It’s a double-post day today. Maybe we’re all backed-up after slacking off over Christmas. A few words about New Zealand first and then this afternoon we’ll turn to Australia v India, so hold your commenting horses if that’s what you want to talk about.
In cycling, there’s a thing called the combativity award. It generally goes to the guy who shows the least common sense, who tries to defy logic and experience by cycling 100km on his own when he could save his energy by cruising along in the peloton. He loses the race, but at the end of the day, they give him a wheel of cheese.
New Zealand strike us as being a rather cheese-worthy side these days. There’s real fight about them and they don’t get disheartened. Where England implode and India strop, New Zealand get stuck in. We saw it most clearly in the UAE where all the runes and tea leaves said they’d get stomped only for them to fight back to draw the series and we’ve just seen it again against Sri Lanka.
A 135-run first innings deficit is by no means insurmountable, but when you were dispatched for 221 in your first dig and only one guy – a magician, no less – has made more than 69 in the entire match, you can be forgiven for wondering whether you might still be in with a chance of losing by an innings.
But New Zealand aren’t here to roll over; they’re here to remain the right way up – and so they made 524-5. Kane Williamson’s 242 not out takes his average to 46, near as damn it. When you play half your Tests in New Zealand, that’s really rather good.11 Appeals
We’re never sure why people are so averse to comparing apples and oranges. They’re both fruit, after all. It’s not like comparing ox heart and communism. Like apples and oranges, Brendon McCullum and Angelo Mathews are quite different, but also have rather a lot in common.
Why a dual award?
There were plenty of other contenders this year. Kumar Sangakkara couldn’t stop scoring runs and Steve Smith developed a real taste for the Indian bowling, while last year’s Lord Megachief of Gold, Dale Steyn, has become so relentlessly brilliant that people don’t even bat an eyelid when he takes 39 Test wickets at 19.56.
However, Brendon McCullum and Angelo Mathews have been the players who have stood out for us. We have spent the last week or so trying to choose, but their cases are so different that it has been like comparing crisps with ennui. In the end, we decided that as captains of lower profile Test nations who have led by freakish example, they both have an equal claim to the title, even if they have reached this point via entirely different routes.
The highs and lows
We’ll start with McCullum because his case is more obvious. Until recently, he has always been far better in one-dayers than Tests, but in 2014, he averaged 20.33 in one-dayers and 72.75 in Tests. But even that doesn’t really give the full story because between the middle of February and the end of November, he didn’t get past 50 in the longest format.
Truth be told, McCullum didn’t register a single Test fifty all year. He was only an ounce of extra heft away from not having made a score between 100 and 200 either. His 134-ball 195 against Sri Lanka on Boxing Day seemed an almost childishly needless means of pointing out to everyone that he could also score normal hundreds as well as doubles and triples.
New Zealand won that match – their last of the year – just as they’d won against India in their first match of the year when McCullum had made 224. One match later, he made 302 after his side had surrendered a 246-run first innings lead to earn an unlikely draw. You can’t say he doesn’t influence matches and nor can you say that he doesn’t make the most of good form.
McCullum’s crowning achievement came in November, however. Australia had just demonstrated how hard it is to even compete against Pakistan in the UAE, let alone win, and the ‘home’ team had at first carried on in much the same vein against New Zealand. But a Kiwi side hewn in McCullum’s stumpy-but-still-up-for-a-fight image was having none of it. They drew the second Test and then minced Pakistan in the third.
Mark Craig was man of the match, but McCullum made 202 off 188 balls. It’s hard to respond to something like that and Pakistan couldn’t.
The bit in-between
Angelo Mathews has been harder to spot. Not for him the double hundreds. In fact, even the single hundreds feel like aberrations. Mathews’ year has been almost the exact opposite of McCullum’s. He seems to have made 50 almost every time he has gone out to bat.
Only once in 20 Test innings was he dismissed for a single-figure score and despite only two hundreds, he averaged 77.33. If this is starting to sound like a celebration of mediocrity, factor in his one-day knocks and you start to get a feel for the scale of his achievement. Over 31 50-over innings, he averaged 62.20 and even when his team was rubbish, he was good. In five sad defeats to India, he delivered 92 not out after arriving with the score reading 64-3, 75 after arriving at 42-3 and 139 not out after arriving at 73-3.
