Lord Ted’s mission to save the tour
The cornerstone of international cricket competition, the Test match tour, has been transformed in recent decades. The pandemic of 2020 has left little in the relationships between nations untouched and it has pushed the international tour to a new extreme. The West Indies are more billeted than on tour: confined to two grounds with hotels on site, with Tests taking place only at those two venues and a single other tour game, contested by two teams made up of their own squad members.
While change has been recent – the West Indies played eight 3-day tour games in 2000 – the decline of the season-long tour was apparent much earlier. At least it was to those with an eye on cricket’s drift away from forefront of public attention. Ted Dexter had welcomed the introduction of one-day cricket to the English county game in the early 1960s. He led Sussex to the inaugural Gillette Cup final where he managed to defend a total of 169 and then retain the title the following year.
Eight years later, retired from the game (barring some Sunday Leagues appearances), Dexter wrote Wisden’s preview of Australia’s Ashes visit to England in 1972. He acknowledged the bold plan to hold ‘three one-day Tests’ in August, but was concerned that those were the only reference to one-day cricket.
The trouble with the Australian itinerary is that for more than half the time they will be playing what can only be considered friendly games with the counties. Not so long ago this gentlemanly basis of sporting competition was sufficient to keep the crowds amused but with the advent of sponsorship, win-money, man-of-the-match awards, etc., etc., the old format now seems hopelessly outmoded. Honour and glory, artistry and skills are now only given their due by your potential spectator if something depends on the outcome thereof. Not necessarily money; an extra point or two towards some goal may be quite acceptable. On the other hand a dozen or more games following one another in a pattern, each one played in a vacuum as on this tour, gives your cricket fan far too good an excuse to stay away if the weather is poor, if the star players are being rested or for any other minor reason.
The writing was on the wall last time Australia toured England. Since then Illingworth’s team in Australia has signally failed to halt the trend of dwindling gates for State matches. In fact it seemed that neither the State sides nor the M.C.C. could do more than go through the motions when there was literally nothing to play for. In no time at all the lack of interest on the field communicated itself to the watchers and I honestly think they swore to a man that they wouldn’t be taken for suckers a second time.
Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to involve a visiting team in the hurly burly in our own competitions. Points would need to be averaged up to decide how the maverick side was placed in relation to the others — either this or a concerted attempt made to find sponsors to put up prize-money–or, the ultimate in daring, to put up the prizes and promote the matches from within cricket and thus gamble a little on achieving a better return.
Otherwise I fear a situation where already hard-worked county players will be ever more content to take it easy against the tourists; the tourists will be just practising for the Tests and only the hardiest of cricket-watchers will pay to see them do so.
(Wisden 1972, “Welcome Australia”)
It was another seven years before Dexter’s recommendations were addressed. The touring team didn’t get an invitation to the County Championship; nor did cricket put any of its own money at stake to coax interest and excitement from the visitors and their county hosts. But sponsorship was found and Dexter appears to have taken it on himself to secure it.
For those who followed English cricket in the 1970s and 1980s, the names of its sponsors can probably be recalled as easily as those of our political leaders, chart-topping groups and Saturday night television programmes of that era. Gillette, Bensons and Hedges, John Player and Cornhill benefitted from an absence of commercial clutter on the BBC and in the first three cases from being the name of the respective competitions from their introduction. Schweppes, who paid for their name to complement the un-televised County Championship (1977-83), would be a easy-fair standard quiz question.
The name of the sponsor of the 1979 Indian team’s tour matches with the counties is far less well-remembered. Partly, this is because, unlike the other county competition sponsors they were not a household brand, pushing their product in supermarkets and newsagents. It might also reflect the lack of success of the ‘competition’ they sponsored. The name was Holt – not Holt’s the Manchester brewery – but a car care and chemical manufacturer. Wisden in 1979, welcoming the relationship, noted that “The scheme was devised by Ted Dexter and Mr Tom Heywood, chairman of Holt Lloyd International.” In the absence of further detail, I imagine Dexter, former England captain and PR executive, working away at the cricket-enthusiast Heywood until, after one particularly long lunch the corporate cheque book was produced.
That cheque carried the figure of £20,000 (£100,000 in 2020 terms), which would be shared by the Indian touring side and their county opponents, depending on results. The county judged to have given the best performance was awarded a trophy. There were also individual awards for outstanding players. India, across ten county matches, had almost £6,000 to aim for. A county could win £6,000 if it was the only side to defeat the tourists. To place this in its context, the West Indies won £10,000 as World Cup champions in the tournament that immediately preceded India’s tour.
