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The Confectionery Stall

In praise of Jase

And a quiz on how best England's performance in the West Indies can be described

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman
Jason Holder leaves the field beaming after his maiden Test century saved the match, West Indies v England, 1st Test, North Sound, 5th day, April 17, 2015

Holder: worse than Nourse or better?  •  Getty Images

Welcome to the Confectionery Stall's world-exclusive coverage of the 2015 cricket season. The World Cup has been consigned to the record books/memory banks/stuff of nightmares (delete as applicable), the IPL is in full, shiny swing, and Test cricket is back with more of a bang than most people were expecting from the least eagerly awaited England tour of the West Indies since way before Columbus set sail.
As I write, England - now unbeaten in two international matches across multiple formats - prepare for the second Test in Grenada, buoyed by Jimmy Anderson breaking Ian Botham's long-standing national Test wicket record, deflated by their failure to force victory in 130 overs, cheered by a good all-round performance in the Test arena after plumbing some extremely murky depths at the 50-over World Cup, disconcerted that even a good all-round performance fell considerably short on the final day, encouraged by the continuing progress of their young batsmen, and the return to batting form of Ben Stokes, disappointed by the continuing lack of progress of some of their older batsmen, and relieved that they now only have 16 Test matches to play in a stupidly compressed schedule, rather than 17.
Was England's performance in Antigua:
(a) perfectly acceptable given the lack of preparation time and the moribund surface;
(b) a good effort by an emerging team, continuing its strong rebound from the cataclysmic 2013-14 Ashes and an awful start to last summer;
(c) what you would expect from a team that has good players but opted for conservatism in at least two selections, and lacks the bowlers to create mayhem in unpromising conditions;
(d) nowhere near good enough to make either New Zealand or Australia even contemplate twitching in their boots, let alone quaking in them; or
(e) all of the above?
Write your answer down, lock it in a secure bank vault, and check back here at the end of August to see if you were right.
My mother always seemed blithely indifferent to the career-shaping dramas of, for example, the young Mike Atherton progressing towards three figures against New Zealand in 1990. "That's nice, dear. Can you take the dog for a walk?"
West Indies were their now-traditional mix of quite promising, fitfully brilliant, and quite awful, but finished rousingly with an excellent captain's rearguard by Ramdin, and one of the more astonishing Test hundreds of recent years by Jason Holder. Quite how Holder had never scored more than 52 in his 26 previous first-class matches is one of the universe's more impenetrable mysteries, alongside how the Big Bang kaboomed, where the lost city of Atlantis is, how, why or if economics works, and the authorship (human or otherwise) of Danny Morrison's thesaurus.
Holder's innings, a rare combination of defiantly immovable and gloriously stylish, as Moeen Ali's similar but ultimately unsuccessful hundred against Sri Lanka was last summer, was the fourth century by a player batting at eight or lower in the fourth innings of a Test. Of the previous three, two were in heavy defeats (Ajit Agarkar's 109 v England in 2002, Daniel Vettori's 140 v Sri Lanka in 2009), and the other was by Matt Prior in Auckland two winters ago, when he was batting a place lower than normal after a nightwatchman had been promoted.
There is always excitement in seeing a player reach his maiden Test hundred, especially when that player is young and promises a new tranche of regular run-making, and even more especially when his team has recently lacked regular run-makers. (If cricket is your thing, that is. My mother, an admirable woman and high-class parent in most respects, has remained tragically uninfected with the cricketing virus, and in my formative years always seemed blithely indifferent to the career-shaping dramas of, for example, the young Mike Atherton progressing towards three figures against New Zealand in 1990. "That's nice, dear," she would offer in response to the news that English cricket could be witnessing the epoch-defining launch of a new batting standard-bearer. "Can you take the dog for a walk?" Walk the dog? While Graham Thorpe is on the verge of a historic debut ton? Against Australia? What kind of negligent parenting of an 18-year-old son is that?)
Given the match situation, Holder's is one of the greatest fourth innings by a lower-order batsman ever played, even allowing for the somnolent avocado of a pitch. Looking at the list, it might be trumped by Dave Nourse's unbeaten 93 batting at eight for South Africa against England in January 1906. Nourse came in 105 for 6, chasing 284 in a match in which neither side had reached 200. Almost four hours later, and after a last-wicket stand of 48, South Africa had snuck home by one wicket and Nourse was 93 not out. But Nourse was essentially a frontline batsman in a team packed with allrounders, and did not have to deal with the added distraction of his nation's cricket having been written off as mediocre, or people banging on about how he was probably only in the team because most of the first-choice players were playing in India for big bucks, even when those so-called first-choice players would actually have only been second or third or fourth choice.
It might seem pointless comparing cricket from 2015 with cricket from the early 20th century, but since some of the media seems to have set itself the task of calculating whether the undeniably excellent and often mesmeric Anderson is better than the very dead SF Barnes, I am quite happy to compare Holder's innings with Nourse's, which I had not known about until searching the aforementioned fourth-innings tailender stat, but which seems nail-bitingly thrilling just by looking at the scorecoard.
● According to some hopefully correct late-night communing with Statsguru, Jermaine Blackwood and Holder became only the third pair of team-mates aged under 24 to score debut centuries in the same Test - Mominul Haque and Sohag Gazi (both 22) did so for Bangladesh against New Zealand in October 2013, and Ali Naqvi (20) and Azhar Mahmood (22) both scored hundreds on their debut against South Africa in 1997.
England have also been unusually replete with youthful Test centurions of late (perhaps oddly for a country that has just recalled one batsman who is about to turn 34, and whose newspapers and airwaves are stocked with chatter about the possibility of a recall for one who is almost 35). They have had four hundred-makers under the age of 25 in the past two years - Root, Stokes, Ballance and Robson. In the 27 years between David Gower's maiden hundred in 1978 and Ian Bell's in 2005-06, only five England players aged 24 or under had scored Test centuries. Three were specialist batsmen (Atherton, Thorpe and Crawley), and two allrounders (Chris Lewis and Flintoff), and they collectively managed a total of seven centuries before turning 25. Root already has five, and does not turn 25 until the end of December this year, in approximately 83 Test matches' time.
● This is the first Confectionery Stall since the death of Richie Benaud, who in 1981 uttered the line of commentary from which this blog took its title. Like for most cricket fans of the past five decades, Benaud's commentary and television presence was woven into the sounds and conversations of my formative years, a conduit into the world of cricket that has entranced and entertained me since childhood. Not only was he one of the most influential people in the history of cricket, he was also, in effect, my surrogate fifth grandparent.
I wonder what he would make of Adil Rashid's situation in the West Indies, waiting for his Test debut at the age of 27, more than six years after he was first picked in an England touring squad. Benaud's breakthrough series was in the Caribbean, in 1955. Before then, in his first 13 Tests, over three years, he had taken 23 wickets at almost 38, and averaged 14 as a batsman. Even after taking 18 wickets at 26, and scoring his maiden century, in the West Indies, he failed again in the 1956 Ashes, with just eight wickets in five Tests, and only one major innings, in victory at Lord's.
Thereafter, in his last 40 Tests, he took 199 wickets at 25 (including an extraordinary golden period of 131 wickets at 19 in 21 Tests), averaged almost 27 with the bat, took 42 catches, and captained his country to five series wins out of six, the exception being a drawn rubber with England that retained the Ashes for Australia. Even the finest legspinning allrounders have needed time and patience. England should pick Rashid and see what happens, rather than not pick him and assume what might happen.

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