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Saturday December 30 2006

I have two recorded conversations in the can which need processing before the end of the month, but two parties to attend, this evening and, of course, tomorrow evening.  So, I need something quick and dirty up here now, to enable me to work on those recordings without time pressure, and still be able to go partying.

So, something that really doesn’t matter and which I therefore don’t care about getting rather wrong.  I know: cricket.


England have just lost the Ashes, and are now heading for a five-nil whitewash, the first Ashes whitewash in Australia by Australia, since 1723 or whenever.

Boycott and Agnew were on the telly at the end of the most recent slaughter, number four in the present series, saying that England are not trying hard enough.  The England camp are adamant that they are trying like hell.

I tend to believe the England camp and to disbelieve their critics, at any rate on that particular point.  England are trying hard all right.  Their problem is that no matter what they do, and no matter how hard they try, they are not succeeding.  This makes them despondent, and when in the field now, or when batting now, and not surprisingly, they look despondent.  But this despondence is not a consequence of their waining desire to be successful.  It is the consequence of precisely the fact that they do want to be successful, but can’t manage it.

If they weren’t so sad about it all, they actually wouldn’t now be in such a death spiral, because their earlier defeats wouldn’t matter to them that much.  They’d just carry on playing in the same old way.  As it is, because they care so much, their morale is now in tatters, and as Boycott rightly said, they are actually now getting worse and worse.

The killer was game two, where England clocked up over five hundred, declared and took early Australian wickets, but then after Australia had climbed to a similar total, England rolled over in their second innings and lost.  If we lost from that position, they must have felt, we can lose from any position.  We will never be safe from impending slaughter.  Meanwhile, the Aussies learned that, no matter how tricky things may look at any particular moment, one further bout of pom-bashing will (a) probably happen and (b) win them the game.

In slaughter four the horror of slaughter two repeated itself, but earlier in the game.  England crumpled in their first innings on day one, but Australia then semi-crumpled themselves, to eighty odd for five.  Okay, one of those five was a nightwatchman, but still, the game look vaguely, you know, “poised”.  But then Hayden and Symonds hit big hundreds and it was game over.  Australia had lost Langer for very little, and then Ponting, Hussey and Clarke and (immediately after the big stand) Gilchrist all got out for single figures.  Between them those five top class batters made less than fifty.  Yet still, Australia won by an innings.

England are definitely weaker than they were when winning the 2005 Ashes.  No Simon Jones.  Vaughan not available to captain.  Flintoff wounded.  Trescothick out of it.  Harmison in continuing decline, having already, actually, been on the slide during the 2005 Ashes win by England.  That England won those Ashes with Harmison only once making much impact, on the first morning of the first game (which England lost), is extraordinary.

Even more extraordinary, as my Aussie friend Michael Jennings said when it happened and ever since, is that England won the 2005 Ashes despite Shane Warne taking forty wickets.

Australia lost that 2005 series (a) because England for long periods played out of their skins.  They lost (b) because, I insist, despite “outplaying” Australia a lot (but not always), England were very, very lucky.  If cover had been five yards either way at the death of game two it would have been two-nil to Australia, and the catch behind the wicket that followed to give England a win by two runs looked very iffy.  Later, England did one of their last day crumbles on the way to winning their second victory and nearly cocked that up also.  At the time England fans were telling me that England’s last day crumble then didn’t signify, as if playing badly only counts if you do it on the first day.  Well, in that decisive second game of this current Ashes series, England on the last day crumbled again, and since they needed sixty more runs than they did in that earlier 2005 game, this last day crumble cost them the match, and any hope of making a serious fight of the series.

And Australia lost the 2005 Ashes (c) because, great though he is, the one and only Shane Warne couldn’t do it entirely on his own against a very decent England side.  His was the only world-class Australian performance in that 2005 series.  The rest of the Australian team just didn’t do well enough.  McGrath, having won the first game for Australia, trod on a ball just before game two and was never the same again, and their back-up quicks (now replaced) also failed.  Their batting (now similarly beefed up) also stuttered against excellent bowling from Flintoff, Hoggard and Simon Jones.

And one might add (d) that England lost in 2006/7 because their bowlers have never been so good in Australia as they are in England.  I remember a nightmare series in Australia in 1958/9, when England - with Trueman(!!!), Statham(!!), Tyson(!!), Laker(!!!) and Lock(!) (plus Loader and the useful if unthreatening Trevor Bailey to back them up) doing the bowling – which England, having won gloriously (i.e. 2-1) in England in 1956, lost in Australia 4-0.  This kind of thing has happened before.

Finally, it comes down to Warne, the greatest bowler ever, in my opinion and that of many, many others.