Quite simply, he never lets his side down. At times in the past, he’s seemed a trifle bits and pieces. But nowadays his bits of bowling arrive alongside some magnificent pieces of batting.
His all-round performance at Headingley must rank somewhere reasonably high in some list or other of good cricket things. We’re not going to define that list or choose the ranking because that could only elicit nit-picking which is surely besides the point.
Mathews had taken 4-44 in England’s first innings when he walked out to bat. His side were 68 ahead with four wickets down and had just expended an extraordinary amount of energy in securing a nine-wickets-down draw in the first Test (a match in which he had made 102). Pretty soon, Sri Lanka were seven down and just 169 ahead. Surely the reservoirs of self-belief were running dry?
At the time, we wrote about how batting with the tail is an amorphous puzzle where your goal oscillates between singles and boundaries with the field waxing and waning constantly. In short, it’s mentally exhausting, yet Angelo Mathews took his side from 277-7 to 437-9.
Even then, he wasn’t done. England fought back through Moeen Ali. When you’ve poured so much into a game and it seems it’s still not enough, you can crumple or you can redouble your efforts. Quite how you accomplish the latter is beyond us, but that is presumably what Mathews managed in captaining Sri Lanka to their first proper series victory in England.
Between them, they’ve got it all covered. Take a bow, Brendon McCullum and Angelo Mathews – the sides you captain are better for your presence. You are 2014’s Conjoined Lord Megachiefs of Gold.21 Appeals
It has to be. Unable to fly and never allowed to play more than three Tests in a series, it has to adapt quickly if it isn’t to be devoured by cats or beaten by Pakistan.
Captains and coaches always talk about learning from a defeat, but you rarely see any evidence of this. It’s just a thing you say – yet New Zealand appear to have actually improved as their tour of not-Pakistan has progressed.
First Test: Beaten so soundly you might have mistaken them for second-rate tourists, such as Australia or England
Second Test: A very creditable draw
Third Test: Almost certainly a win – and by a huge, huge margin
They even got Younus Khan out for a golden duck. Just think about that.
It’s almost as if it would be worth everyone’s while to have New Zealand play more than six Tests a year; as if having more than three teams in the world might somehow enrich the sport.
Thankfully, this will never happen. New Zealand will play two Tests against England this summer AND THEN IT’S THE ASHES AGAIN. You can’t argue with the law of supply and demand – the more of something you have, the more valuable it becomes.6 Appeals
Is MS Dhoni’s arm made out of just one super fast-growing bone? We’re imagining an ever-extending protuberance that requires regular pruning based on the following from Cricinfo:
“On the eve of the meeting, a BCCI insider revealed that Dhoni was recovering from a “right forearm” injury. By the time the selectors finished the meeting, an aide close to Dhoni said it was a “wrist” injury. Two hours later, BCCI secretary Sanjay Patel told reporters that Dhoni had been advised rest after hurting his “right thumb”.”
Dhoni was apparently carrying the injury during the aborted series against the West Indies when it was presumably some sort of shoulder problem.
In Chittagong, something very unusual is happening. Bangladesh are making a dominant start to a Test match. They’ve already won the first two Tests against Zimbabwe and appear to have drawn some confidence from this. At the time of writing, they were 213-0 and both Tamim Iqbal and Imrul Kayes had made hundreds.
We were going to bring you some exciting statistics about Bangladesh partnerships like a proper media outlet, but Statsguru isn’t working so we’ve quickly lost interest. Someone put something in the comments. Make it up if you want.
Pakistan are still battering New Zealand. It’s odd how each of their recent Tests appear to have taken place on two different pitches. You’d think the opposition would object to having to bat on a pitted minefield when Pakistan do all their run-scoring on a complete featherbed.11 Appeals
Poor New Zealand. In recent times, they have slowly been putting together a solid side. Since losing to England last year, they have drawn one Test series and won three. They have one of the more promising seam attacks around and have even found a few batsmen. Now they find themselves up against a happy, determined, organised, well prepared, in-form Pakistan.
What are the chances?
