Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer
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Let Battle Commence. Briefly. For a couple of weeks. And then let it commence again two months later. After literally weeks of waiting, England’s Ashes Test summer has begun − nine weeks, two Tests, a one-day series and a Twenty20 World Cup before the actual Ashes. The tension has proved too much for the Lord’s crowd, who have mostly not turned up. Either the cricket-watching public is pacing itself to avoid the risk of burnout in a long and demanding summer schedule, or it looked at the ticket prices, remembered what the weather in England in May is usually like, checked how the credit crunch is going, weighed up the pros and cons of watching Nash bowl to Cook, and decided to feed their families instead.
It seems that England (or at least large parts of the English media) have been building up to this summer’s showdown with their oldest enemy since approximately 13th September 2005. Perhaps they have been focusing so hard on it that they have at times appeared to ignore most other matches, series and tournaments in between, including the 2006-07 rematch in Australia (which, according to the internet, did happen, although for the life of me I cannot recall it, and remain convinced it was a hoax – the alleged 5-0 scoreline seems wildly implausible).
Despite this, England began the penultimate Test before the Ashes with a new-look team, including four players making their home debut, and only two remaining from the XI that played the first four Tests in 2005. England are thus likely to take on Australia with a team largely unencumbered by the scars of that victory. No-one will accuse England of being overprepared come July. (Australia could easily begin the series with only three of the players rumoured to have participated in the 2006-07 whitewash, so the message seems to be that winning the Ashes spells the end of your international career. Be warned, ambitious players. Success will be the seeds of your destruction.)
England badly need to win this microseries against West Indies, and to achieve this, their bowlers must rediscover the elusive feeling of bowling teams out twice. Recent history suggests Lord’s is not the best ground for them to attempt to do this. Pitches have tended towards increasing tedium over the course of a game, frustrating bowlers and spectators, and slightly devaluing the once-rare currency of the heroic rearguard.
As I began writing this blog (at the lunch interval of Day 1), they had made a decent start, and the match seemed to be repeating the pattern of the last three Tests in the Caribbean – a steady but undominant, unexplosive start by England’s batsmen in the face of some fairly low-intensity cricket by West Indies, on a pitch that offers the tantalising prospect of a high-scoring draw.
Chris Gayle chose to put them into bat, for two main reasons. One: why change his successful drawing formula from the Caribbean series? And two: to double his acclimatisation time before having to bat. It’s always nice to stretch your legs after a long flight, and what better way to do so than spending a couple of days standing at slip on the hallowed Lord’s turf? All good travel agents recommend it.
Gayle’s plan now looks in danger of being scuppered by one of his own players. Fidel Edwards, heroically but mostly unrewardedly thunderous for most of the series in West Indies, has just blasted out Cook and Pietersen in two balls, and suddenly the match looks far more interesting. Edwards, one of cricket’s most exciting bowlers, deserves more luck and fairer wickets.
Before those wickets fell, I had been in the process of confidently predicting that Pietersen would smash a brilliant century, based on the premise that his stint in the IPL had, contrary to popular opinion, provided him the perfect preparation for this Test. England’s key batsman appears to have played himself completely out of form, and did little to justify his bulging wage packet. My theory is that Pietersen is seldom more dangerous than when he has a point to prove – and is therefore almost certain to smash a brilliant century. If I may qualify my thesis slightly in the light of recent events, Pietersen is seldom more dangerous than when he has a point to prove, except when he still has a point to prove but has just been out first ball. And I’m sure if he had not been out first ball, or subsequently, he would have scored a brilliant hundred. My point therefore stands.
We will now see if Collingwood’s preparation for the Test – a paid holiday watching the IPL and making some new friends – can set a new template for success. If he scores a hundred, perhaps the ECB will consider forcing all England players to become non-playing members of Indian franchises. In which case, we can confidently look forward to newly stratospheric standards in county cricket as players strive even more desperately for international recognition. (Last-minute update: Collingwood out for 8. Bad news for would-be England cricketers. Hundreds of schoolboys abandon their dreams of playing international cricket. I owe Chris Gayle and his toss-winning decision-making an apology.)
The (revised) Confectionery Stall prediction for the Lord’s Test: Pietersen to bounce back from his first-innings blob with a brilliant, point-proving century.