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The Confectionery Stall

Why England are destined to win the Ashes

They took care to not permit Starc or Cummins to get a four-for in Brisbane, that's why

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman
Steven Smith plays a flick on the leg side, Australia v England, The Ashes 2017-18, 1st Test, Brisbane, 2nd day, November 24, 2017

Steven Smith: 1.0 is better than 2.0  •  Getty Images

1. England Have Done Their Statistical Research
It is a fact universally acknowledged that it is impossible for England to win an Ashes series in Australia without statistically replicating previous successful campaigns. England's skilfully executed strategy of not letting any Australian bowler take four or more wickets in an innings was a strategico-statistical masterstroke which ensured that their ostensibly soul-crushing Brisbane defeat in fact renders their eventual victory gloriously inevitable due to the immovable ballast of statistical precedent.
This was only the fourth time that no Australian bagged at least one four-or-more-for in an Ashes Test at the Gabba. The previous three occasions were 1986-87, 1970-71 and 1954-55 - all series that England went on to win. With nine men out in the second innings, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon all had three wickets to their names. By allowing Pat Cummins to take the tenth - just as Hazlewood's final wicket in the first innings had deprived Starc and Cummins of a precious fourth scalp - England ensured that the urn will be metaphorically as well as physically staying at Lord's until 2019.
England's batsmen also contributed to an impressive all-round statistical effort, moreover. It was the first time that six different players in England's top seven had made 40 or more in an innings in the same Ashes Test since 1970-71 - another triumphant tour. At this early stage of a long series, it is far, far, far, far more important to have the stats on your side than the results.
2. Slow-Scoring Cricket is Not What it Used to Be
At 2.70 runs per over, this was the slowest-scoring Ashes Test since the MCG match in the 1994-95 series, 61 Anglo-Australian Tests ago. (It was also the slowest of the last 98 Tests in Australia, since the 2.42-runs-per-over Gabba showdown versus West Indies in November 2000.)
However, that puts it only 163rd out of 326 Ashes Tests, precisely halfway up and/or down the all-time fast-/slow-scoring table.
To illustrate how today's grinders are not fit to pencil the dots into the scorebooks of the stonewallers of the past, consider this: runs in this historically Boycottian throwback Test were still scored faster than in 24 of the 25 Ashes Tests played in the 1950s.
3. Even Temporarily Close Ashes Matches Are a Precious, Endangered Beast
For three and a half sinuous days (or from my perspective, nights), this was a brilliant Test match, an attention-clasping, sleep-depriving wrangle for supremacy in which both teams showcased numerous strengths and weaknesses, some expected, some surprising. A slowly bubbling momentum-shifting epic of cricketing tension was grinding towards a climax for the ages. Then, in the time it took to make a very-late-night sandwich in London, it speed-mutated into a harrowin, recurring English nightmare and an old-school flogging.
Nevertheless, we should appreciate the rare closeness of the majority of the Brisbane Test. The 26-run Australian halfway lead was the smallest margin after the first innings of an Ashes match since The Oval in 2005, and only the fifth two-figure difference in 28 Ashes matches since England turned similarly tight first-innings tussles into equally crushing defeats in both Adelaide and Perth in 2006-07.
Since the 2005 apotheosis of Ashes competitiveness, in 31 Tests there have been seven innings victories, and only three winning margins of under 150 runs. The five successful fourth-innings chases have been completed with six, ten, eight, eight and ten wickets in hand. Two of the five draws - Cardiff in 2009 and The Oval in 2013 - had dramatic endings, although the latter was a contrivance.
The Ashes are, by reputation, supposed to see England and Australia bring the best out of each other. Recently, they have done exactly that. But not at the same time.
4. Steven Smith is Better at Batting Than Jake Ball
Any lingering doubts were laid to rest over the weekend. Smith, with his wizardrous hands, physics-defying bat-work, and tungsten-teak-hybrid temperament, is also better at batting than himself, if you compare his first-innings record with his second.
England restricted him expertly in the second innings, exploiting his relative weakness in the latter half of Test matches. In the first, however, he is better than Bradman. On current form, at least. In his last 34 first innings, since December 2014, Smith averages 100.85, with 15 centuries (out of 19 scores of 50-plus) (see above). In Bradman's most recent 34 first innings, since December 1931, he averages 87.81, with 11 centuries.
5. Cricket is Needlessly Obsessed With "Highest Successful Fourth-Innings Chases" Statistics
As England battled to recover from Smith's genius and Cook's baffling and tragically flawed Roy Fredericks impersonation, attention turned to the Highest Successful Run Chases in Tests at the Gabba. No team, the facts told us, had ever chased down a target higher than 236 to win on this ground.
Such a stat is, simultaneously, factually correct and completely irrelevant. It is not as if sides had been repeatedly crumbling to defeat when chasing 237 to secure a Brisbane victory.
In fact, while there might only have been two successful Gabba chases over 200, there had also only been two unsuccessful chases of below 300. The first was in another Ashes encounter, in 1950-51, a match famous for rain-induced declaration mayhem on a day when 20 wickets fell for 130 runs. England ended that day 30 for 6 in pursuit of 193, before losing by 70. The second un-victorious sub-300 chase in Brisbane was in the tied Test of 1960-61, when Australia, needing 233 to beat West Indies, reached 226 for 6, then unleashed a deluge of run-outs in perhaps the most chaotic ten minutes of cricket ever played.
So while it was true to say that no side had ever successfully chased more than 240 to win at the Gabba, it was also true to say that almost no sides had ever unsuccessfully chased less than 315 at the Gabba either. And all but one of the successful chases below 240 had been completed with considerable ease.
More relevant than the scarcity of successful 200-plus chases was the fact that last year, in the fourth innings in Brisbane, Pakistan made 450 in 145 overs, coming within 40 runs of a record-breaking victory. Furthermore, seven years ago, days four and five of the Ashes Test brought a total of 605 runs for two wickets. More relevantly still, since 2000, elsewhere around the world - where, after all, most teams play most of their cricket - teams chasing 200 to 299 in the fourth innings have won 35 and lost 29 (although this decade has seen a drop in successful run chases in the 200s, with 11 wins and 16 defeats).
In the end, such matters were academic. No team, after all, had lost chasing between 168 and 174 in a fourth innings in Australia since January 1911. The extra 400 or 500 runs England would have scored, had Moeen Ali encased his left boot in a millimetre-thick covering of pastry, proved ultimately decisive.

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