Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer
BAN v SL (1)
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Uganda Women in Nepal (1)
County DIV1 (4)
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4-Day Championship (3)
Watching the Sri Lankan bowlers struggle in this series – 21 wickets at 61, aided by a late flurry of slog-induced dismissals as England cut loose in an attempt to make sure the game was at least 101% safe before declaring, rather than a risky 100% safe – it is hard to be optimistic about their team’s prospects as a Test force in the near future.
Life after Murali is proving to be as difficult as everyone had thought it would be. It was, of course, obvious that Sri Lanka would miss the great tweakster very much, in the same way that a champion racehorse would miss one of its legs, or Sebastian Vettel would miss his steering wheel, or Michelangelo would have missed his paintbrush.
In the seven Tests since Murali bid his spectacular and victorious farewell last July, bowling his team to victory and himself even further into statistical immortality, in Galle against India, Sri Lanka’s bowlers have dismissed their opponents for under 430 just once, and have collectively averaged 50. Four of those seven Tests have been against the formidable batting line-ups of India and England, on some fairly unforgiving pitches, but they are inauspicious figures nonetheless.
ESPNcricinfo’s undisputed Jimi Hendrix of Stats, S Rajesh, compiled this excellent comparison of Murali and Warne when the former retired last year. The numbers suggest, strongly, that both men were very good at bowling a cricket ball.
No team has ever been as reliant on one bowler as Sri Lanka were on the Kandy Konjuror. Over the course of his career, Murali took 41% of his team’s wickets, and bowled 33% of their overs – so he was bowling a third of the time that Sri Lanka were in the field. For nearly two decades. (By comparison, Warne, in a much stronger Australian attack, took 28% of Australia’s wickets, and bowled 28% of their overs.)
Sri Lanka have played 190 Tests since being admitted to Test cricket in 1982. Murali played in 132 of them; and they won 54 of those games. He was his team’s leading wicket-taker in 43 of those 54 wins, including 37 of 41 between September 1996 and December 2007. Sri Lanka have won just seven of the 68 Tests that Murali has not played in. History suggests Sri Lanka were four times as likely to win with Murali than without him. And that the Sistine Chapel would have 25% of the current number of tourists visiting it if Michelangelo had had to paint it with his fingers.
The closest equivalent in terms of importance to a Test team is probably Richard Hadlee, who over the course of his unstoppably moustachioed career bowled a quarter of New Zealand’s overs, and took 35% of their wickets. His country had won seven out of 102 Tests before he made his debut. They won 22 of the 86 in which he played, with Hadlee top wicket-taker in 16 of those. They won none of the 14 Tests he missed during his career, and only seven of the next 55 after he retired. Until a new generation emerged in the late 1990s, New Zealand without Hadlee were like steak and chips without the steak. And often without the chips.
In all, it was a decent but ultimately unsatisfying Test match, decorated by Dilshan’s brilliantly ballsy 193, an innings of mental and physical courage against a strong if misfiring attack whose pace bowlers looked increasingly one-paced and one-heighted as the Sri Lankan skipper unfurled his masterpiece.
Dilshan is a captivating player, a risk-taking strokeplayer who has become increasingly daring and attacking as he has become older and moved higher up the order. Since being shunted up to open two years ago, he averages almost 54 – the highest of any Sri Lankan opener – with a strike rate of 80. As a younger middle-order player, he scored significantly fewer runs significantly less quickly, which suggests that, by traditional standards, Dilshan is living his Test career backwards, a cricketing Benjamin Button. And also suggests that, when he is 75, he is going to be one hell of a player.
The closing stages of the match, and indeed the entire modern history of Test cricket, were overshadowed by the Smashed Window Incident, which threatened to plunge the international game into a crisis from which it may never have emerged. Thankfully this seems to have been averted after a swift apology and an explanation that proved to be disappointingly mundane and suspiciously plausible.
As soon as the sound of shattering glass was heard, the rumours abounded - had a passing Graeme Smith popped in for a chat with his English pals, casually picked up a bat, and watched himself play a cover drive in a mirror? Or was it Jonathan Trott’s attempt to recreate a rather grisly scene from the 1970s horror classic The Omen? Or perhaps Steve Finn’s lucky pelican had escaped from his kit bag and flown beak-first into the window in an attempt to make it to the fish-and-chip van at the Nursery End before they had sold out of fresh herring? Or had a local burglar chosen an extremely inopportune moment to try to furtively break into the England dressing room?
A story then emerged that Matt Prior had been so incandescent with rage at falling an agonising 96 runs short of becoming the first wicketkeeper to score hundreds in both innings of a Lord’s Test, that he marched up to the window and growled at it until it smashed itself in fear. Or put his bat through it.
This was soon contradicted by the rather prosaic official explanation proferred by the England management, who blamed that convenient old scapegoat, Physics. They claimed that Prior’s bat had simply fallen down and broken the window in a freak accident.
England’s numerous back-room team fortunately includes a glazier, who replaced the shattered pane with some very fetching stained glass depicting Alistair Cook nurdling a single to fine leg.
(Incidentally, the last recorded instance of a window-smashing at Lord’s was when a hung-over Denis Compton was woken up from his traditional pre-innings snooze whilst in the middle of a dream about being attacked by a giant wasp. He attempted to swat Peter Parfitt with his bat, which smithereened the window. Compton then went out to the middle using a shard of glass as a bat, and promptly scored a brilliant century against a Yorkshire attack featuring Freddie Trueman, Johnny Wardle and Bob Appleyard. Compton later claimed he preferred playing with a glass bat to a wooden one, as “it gave me a great incentive to wait for ball and stroke it, rather than trying to hit it too hard”. Here endeth the lie.)