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In test cricket, there’s no place like home

8 January 2018

11:26 AM

8 January 2018

11:26 AM

It has been a pretty ghastly winter and the best that may be said of it is that by far the worst of it is now in the past. The sooner England can get the hell out of Australia the better. It is true that few people, I think, viewed this tour with any kind of inflated optimism; nevertheless the manner of England’s defeats – after an initial promising two days in Brisbane – has been grindingly dispiriting. When even Glenn McGrath is reduced to saying, in effect, ‘Cheer up cobbers, you were more competitive than last time you ventured here’ you know the game is up. 

True, Steve Smith enjoyed a halcyon summer and, in Australia, David Warner is a formidable batsman. True, too, that Australia’s attack hunted well together. Only Jimmy Anderson would make it into a combined side and even then only if you were playing (as you should) five bowlers. Poor Anderson, an ocean yacht reduced to carrying freight as he manfully led the line to the very, bitter, end. Almost alone amongst England’s players, he leaves Australia with his reputation enhanced. 

Still, the rest of England’s attack gave new meaning to the term toothless. Smith and Warner were priced-in to some extent, but it was some achievement to make the Marsh brothers look like the second coming of the Waugh twins. By Sydney, even Usman Khawaja was tormenting the Poms. The idea there was not very much between the sides could no longer be maintained without giggling. England might have been good enough to get themselves into decent positions; they never once showed the ability to capitalise on those promising beginnings and this was as true with the bat as it was with the ball. 

In the aftermath of a walloping like this certain conventions must be observed. This is no place for perspective. And yet a measure of perspective is still sensible. And the fact of the matter is that the imbalance between the home and away sides is becoming one of the many factors threatening the future of test match cricket. Home advantage has always been a factor and reasonably so but there are reasons for wondering if it is now excessive. 

Consider this: in the last decade India have won 15, drawn two and lost only one series at home (to England, amazingly, in 2012-13). Australia’s record at home in the same period is won 12, lost four and drawn one. England are just as supreme at home: won 15, lost three, drawn three. The home side has won 115 tests in this time and lost just 28. Just as England have only won one series in Australia this century, so Australia have not won in England since 2001. 

If that is one problem for test cricket – is it entirely coincidental that England’s only successful tour of Australia this century was also the only one in which they had something resembling proper preparation, playing proper cricket against proper first-class sides? – another is the manner in which the Ashes now dominates everything else. It has become A Thing, overshadowing everything else to the extent that thoughts are already turning to the resumption of hostilities next summer. The rest of the international calendar, however, cannot just be thought preparation for the oldest encounter. That’s one reason to wish for the long overdue establishment of a proper test match championship. 

Other conventions must be observed too.  Most important of these is the obvious truth that county cricket plays no part in England’s success at home but is entirely responsible for England’s failures overseas. You may discern a flaw in this analysis and if so, well done you. 

English cricket has been arguing about the structure of the domestic season for as longer than I have been alive. The first reduction in the county championship came as long ago as 1968. Since then the number of matches has been reduced still further, albeit each of those fixtures now takes place over four rather than three days. 

Everyone always agrees there is too much cricket played in an English summer; few people seem to appreciate there is significantly less cricket played now than used to be the case. In 1965, for instance, counties played up to 84 days of championship cricket, plus – a handful of one day fixtures and, perhaps, a match against a touring side. By 1980, the workload was similar as counties might play as many as 94 days of cricket (66 in the county championship, 16 in the Sunday league and up to 12 in the two other limited overs competitions). Last year, the maximum number of days’ cricket was 84 (56 in the championship, 11 one day cup fixtures and 17 Twenty20 games). And since the 2017 season extended to 172 days (April 7th to September 28th), the current crop of players actually have more time off than almost any of their predecessors. 

Still, it seems obvious – obvious that is, to everyone except the ECB – that playing the majority of the championship in April and September mitigates against the development of test-match class batsmen and bowlers alike. More championship games are played in April than in the prime months of July and August combined. That speaks to a structure which only notionally places the interests of test cricket first but actually subordinates that supposed priority to the demands of limited overs cricket. 

Meanwhile, the ECB is awash with cash though quite what the end product of all this moolah is remains mysterious. Neither the fast-bowling performance unit, nor the spinners’ programme appears to have achieved anything of any great use. Again, the conditions in which county cricket is played do not help, there being too many mediocre tracks that do little to encourage application with either bat or ball. 

At home England remain a prime force and, assuming Ben Stokes returns to the fold, will likely prove as much again this summer. Overseas is a foreign country, however. They do things differently there. 

As ever, however, you wonder about the priorities of the game’s guardians who talk about preserving and enhancing test cricket while doing so very little to actually make good on those lofty intentions. 

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