Norman Preston had featured the details of these incentives to the touring team and hosts in his Editor’s notes to the 1979 edition of Wisden. The following year, the Almanack’s coverage of the India tour failed to mention Holt, or the existence of peformance rewards. Preston’s initials are printed at the foot of this tour review. He notes that ten first class games, including three of the Tests, were drawn, that India had a single victory – over Glamorgan – and lost to two counties. Wisden’s encyclopaedic reputation is in this narrow case undeserved.
To find the winners of the Holt Trophy in 1979, I have relied on the Lord’s Museum and its on-line catalogue. Within two folders of material relating to that tour – “Scoresheets, newspaper cuttings, statistics, press releases, correspondence, photographs” – the following examples of content are provided:
Includes spider diagram showing I T Botham’s innings of 137 in the third Test for England vs. India at Headingley, copy of Radio Times article on S M Gavaskar, press release relating to Holt Products’ sponsorship of tourists vs. counties matches, and photographs of the Holt Products Trophy and M J Procter, Gloucestershire captain, receiving the trophy from Holt Products after being chosen as winners of the award in 1979 for the best result against India.
Gloucestershire were the fourth county to play India, with the match at Bristol taking place on July 21-23, one week after England had amassed 633-5dec in their First Test victory. Gloucester fielded a first choice team – Sadiq Mohammed, Zaheer Abbas, Mike Proctor, as well as their home-grown players well-known for their one-day performances. India held the upper hand: underpinned by 137 from Gavaskar, the tourists were 200 runs ahead with Gloucester six wickets down in their first innings and all their overseas players dismissed. Phil Bainbridge and MD Partridge then put on 116 and Proctor declared 100 behind with the former in sight of a maiden ton. In murky light, Proctor took three quick wickets on the second evening and returned the next day to take four more. “Proctor allowed them no respite, bowling below full pace, but to a testing length and line,” Wisden reported on his analysis of 15.3-8-13-7. The home team’s top order then chased down the target of 203 at more than four runs per over.
That must surely have delighted Dexter: a see-sawing game, enterprising captaincy, marquee names performing to a high standard and contributions from county pro’s. Whether the prospect of a bonus had an influence, we don’t know. Nor do we know if the game was well-attended. Scanning the scorecards of the other nine matches, it appears that counties put out strong sides. The tourists came up against: Allan Lamb, Malcolm Marshall, David Gower, Viv Richards, John Wright, Ken McEwan, Clive Lloyd, Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee. Whether they were taking it easy is harder to tell.
Despite Wisden’s silence and India’s lack of success, Dexter’s initiative may have incentivised the counties to make a contest of their tour matches. Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire were each £3,000 the richer for their efforts. By comparison, Somerset had collected £5,000 for their four match campaign to win the Gillette Cup.
The following year, the West Indies toured and Holt Products continued (or renewed) their sponsorship of the county tour matches. This time there was an eye-catching headline to the deal: the West Indies could net £100,000 if they won each of their 11 first-class county matches. One might wonder if the company bought lottery insurance, or took a calculated risk that such an outcome, faced with motivated opponents and the English weather was improbable. As a twelve year-old, absorbing cricket wherever I could find it, I validate Wisden’s assessment that “interest grew” in the county matches. The existence of the six-figure jackpot is the memory fragment that triggered the research for this article.
The tourists’ quest started, as tradition requires, at Worcester, where they secured a seven wicket victory, with most credit to Malcolm Marshall who took 7-56 in the the home side’s second innings. A curiousity of the game, the description of which takes up almost half of Wisden’s report, concerned Glenn Turner:
Worcestershire were desperately short of resolution in their second innings, which began with an out of character display by Turner, who stepped back and “slogged” at almost every delivery as he made 45 from 24 balls before stepping on to his wicket. The general interpretation was that Turner’s approach was linked with his strong criticism of the West Indians’ conduct on their tour of his native New Zealand in the previous winter. There were also suggestions that he had asked not to be selected for the match because of a back strain. The county’s cricket committee chairman, Mr Roy Booth, later interviewed Turner but an official statement was no more informative than that the club was satisfied that Turner has no grievances with them.
Leicestershire were defeated by an innings inside two days, with Greenidge scoring 165. In the maiden first class match at Milton Keynes, Northamptonshire lost early on the third evening; Richards and Lloyd both recording hundreds. The tourists then paused their challenge to take part in four county one-day matches (Prudential Trophy warm-ups).
