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Cookie, Jimmy, Rooty, Ravi: thanks for the stats, lads

What was The Oval Test all about? Numbers, of course

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman
Alastair Cook and Joe Root get emotional at the thought of a new generation of England fans witnessing a second-innings double-century partnership  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

Alastair Cook and Joe Root get emotional at the thought of a new generation of England fans witnessing a second-innings double-century partnership  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

An intriguing, fluctuating series, between two sides that blended brilliance with fallibility in a compelling if curious cricketing cocktail, had already been decided, so expectant crowds flocked to The Oval largely to see History Being Made. And History duly stepped up to the plate, plonked a smorgasbord of statistical nuggets onto that plate, and whispered "bon appetit" in its most seductive accent.
Day one may not have seen the Alastair Cook farewell hundred that some had predicted was "written in the stars" (the stars, it transpired, had an even better story written in them) (there are quadrillions of stars; everything that has ever happened is written in them if you look at them in the right way - even Hashan Tillakaratne scoring 17 off 61 balls in his final Test innings in 2004). However, it did give the history-hungry spectators the consolation of seeing England reach 128 for 1 after 60 overs - the lowest 60-over opening-innings score by a team that has lost fewer than two wickets since 2003, and the second-lowest such score in any innings since 2005.
Then the famous old ground basked in the moment as Jonny Bairstow became:
(a) the third England player to make three ducks in a home series batting in the top seven (after Graeme Hick against West Indies in 2000 and Ben Stokes in the 2015 Ashes, both of which were also victorious series for England, suggesting there was scientific backroom method behind the splattering stumps).
(b) the second top-seven player ever to be bowled for a duck three times in a single Test season (after New Zealand's Matt Poore in 1955-56).
(c) the fifth player to be bowled out six times in an English Test summer (after Ted Dexter in 1960; and Wilfred Rhodes, and South Africa's Aubrey Faulkner and Tip Snooke in the Triangular summer of 1912).
On days two to four, Virat Kohli, needing seven runs with two dismissals in hand to reach 600 for the series and become the second player after Don Bradman to reach that total four times in his career, proceeded to edge two successive balls in the corridor of temptation. The second was a fatigued poke after a six-week series of dedication, brilliance and restraint. It was followed by an eight-hour marathon session of futile fielding as England slowly cranked their superiority, followed by approximately 14.7 seconds of quality downtime while Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara blunted the new ball with their pads.
Nevertheless, the noisy Indian support could celebrate their skipper instead becoming the third batsman, after Bradman and Garry Sobers, to score 593 or more in four or more different series. A stat is a stat, even if it is the frayed remnant of another imploded stat.
How The Oval cheered as it watched both teams put on a double-century stand in the second innings of a Test for only the second time ever (the previous instance was South Africa v India, Johannesburg, 2013-14). "I prayed last night," a teary-eyed father chirruped to his wonderstruck children, "that you would see this stat come true. And also, my darlings, that you would see England's first 200 partnership in the second innings of a home Test since 1998, when, of course, Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart added 226 for third wicket at Old Trafford against South Africa."
Day five saw one of the estimated 364 standing ovations in the match greet tyro wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant becoming just the eighth player to make a fourth-innings Test century before the age of 21. Five of the previous seven to do so - Abbas Ali Baig, Mohammad Ilyas, Mohammad Wasim, Dwayne Smith and Nafees Iqbal - have combined for a total of one more Test century in their careers. The other two were George Headley and Sachin Tendulkar. Some shining examples for Pant to strive to (a) not emulate and (b) emulate.
Even the defunct Oval gasholders twitched with excitement as Pant finally fell to Adil Rashid, ensuring that no bowler would take a six-for in the series, and thus a new record for Most Wickets Taken by Bowlers in a Series That Did Not Feature a Six-Wicket Haul would be set (eventually finalised as 177 wickets).
There were other momentous moments that simply dripped with momentousness.
Ravindra Jadeja's new Record Number of Overs in a Test Match by a Bowler Who Has Bowled Three or Fewer Maidens (77).
Ten different batsmen making ducks in a Test in England for the first time since 1912.
The first Test in England (and eighth anywhere) with three scores of 80 or more by players batting at seven or lower.
Three or more wickets being taken in all four innings by the fifth-or-later bowlers used for only the third Test ever (after Australia v England in 1970-71, and Australia v India in 1967-68, both at the SCG), enabling this series to smash the record for Most Wickets Taken by Bowlers Coming on as Third Change or Later in a Series in England (now set at 35), testament to both teams' bowling depth.
