The Spin | ‘It’s my dream job’: Andy Zaltzman on being cricket’s funniest statistician
In between typing out Bond novels and slurping on vodka martinis, Ian Fleming had Caribbean coastal views to gaze upon from GoldenEye. David Hockney has holed up in the Hollywood Hills, Bridlington and Normandy, never without a pack of cigarettes or, more recently, his iPad.
Andy Zaltzman is in his shed at the bottom of his garden in Streatham, south London, where “the phone signal is crap but it’s got pretty good wifi”. It’s not Malibu or Jamaica but it’s a “pretty nice” spot where he can hunker down with his two muses: statistics and satire.
Zaltzman has been a comedian for more than 20 years: critically acclaimed shows at Edinburgh and on the circuit, a creative partnership with John Oliver and The Buglepodcast, a weekly “blast of premium calibre satirical hogwash” that has been running since 2008. He secured sole hosting duties on Radio 4’s The News Quiz in 2020, with the Covid lockdownsmeaning he has been hosting from his shed rather than a studio. When he isn’t skewering the news from his garden lair, he’s in there beavering away on his other passion: cricket.
Zaltzman has been obsessed with cricket since he was a child, his love of it taking him deeper into the depths where he now resides, swimming among the stats. He wasn’t a numbers whiz as a youngster – “I did maths A-level, but can’t really remember anything from it” – and he studied Classics at university. Did he have some sort of numerical epiphany?
“I was given a couple of books after the 1981 Ashes. They had Bill Frindall’s TMS scorecards in, that’s when the magical trapdoor into cricket stats opened and I fell through.”
His statistical interest smouldered on the back burner while his comedy career took off. He was then invited to write a cricket blog for ESPNcricinfo, which he called The Confectionary Stall. “I began delving into the numbers using their ‘statsguru’ facility. Maybe the combination of stats with comedy made it quite distinctive.”
After a few years, Test Match Special came calling. He’d been a lifelong follower. “I remember listening in the car as India won the 1983 World Cup, and when Richard Ellison tore through Australia in 1985, which was especially exciting as a Kent fan.”
It is this enthusiasm along with a killer eye for a stat that has made him a popular addition to the institution. His first shift in the shadow of Frindall, Sampson et al was particularly memorable. “It was the morning after the Brexit vote … a one-dayer at Edgbaston, I’d been up all night watching the news unfold while simultaneously looking up stats about the visiting Sri Lankans and testing out my scoring system. I was definitely nervous, it felt like making my debut.”
His first Test match behind the mic was equally chaotic. “I got the call at about 9am the morning of the game as Andrew Sampson had rung in sick. I was supposed to be playing for the Authors XI and so I had to be the guy that drops out at the last minute. I had no time to prepare, I just had to do it.”
With his background in comedy, does he feel like a torch carrier of the TMS scorer/statistician role or is he offering something slightly different? “A bit of both. I try to find things that help illustrate and explain what is happening and what might subsequently happen in the game to support the commentators as they tell the story of the match as it evolves.
“It is about the overall narrative rather than just plucking out quirky numbers that aren’t that relevant. The best stats are ones that provoke a discussion and give an insight into performance or show trends of the game. I’m there to spark a bit of a chat, that’s a real joy.”
What about the delivery? Is delivering a stat similar to telling a joke? “Clarity of explanation is obviously crucial and it’s important to give some kind of context when needed. Similarly, with a comedy routine, a lack of clarity and precision can diminish the audience response.”
Zaltzman is quick to laugh at himself and his unique appearance (like a sort of Sideshow Bob Willis) along with his razor-sharp mind give the impression of a man who would be equally as happy clowning around on stage as communing with a spreadsheet or rifling through the Almanack. He admits as much. “I’m doing my dream jobs.”
One topic does attract his laser-beam ire. “I have always been sceptical of the Hundred as a concept. My major problem with it is that, in trying to create a supposedly simpler version of cricket, they have made the game more difficult to explain.
“Most cricket lovers are drawn into the game by people who love it explaining it to them – a parent, family member, friend or TV and radio commentators. I fear the Hundred may be harder for people to explain, to convey their love of the game.”
Zaltzman is coming in off his long run now, the new format receiving the sort of takedown normally reserved for the most ineffective or hypocritical MP. “I find the lack of faith administrators seem to have in how brilliant cricket is as a sport slightly alarming. The philosophy behind the Hundred seems to see the complexity of cricket as a drawback, rather than one of its greatest strengths.
“My children are 14 and 12, and the video games they and their friends enjoy are the ones that are the most complicated and require a significant investment of time. Many successful children’s book series are long, multi-layered epics. Look at the trend in TV, elongated series with deep and complicated subplots that don’t patronise the audience but challenge them. Test cricket is like the ultimate box set.”
We spend more than an hour discussing all aspects of cricket, from the theory that Tim Bresnan can be seen as a “micro-Botham” to how Ian Bell’s 2013 Ashes series could be one of the most influential by any player despite him never being awarded man of the match. He’s currently working on “some stuff to do with ‘decaying averages’” (no, me neither).
“I could talk about this all day,” Zaltzman says, chuckling, “which is handy as that’s literally what I have to do.”