Derbyshire, dismissed for 68 in their second innings, were the fourth victims in a nine-wicket defeat. The West Indies moved to Leeds and Lord’s for an international interlude, in the shape of the Prudential Trophy. They had reached the end of May with their hopes of claiming the £100,000 prize alive.
The county challenge was rejoined at Canterbury. A day was lost to rain, but captains Alan Knott and Clive Lloyd made first innings declarations to claw back time. The West Indies bowlers then got to work, dismissing Kent for 84 and setting up a target of 103 which was achieved, not without difficulty, with five wickets down. Another interruption for international cricket followed: the 1st Test at Trent Bridge. The West Indies won a close match by just two wickets. It was both the closest England would come to matching or beating their visitors and yet their only defeat of the series.
The middle game (number six) of the Holt Industries Trophy Challenge was at Hove. More bad weather and, in Wisden’s opinion, “the understrength home side” who had an attack of Imran Khan, Garth le Roux, Ian Greig, Jon Spencer and Geoff Arnold, brought an end to the quest on 16 June.
Three more draws, two rain-affected, left the tourists with a 7-4-0 record, and a string of entertaining innings and incisive bowling performances that entertained spectators immensely and may have raised the sponsor’s profile through radio and newspaper reports of the games.
The following summer, Holt Products again continued (or renewed) their sponsorship of the counties’ games with the tourists: the Australians. I cannot find a record of the incentive structure in place, but it appears not to have motivated the visitors, who managed just two victories. The second of which came late in the summer at Hove, which was again the scene of a significant match in the short life of the Holt Products Trophy. John Woodcock’s Editor’s Notes in the 1982 Wisden were very critical:
Less happily, following a match at Hove in which Sussex fielded a discourteously weak side against the Australians, Holt Products, whose sponsorship had been aimed at making these games between counties and touring teams more competitive, withdrew their support. If Sussex’s action was only partly responsible for Holt’s decision, it was still a pity, in what was a fine season for them, that on this occasion they misjudged their obligations.
Sussex had omitted six players from the team fielded in their previous County Championship match: captain John Barclay, Imran Khan, keeper Ian Gould and bowlers, Garth le Roux, Geoff Arnold and CE Waller. The match fell at the end of the third week of August, one week after the 5th Test at Old Trafford where England’s victory ensured they completed the series turnaround and retained the Ashes. The 6th Test at the Oval was to follow – not only an indulgence, but a dead rubber. Sussex had four matches remaining in the County Championship – a competition they had never won, but for which in August 1981 they were in contention. It appears that they preferred to conserve their star players and captain for that objective. Sussex won all of those four games, but fell two points short of the title which was won by Nottinghamshire.
Sussex were, of course, Ted Dexter’s own county team, which may have made this an uncomfortable denouement to his experiment. Was Dexter critical of his own county’s choice of priority – I suspect not? I also find something odd about Woodcock, a traditionalist, writing so harshly of a county showing such commitment to the County Championship. Barclay wasn’t saving himself and his bowlers ahead of Lord’s final; it was a tough run-in to the first class season that was his focus. The Sussex v Australia game encapsulates the problem Dexter had sought to solve and the dilemma that cricket continues to struggle with: balancing a domestic game with international commitments.
Dexter’s intention had been to incentivise interest and commitment through monetary reward. There is some evidence from these three seasons that the outcome was achieved, but there were also unintended consequences. From the perspective of behavioural economics (1), Dexter’s plan to make the counties’ games with tourists more competitive handed Sussex the permission to be less committed. Woodcock complained about obligations being unfulfilled, but those cultural and emotional ties that bind behaviour are loosened once a financial transaction is introduced. Unwittingly, by offering a performance bonus, Dexter enabled Sussex to, in effect, turn down the financal reward in favour of their other objective.
Touring teams continue to play counties, although with a reducing number of fixtures – Australia met just with Worcestershire and Derbyshire in 2019. The emphasis has shifted to the tourists gaining match practice, but rarely if ever against full-strength opponents. I am not aware of any initiative similar to Dexter’s that would provide context and incentives to perform in these games, whether in England or for Test teams touring other countries. With the benefit of hindsight, Dexter was less a visionary than an unsuccessful conservationist, unable to stem the current of change to international cricket tours.
