career score after their initial plunge into the Test jacuzzi - Headley, and his fellow West Indian Lawrence Rowe. Rowe scored 214 and 100 not out in one of cricket's more striking entrances, went on to stroke a triple-hundred against England, part of a sequence in his first 13 Tests in which he averaged 70 and scored six centuries. However, then he realised that the career trajectory of spectacular debutants is supposed to mirror that of a seagull after a disappointing rendezvous with an aircraft engine, and averaged 27 in his final 17 Tests, with only one more century.
The top 11 pre-Rutherford debut centurions have gone on to average 33.8 in the remainder of their Test careers combined, scoring a hundred every 14.7 innings. Remove the genius Headley, the exception who has proved the rule (and who, in his pre-war peak, averaged 66, whilst the rest of the West Indian top six collectively averaged 24), and the remaining ten players have averaged 30.4 after their stellar debuts, with a hundred every 22.6 innings. By comparison, all top five batsmen not on debut have collectively averaged 38.1. So scoring over 164 on debut is a surefire, guaranteed, immutable means of ensuring you proceed to have a disappointingly below-average Test career. Unless you are George Headley. Or Lawrence Rowe, for a bit.
So beware, Hamish Rutherford. You may look as if you have the technique, temperament, skill, class and strokeplay to flourish in Test cricket for the foreseeable future. You may have carved your name into the record books against a bowling attack of proven class. But you will also need the strength of body to vanquish Statisticor, the Implacable Deity Of Cricketing Destiny. Or the strength of mind not to believe in Statisticor. Whose powers are, at best, erratic. Your choice.
On current form there are not too many Australian batsmen queuing up to follow in Bannerman's footsteps and inflict 21st-century pain on England. Some of them might be waylaid queuing up in a stationer's shop for a new homework book instead. I have not followed this extraordinary story closely, but Australia's strategy in India seems to have been: (a) to ensure they do not peak too early in this Ashes hyperyear; and (b) inculcate a feeling a smug over-confidence in the English cricketing media and public (which was not entirely necessary, and akin to painting a banana yellow). Both prongs of that masterplan are running eerily smoothly.
After a useless all-round performance in Hyderabad, coach Mickey Arthur had apparently asked his squad to write down three suggestions for how the Baggy Greens could recover from their 2-0 deficit. Four of the players missed the deadline. In mitigation, after the first two Tests, they could have claimed that they were still wrestling with the Herculean task of trying to narrow it down to just three suggestions. (I told you Prong B was working.)
Do not be taken in by these cunning Australian ruses. I am an English cricket fan who has followed the game since the 1980s. I fear the Australians, even where they are bearing gifts. Even when those gifts are as entertaining as dropping four players over a paperwork issue.