The first Test at Lord’s finished after 6pm on Monday night. Three days, 16 hours later, England and Sri Lanka return to the field at Headingley on Friday. If the second Test lasts as long as the first, the teams will have played ten days of cricket in 13 days.
Later in the summer, the five Test series between England and India involves two pairs of back-to-back matches, separated by the third Test that starts six days after the scheduled end of the second Test and is itself due to complete just seven days before the opening day of the fourth Test.
Back-to-back Test matches – borrowing the term from the design of labourers’ homes, thrown up during the Industrial Revolution close to factories and mills, with nothing but an alleyway separating the row facing one road from the next row looking out on a parallel street. In international cricket, the alleyway is the two, three or four days for players to rest, travel and recuperate before throwing themselves into another five day contest.
I think of back-to-back Tests as pairs of matches where the second begins in the same week as the first ended. And on occasions when the first contest has been compelling, with a thrilling denouement, the second Test is under way before I have fully absorbed the performances and the significance of the match just finished. The game at Headingley starts with my mind still reflecting on the trail of shots, wickets and captaincy decisions that took the Lord’s game to the final ball of its final over.
Back-to-back matches are a feature of the modern Test tour. The programme of international fixtures, by historical comparison, turns over rapidly. Pre-series warm-up matches have been jettisoned or compromised as proper cricket matches. The international encounters themselves have been distilled in many cases to two Test encounters. Days between matches incur cost and generate no revenue. Get the players back on the pitch. Back-to-back.
So common has this pattern of play become (see graph below) that I propose we drop the term ‘back-to-back’. It has become redundant, an unnecessary qualifier. A more interesting term would be one coined for the rare Tests that are spaced more generously. We could keep the domicile reference: semi-detached; borrow another term that confers judicious distance: arms length; or just refer to the calendar: fortnightly.
But before we allow the back-to-back Test to sate our impatience for more cricket, there are questions to be asked. Does it make for good Test cricket? Can players flourish when asked to climb again the mountain they’ve just scaled (or trudge through the valley, into which they’ve sunk)? Are contests skewed by events in the first match, from which the opponents have insufficient time to recover? Do we see the best of the best players, or just those whose bodies are resilient, or know how to play within themselves?
The major Test nations collect and keep data on the physical condition of all of their players and so must know the toll, or otherwise, of playing Test cricket one week after another. The data they keep, they keep to themselves. I have seen one published study on the recovery time for a professional cricketer. It simulated the exertion of scoring a century in a one day international and found that the batsman took a week to regain the level of fitness exhibited at the start of his innings. Assuming the Test match innings is similarly depleting, only the few players scoring heavily on days 3-5 of the first match will be below par at the start of the second of the pair of matches.
It’s the fast bowlers that are of more concern. And we know this concern is felt by the authorities by their selection decisions. The Australian policy of rotation, practiced most notoriously in 2012/13, is the highest profile example. The decision to rest Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus who bowled 33 and 34 fourth innings overs respectively, from the next and deciding Test, which began fewer than four days later, stirred public discontent. One month later, Mitchell Starc was left out of the Boxing Day test, which began a leisurely week after he had bowled Australia to victory over Sri Lanka. National Selector, John Inverarity, was quizzed on the policy and responded “I presume you mean informed player management.”
The authorities that brought you back-to-back Tests and compressed international tours were, it was perceived, rationing the public’s view of the players they wanted to see. Scientific advisers cautioned that the players, who make the sport, weren’t able to cope with the sport’s intensity.
Darren Lehmann distanced himself from the policy on taking charge a few months later and Australia recommitted itself to playing its strongest team in all Tests. Over 14 weeks last southern summer, Lehmann flogged through eight Tests a 34 year old quick with dodgy knees, as well as a mercurial 32 year old, with an exceptionally stressful action – but one who bowled in four over spells, even if he had taken a wicket in the fourth over.
Rather than fatigue, it has since been said that each of Starc, Hilfenhaus and Siddle were carrying injuries that caused them to miss these matches. This is probably the real risk that back-to-back Tests pose to the contests being the best against the best: abbreviated turnaround times giving bowlers insufficient opportunity to recover from minor knocks and strains – or risk those injuries becoming graver.
Another question about the desirability of back-to-back Tests is whether running one Test so soon after another prevents the contest developing and favours the team that gets ahead in game one. My sample of recent Tests was so heavy with back-to-back matches that I did not have enough control data. To find this I went back twenty years and looked at Tests from the 1990s. That recently, the spacing of matches within a Test series was very different.
To get a view of whether back-to-back Tests influence outcomes I have (holding my hands up to acknowledge that it is methodologically suspect) combined my sample of Tests from the 2010s with the sample from the 1990s. Looking at pairs of matches where the first game had a decisive outcome, I have calculated how often that outcome was repeated or reversed.
Surprisingly, the pairs of matches with longer break periods had a higher proportion with both matches having the same outcome. Back-to-back Tests were, however, less likely to produce a pair of games where the loser of the first game bounced back to take the following match. Perhaps the key figure, although one that is not easy to interpret, is that back-to-back Tests were more than twice as likely to follow a decisive result with a drawn match. This could be evidence of fatigue affecting both teams, or of less enterprising play, or simply a feature of this sample.
Back-to-back Tests don’t merit comment because of their rarity, but because they have, relatively recently, become the common currency of Test cricket. Along with lengthy ODI series, back-to-back Tests are where the pressure of a full international calendar seems to erode the standard that the highest form of the game should be of top quality and played by players in full fitness. Whether the hustling of one match so soon after the first actually affects the outcome of those matches is far less clear and probably deserves a more comprehensive review. It’s the sort of question one would hope, but sadly not expect, the ICC to investigate.