England finishing with a series tally of 880 runs from Nos. 7 to 11, their third-highest series tally, and highest in a five-Test series, testament to one team's batting depth.
Cook, Joe Root and KL Rahul making this only the fourth Test ever in which three batsmen have made 125 or more in their team's second innings.
This match becoming the second Test ever to contain both four centuries and nine or more ducks (after New Zealand v England, Christchurch 2001-02). And the first Test with nine 50-plus scores and ten ducks.
Keaton Jennings working his way onto the podium for Top Three Batsmen With the Worst Average in Home Tests (minimum eight matches). He averages 17.7 after ten Tests in England, a figure anti-bettered only by Lou Vincent (17.0 in nine Tests as a Top-Three player in New Zealand), and South Africa's William Shalders (16.0 in 9, for South Africa, 1899-1906), who always dreamed of being a stat.
So. Much. History.
Then there was Cook's staggering cricketing valediction, which became the highest ever second-innings score by a batsman in his final Test, and set a new record for Most Second-Innings Test Hundreds in a Career (15).
And James Anderson breaking Glenn McGrath's record for Most Test Wickets by a Pace Bowler (a tidy effort for a player who averaged almost 40 in his first 20 Tests over four and a half years, but whose last 200 wickets have come at an average of 20.2). By knocking the middle stump out to win a Test match.
On reflection, people seemed more excited by those bits of history. For whatever reasons.
I am starting to think I may be watching cricket the wrong way.
A few further Oval reflections:
A pre-match flutter on the four centurions all carving their names on the honours board in the second innings of this Test would have brought rich rewards. Perhaps not as rich as a pre-series bet that Alastair Cook (aged 33, fit as a cucumber) would be dismissed in his last ever Test innings caught by Pant (back-up wicketkeeper) off the bowling of Hanuma Vihari (not in the squad, not a bowler), but rich nonetheless.
Rahul, who played one of the finest too-little-too-late-but-still-majestically-magnificent innings you could see, had averaged 21.2 in his previous 19 second innings, and Pant had made 1 and 18 in the second innings of his two Tests, dismissed twice in 18 balls. Root had made 12 of his previous 13 Test hundreds in first innings, and failed to convert his last 20 second-innings half-centuries, while Cook, a second-innings statistical titan for much of his career, had declined to such an extent that his last 14 second innings had brought just 150 runs at an average of 10.7 (the second-worst 14-knock second-innings sequence by a top three batsman in Test history, behind only M Vijay's 139 runs in his last 14), and had just two second-innings hundreds in his last 58 innings (after 12 in his first 71).
These were four varying bolts from the statistical blue. Cook had not even scored more than 20 in both innings of a Test in his previous 24 Tests, let alone two scores over 70 (it was his fifth Test with two 70-plus scores, matching Atherton's England record).
His first-innings struggle to 71 was, as with many of his high-value and often-overlooked-in-rightly-glowing-career-retrospectives non-centuries, less celebrated but of immense value to England.
Vihari can proudly tell all of his current and future relatives that he took just 26 balls to dismiss a batsman whom Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh were collectively able to extract from the crease only six times in 1082 deliveries, or once every 30 overs.
For the fourth time in the past five series between the two teams, England's spinners have returned a better average than India's (the exception being the overwhelming tweak supremacy of India in the 2016-17 series, 30.3 to 48.1; England's slow bowlers had an average advantage of 47.6 to 93.8 in 2011; 28.6 to 40.6 in 2012-13; 23.7 to 44.0 in 2014; and 26.6 to 33.3 this year). India had a spin-average advantage in 11 of the previous 12 series, from 1981-82 to 2008-09 (some more relevant than others - in 1996, India's spinners took 6 for 439, England's 1 for 231). The one exception was the 1990 series.
The staggering longevity and statistical milestones achieved by Cook and Anderson have been made possible not only by their own talents and dedication to the crafts of cricket, nor simply by the regular secret sacrifices of herds of oxen to Zeus, conducted covertly by the ECB to ensure the fitness of their prized assets, but also by the era of central contracts.
Since 2000, England have won more Tests than they have lost in 17 out of 19 summers; they were even (won two lost two) in 2012, and had a losing summer in 2001. From 1984 to 1999, England had a losing record in ten out of 16 summers, were even in 1995 and 1998, and had only four winning home seasons (1985, 1990, 1991 and 1994). Whether this improvement was due to central contracts, which brought a reluctant abandonment of the grand English traditions of flogging bowlers into the ground through an unending county summer and dropping players for fun after a couple of bad matches (or one bad match) (or no bad matches) (or a poorly timed sneeze), or due to English cricketers just much preferring years beginning with 2, we may never know.
The improvement away from home has been considerably less marked. Central contracts have brought England six winning winters out of 18, with two even, and ten losing. From 1983-84 to 1999-2000, they had four winning winters, 12 losing, out of 16 (they played no Tests in 1988-89).

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