Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer
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The evidence of the last two Pakistan Tests would seem to suggest, incontrovertibly, that England will win this winter’s Ashes by at least 10 matches to nil. Pakistan beat Australia; England beat Pakistan; that is a two-win per Test difference between England and Australia.
Of course, cricket does not always pan out as statistics suggest it should, and trying to divine what might happen in the forthcoming Ashes from this summer’s two series involving Pakistan is a task as futile as trying to predict whether a champion boxer will win his next fight based on how many wasps he swats at a picnic.
England played a good, decisive match, but scored the bulk of their important runs in each innings against some fairly dismal back-up bowling, and were aided by fielding that was borderline appalling (and that borderline was not between appalling and acceptable, but between appalling and catastrophic). Strauss’ team bowled well and caught magnificently, but against a batting line-up that looked as confident in their technique against swing bowling as their ability to play Beethoven’s piano sonatas on an ironing board.
On current form, Pakistan’s batsmen, a poorly conceived salad of proven adequates and total novices, will do well to match in this entire four-Test series, the 708 runs they scored in one innings at The Oval in 1987. They looked vulnerable on paper at the start of their tour, and that assessment now looks like eye-gougingly blind optimism. Obviously, these are not useless batsmen, but they are flawed and inexperienced, and their collective confidence is now more shattered than a stunt motorcyclist’s porcelain piggy bank.
Statistically, it is hard to overstate quite how completely, historically inept, Pakistan were. Following on from almost snatching defeat from three-quarters of the way down the oesophagus of victory at Leeds, their top order put on a 19th-century display, the worst combined match performance by a top five against England since 1907.
Pakistan were six wickets down for 47 and 41 in their two innings, thus becoming only the ninth team in Test history to lose its first six wickets for less than 50 in both innings of a match, and the first since England sank like an impatient Titanic to one of its most humiliating ever defeats in Christchurch in 1983-84. Then, Hadlee, Boock, Cairns and Chatfield double-scuttled a decent-looking England top seven of Fowler, Tavare, Gower, Lamb, Gatting, Randall and Botham, whose performance in that Test was so bad that the Queen was rumoured to be on the point of abdicating.
Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer, constantly threatening again, must go to sleep every night dreaming of bowling at their own batsmen. In fact, a leak from within the Pakistan camp has revealed that Aamer has a tour bowling average of 3.5 against his team-mates in the nets, even when using the net as a boundary.
Umar Akmal, after a stellar entry onto the world cricket stage, has had a particularly disappointing summer. His debut series in New Zealand less than a year ago included innings of 75 off 174 balls and 77 off 144, so he clearly is capable of not batting as if he has to simultaneously catch an extremely imminent train, file an overdue tax return, pop back home to check whether he left the refrigerator door open, and avoid turning into a pumpkin if he bats for longer than 15 minutes.
It is hard to imagine a worse match performance than that by Umar’s brother Kamran, a spectacular array of wicketkeeping howlers neatly interlocked with a pair of noughts with the bat, comprising perhaps the worst individual performance in any medium since novelty children’s entertainer Mr Chicken’s dismal effort at playing King Lear, which consisted of a three-hour chicken impression in which he persistently called all of his daughters "Eggie".
It was almost as if the cricketing gods allowed Kamran a couple of excellent catches to dismiss Strauss and Pietersen (who continues to look every inch a man who doesn’t play much cricket any more), solely in order to dash the beleaguered gloveman on the rocks of destiny by making him shell a simple edge by Collingwood. They then further punished him, as his brother’s wasted referral led to Kamran being unable to refer his own obviously-missing-the-stumps lbw dismissal. If Kamran’s Test career had been a racehorse, his owner would by now surely have done the decent thing.
Clearly, there is not just room for improvement for Pakistan’s batsmen; there is a luxury eight-bedroom house for improvement. But they are having to cope not only with the difficulty of unfamiliar conditions – and, as England and Australia have themselves shown this summer, few teams play swing bowling well even with experience – but also with an impolite schedule that is allowing them no time to rebuild their broken techniques and confidence between Tests.
It has led to a bizarre role reversal, in which England are sticking with an unchanged squad, while their visitors have packed off a failing player to county cricket, and summoned up an ageing old star from the county game. How times have changed.
James Anderson was at his intermittently fluidly brilliant best once he started pitching the ball up. He has been promising for seven and a half years now, his occasional top-class outbreaks offset by periods of toothlessness. The winter will show whether he now has the resourcefulness of his England swing predecessor Hoggard, who was less naturally dangerous but developed a range of crafts that made him a successful bowler around the world. The Lancastrian now averages 27 at home and 43 away, whereas Hoggard’s equivalent figures were 30 and 30.
Anderson has never taken 20 wickets in a series before. If Pakistan continue to bat as they did at Trent Bridge, he could bowl underarm for the rest of the series and still be confident of taking another 15 wickets.
On to Edgbaston on Friday, with Pakistan’s one and only trump card, their seam attack, about to go into its fourth back-to-back Test, weighed down by the knowledge that, even if they bowl with their now customary excellence, their fielders and batsmen have an almost unstoppable range of options for contriving to lose games anyway.
For any Confectionery Stall readers in the Edinburgh area wishing to see me doing my “day job”, my new show at the Edinburgh Fringe − Andy Zaltzman Swears To Tell The Truth, Half The Truth, And Everything But The Truth − begins on Friday 6th August, at The Stand on York Place, daily at 4.20pm, until 29th August (except 16th, when I have a day off to think about cricket).