Do stars align? We’ve never really understood that saying and not solely because we fail to see the link between the relative positions of celestial bodies and events on Earth. Does it literally mean some stars appearing in a straight line? Why is that a good thing?
However rare an event star alignment is, Pakistan’s current status is rarer still. It’s like all the planets and stars – every last one of them – getting into a giant, intergalactic queue. It’ll never happen again and nor can it last.
At the time of writing, Pakistan are 347-1 and Brendon McCullum’s already had a bowl. New Zealand are really up against it and they haven’t even caught sight of Younus Khan yet.16 Appeals
Jesse Ryder took 44 wickets at 18.09 for Essex. To put that in context, Ryder has taken 99 first-class wickets in his entire career.
This season, he took four five-fors and had one ten-wicket match. These were added to the no five-fors he’d previously taken to give him a career tally of four five-fors and one ten-wicket match.9 Appeals
Sperm whales have pretty small brains. If you saw one, it would look massive, but they’re small brains in relative terms because sperm whales are massively massive.
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville makes the case that the small brain is compensated for by the whale’s giant vertebrae, the first few of which are almost the same size as the skull and filled with the same brainy gloop. Needless to say, this rather odd argument made us think of the current New Zealand team.
It’s not that the Kiwis are brainless. It’s that they seem lacking up top. For as long as we can remember, New Zealand have struggled to find openers and this has contributed to a batting fragility which for a long time saw the lower order outscoring the specialist batsmen on a regular basis.
It’s reached the point where it just seems futile to hope for much up top, so New Zealand are compensating for this with the first few vertebrae. It’s going rather well for them. In Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum and Jimmy Neesham, they have a cracking spine.
New Zealand have had one or two decent middle-order batsmen in recent years, but having four makes a lot of difference. With four, it seems likely that at least one of them will score in any given innings and suddenly the lower half aren’t being asked to do all the running. Anatomically-speaking, you might think that running ought to fall under the lower half’s jurisdiction, but New Zealand are a sperm while, so they don’t run.
Kane Williamson has made 161 swims without being dismissed in the second innings of the third Test against the West Indies.11 Appeals
As assassins go, Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath is sort of chubby and non-threatening looking. However, after taking five wickets for three runs in 3.3 overs, New Zealand were left feeling like they’d been gummed to death by a capybara. If that weren’t enough, there were two run-outs while he was bowling as well.
It was soft, dreamlike carnage, like choking on blancmange or being smothered by Egyptian cotton with an unusually high thread count. Full credit to the captain for bringing him on so early. Nominally, that captain was Lasith Malinga, but being as he didn’t seem to know his team at the toss and judging by the flailing arms of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara in the field, that was little more than an honorary position.17 Appeals
We’re going to miss this match, so you’re going to have take up the slack and deliver our usual insightful, in-depth reportage in the comments section yourselves.
If you divvy the work up between a few hundred of your pets, we’re sure you can produce something approaching our usual quality. Infinite monkeys and all that. You will probably get more accurate results if the pets are angry, tired, hungry, or all three. But don’t be cruel to them in the name of art. It is unacceptable to do anything in the name of art, except for the destruction of art.
Blame our Dad for ageing if you’ve got a problem with our absence. Sometimes it seems like not a year goes by without him having some kind of birthday or other. And not a decade goes by without there being a big song and dance about it (albeit with no actual singing or dancing, because he’s a real man).
Meet you back here in a few days. We will review the comments upon our return and take your words as gospel for the remainder of the tournament.33 Appeals
Brendon McCullum is a positive person; the kind of irritating, upbeat character who can’t understand everyone else’s entirely logical can’t-do attitude to things. When he was joined at the crease by BJ Watling in the second Test against India on day three, he’ll have thought: ‘Okay, if we can just put on 352 runs for this wicket, we’ll be in with a shout.’
So he and BJ promptly put on 352 runs for the sixth wicket. When the two came together, New Zealand were 94-5 and 152 runs away from making India bat again. 123 overs later, when Watling was finally dismissed, they were 200 ahead. At this point, McCullum thought to himself: ‘Okay, if we can just put on at least 125 runs for this wicket…’32 Appeals