The outstanding test match batsman ever is another Australian, Bradman.  Bradman didn’t play that much test cricket, compared to what the best batsmen play nowadays, if only because of World War 2, and many later test batsman have scored many more runs than Bradman did.  But Bradman’s batting average shoots off the top of the page.  The best of the rest of the test match batters have averages of fifty or sixty or thereabouts.  Bradman averaged as near as dammit - i.e. four instead of the duck that he actually got in his very last innings - a hundred.

Warne’s statistical pre-eminence is most obviously that, as of now, he has taken the most test match wickets: 706 with just one match to go.  But Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka is not far behind on 674 and rising, and Warne’s average is not that wonderful.  He doesn’t even register on this list, for instance, which is the list of people with bowling averages of less than 25.  (Murali, with an average of just under 22 makes that list in fine style.)

Except that Warne’s bowling average, of just over 25, actually is rather wonderful, because he is a leg break bowler.

Usually spin bowlers can do one of two things.  They can bowl accurately and spin it only a bit, unless the pitch is helping them a lot.  Think: Monty Panesar.  Or they can spin it a lot, even if the pitch is not much help, but bowl rather inaccurately.  Think: just about every spin bowler who ever spun it a lot.  Warne spins it a lot, even on the most unhelpful pitches, and he is amazingly accurate.

One record that Warne will probably not lose to Murali is his current record for the most maiden overs bowled by a bowler in test match cricket: 1760.  That statistic, more than any other, and when you put it beside his most wickets by a bowler total, see above, captures the magic of Warne.  He is the bowling equivalent of what captains are reputed to tell batsmen: play your shots, but don’t get out.  Warne takes wickets, but doesn’t give away runs.  And, being a leg break bowler instead of a quick bowler, he can keep going for hour after hour, and for year after year.  Even now, with his retirement announced, he is still right at the top of his game and looks good enough to carry on for a few more years yet.  (My guess is there’s a back story there, involving family, but what do I know?) Actually, Warne will be carrying on for a couple more years, for Hampshire, and it will be extremely interesting to see how well he does for them, given that this will now be the only outlet for his still amazing abilities.

What all of the above has meant for the teams facing Australia is that, basically, what with Australia’s fast bowlers tending to be pretty good also (McGrath etc.), there are, against Australia, no easy runs.

Most test match bowling attacks – England’s current bowling attack is a typical example – have stretches when they are quite menacing, but other periods when they are on the defensive, waiting while front line bowlers either rest or bowl less fiercely, and for the new ball to arrive.  (Think Hayden and Symonds flogging it to all parts, after Australia had been 84-5.) But when Warne is bowling against you, there will be no respite.  Every over you ever face against these damned guys is going to be a struggle.  The fast bowlers, knowing that whatever strong position they establish in the early stages of an innings will be exploited rather than frittered away by tired or second-rank bowlers later in the innings, can exhaust themselves, confident that they probably won’t have to bowl again before they have recovered their puff.  Meanwhile the batsman are dispirited from the get-go by the prospect of having to fight like savages for every run they will ever make.  So, even if Warne eventually walks off the pitch with, I don’t know, 15 overs 4 maidens 55 runs 1 wicket, he has still contributed mightly, just by being there.  And of course it is just as likely to be 25 overs 9 maidens 45 runs 4 wickets, or 5 or 6 or 7.  In the most recent game, Warne’s first innings analysis, on the first day (when the wicket was only supposed to be helping the quick bowlers), was: 17.2 overs 4 maidens 39 runs 5 wickets.

The thing is, England are by no means a hopelessly bad side, as I fully expect them to prove next summer back in England against whoever it is that they will then be playing.  Their test match ranking, right up until this latest debacle, was: 2!  (Their one-day ranking is a different story.) The huge stand by Pietersen and Collingwood in game two this time around was, especially for the Warne-related reasons just explained, a truly wonderful achievement.  Panesar got five wickets on his debut in game three.  Flintoff, Hoggard and (yes) Harmison did reduce Australia to 84-5 in the most recent game.  But wonderful for a half a day or even for a couple of days against this Australian side, with Warne firing on all cylinders, and some of the others always doing something else terrific, is just not good enough.

I repeat Michael Jennings’s point.  The surprise is not that England are now losing.  It is that, despite the presence of Warne at his best in 2005, they managed, just, to scrape a series win.  That was the big surprise.  Especially after that first 2005 game, which was extremely similar to what is now happening in Australia, and after which the Australians were justifiably optimistic that they might be about to make that series 5-0.  This Samizdata posting of mine, from just before the 2005 Ashes series got under way, now makes interesting reading, to me anyway.  I see that I made then many of the Warne points I have made again here.

This time, if Australia don’t make it 5-0, it will be a miracle.

So much for quick and dirty.  That was long, and actually quite clean.  It’s only a game, Brian.  Only a game. 

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