Warm-up matches. It’s just the way it is.
It’s just the way it is. Australians would say the same when they come over to England. Some of the county teams are full of second XI players. Both sides would love to come across a stronger outfit to really be tested out. But you go round the world and it’s the same everywhere.
(Trevor Bayliss after England’s day-night warm-up match at Adelaide)
When something is wrong and the conclusion reached is, “It’s just the way it is,” there is somewhere, perhaps everywhere, a failure of vision, courage and judgement.
Bayliss’s comment has troubled me. It’s a resignation to the fact that national cricket boards care more about stacking the odds even further to the benefit of the already advantaged home team than they do about hosting a competitive series. It’s institutionalised cheating. It’s not quite overt, but it is a deliberate effort to deny opponents an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the challenges they will face in the international contests.
I don’t expect Bayliss to step out of line of this nasty consensus that visiting teams should be tripped and tricked on their way to the opening Test. His position as England’s first Australian manager of an Ashes touring team is liable to attract enough unfavourable reaction without him risking being characterised as tainted by keeping company with whinging Poms.
Compared to BCCI (who, it was widely suspected, were behind the initiative to keep spinners away from England’s three warm-up matches in 2012) and the ECB (who usually muster county sides containing mostly second XI players) Cricket Australia is not especially culpable. England’s warm-up matches coincide with full programmes of Sheffield Shield games, which limit the standard of the players available for the CA XI. But Ed Cowan and Cameron White are amongst the experienced players who haven’t won places in their state sides who could have given England more stretching opposition. When Tim Payne was recognised as a potential solution to the Australians’ wicket-keeping quandary, he was whisked away from his role as CA XI skipper to Melbourne to play for his State.
What should host nations organise for their guests as pre-Test practice matches? They should not be expected to field their first choice attack or expose a relatively new player who is being lined up for the Test series. That would be giving too much away to the visitors. From the follower’s perspective, it would also rob the build-up to the Test series of a little of its suspense. We want there to be an escalation in the intensity of the cricket and to avoid premature encounters between key protagonists. But an escalation does not mean a step-change.
A clue to the answer has been given by Cricket Australia. The national board did organise a day-night match at the venue where the pink ball Test will be played a few weeks later. The sheer novelty of this event meant that the visitors had to be allowed to acclimatise. The sheer commercial value of the match meant that the tourists could not be abandoned to flounder to a Test defeat inside three days at Adelaide.
But a slow seamer at Adelaide – even under lights with a pink ball – probably presents fewer unfamiliar challenges to the England team than the hard, fast track at the Gabba. For any touring team to be properly prepared for a Test series in Australia, they should be given practice time on a pacy pitch against bowlers of a similar kind, if not the same effectiveness, as the Australian attack. Yet the pitches at Adelaide and Townsville, in contrast to what is looming for England when the series starts at the Gabba, have been easy-paced, even sluggish.
As Bayliss acknowledged, it happens all around the world and he’s counting on the ECB being similarly uncooperative towards touring teams when England next play at home. To break this selfish cycle that cricket has slipped into, it might take an altruistic national cricket administrator to step up and offer a touring programme that puts the visitors’ needs at the heart of the itinerary. It does not happen now and the upcoming World Test Championship, weighted with extra context, may make things worse as each series result will have implications beyond its own duration.
On the other hand, I do see the corralling of (at least some) Tests into an over-arching competition as having the potential to improve the pre-series preparation given to visiting teams. The ICC could make the organisation of meaningful practice matches a playing condition for the tournament. Unlikely, I accept, but penalties could be attached to home sides failing to comply. Defining ‘meaningful practice’ is not straightforward, but in the International Cricket Committee, the ICC has access to an expert group who could set a standard, which match referees could enforce. I propose that the standard would include features such as:
- Visiting team management involvement in the preparation of pitches that warm-up games will be played on
- Warm-up opposition to include players with current (or if clashes with domestic fixtures, recent) first-class experience or junior international recognition.
- Team selection to reflect the bowling style of the home nation’s team (e.g. if two spinners likely to play for the home team in Tests, then two spinners should play in warm-up matches).
- Climate to be equivalent to that of the Test venues (e.g. don’t schedule a warm-up for a Brisbane Test in Hobart).
Test cricket’s attempt at a global tournament is both overdue and laden with risk. For it to be viewed as a credible competition and so mitigate some of the risk of it not engaging with a wide, international audience, the ICC must ensure that the neglect of the need of away sides to get meaningful practice ahead of Test series must end. All participating countries must acknowledge the importance of promoting closely competitive cricket and take responsibility for achieving it in their own countries. It’s just the way it should be.