- See the Haifa Day Care Centre Study, chapter 1, Freakonomics (Steven D Levitt & Stephen J Dubner)
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.
Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell wore down the Indian bowling in a partnership lasting nearly 80 overs on days four and five of the final Test at Nagpur in December 2012. The Warwickshire pair’s efforts were instrumental in defending England’s 2-1 series lead, recognised at the time as a great achievement and one that has not diminished since. Not only was it the last time India have lost a home series, but the Nagpur Test was the last time India have failed to win a home Test (other than a match reduced to less than two days play).
Since England’s visit, India have won 12 of the 13 Tests they have hosted. During this time, India have:
- never conceded a first innings deficit. India’s average first innings lead has been 157.
- won five games in less than three days play. Matches have lasted an average of 316 overs.
- won four matches while losing ten or fewer wickets. On average India have lost 14 wickets per victory.
- dismissed the opposition for under 200 thirteen times. They have conceded 300 or more only twice.
- recorded 14 individual hundreds and conceded just one (Michael Clarke).
- taken 19 individual innings hauls of five or more wickets and been on the other end of seven.
Home advantage has rarely been as telling in Test cricket as in the 2010s. But none of the other highly ranked Test nations have a home record as compelling as India’s since 2013:
- Australia: won 12, drawn 4, lost 0
- England: won 16, drawn 5, lost 7
- South Africa: won 11, drawn 4, lost 4
- Pakistan (in UAE): won 9, drawn 3, lost 4
- Sri Lanka: won 10, drawn 2, lost 5
India’s record as a host is even stronger than those of the West Indies in the 1980s and Australia in the 2000s – albeit over a shorter period than the peaks of these two dominant sides of recent years.
The source of that supremacy is rapidly apparent from a tabulation of aggregate bowling figures. India’s spin bowlers have taken almost twice the wickets at less than half the average and more than one run per over more economically than their opposition. The home team’s pace bowlers are also more effective.
Five spinners have played for India in these series, but two players dominate: Ravi Ashwin (99 wickets at 16.56) and Ravindra Jadeja (61 wickets at 16.47).
Looked at from the perspective of the batting (top 7 in the order) this picture, of course, persists: almost twice the batting average at a scoring rate faster by 25%. Che Pujara (1124 at 62.44), Murali Vijay (895 at 42.61) and Virat Kohli (853 at 44.89) are the heaviest scorers. Ashwin and Jadeja have each contributed over 300 runs as well.
|Batting (top 7)||Runs||Average||Strike rate||100s||50s|
To understand the causes of this run of home dominance it needs first to be acknowledged that it has come at the expense of four countries for whom the sub-continent conditions are particularly challenging: West Indies, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. It is seven years since India hosted any of its neighbouring Asian nations for a Test series – Sri Lanka in 2009/10. Pakistan last visited nine years ago and Bangladesh, of course, have not yet had the honour.
Yet, India is no longer an exotic final frontier for the cricketers of non-Asian countries. There is now an annual migration in April. The format (T20) is different, but the climate, the pitches and the players are all made familiar. It has not, though, carried through into Test performances in the country. AB de Villiers (258 at 36.85), David Warner (195 at 24.37), Kane Williamson (135 at 33.75), Shane Watson (99 at 16) and Chris Gayle (100 at 25) are some of the highest profile IPL contract-holders who have under-achieved at batsmen in Tests in India since 2012.
India’s method of success, more often than not in this period, has been to choke their visitors on dry, dusty pitches favourable to spin bowlers. Slow bowling, the country’s traditional strength, has brought it unprecedented home success recently. To appreciate the change that has occurred, it is helpful to revisit where this post began – at Nagpur in December 2012. There, on a slow, dead pitch that grew gradually more worn over the five days, England secured a draw and the series victory. Three years later, South Africa played on the same ground. The match was over on the third day; 33 of the 40 wickets to fall were to spinners. India bowled only 17 overs of pace, without picking up a wicket.
The majority of pitches prepared for Tests in the period under review have been amenable to spin from the first day. In the case of Nagpur, a hot and dry location, this has produced far more compelling Test cricket than the alternative, were the pitch allowed to develop its flat, unyielding and slow character that England batted on for longer than the 2015 South Africa Test lasted. (Note 1)
Looking ahead to the England series, the local climate can be expected to deliver arid conditions for the first, third and fourth Tests (although October was wetter than normal in Gujarat, the state hosting the first Test). The visitors may prefer the option of a dead pitch on which they can dig in and force a draw, particularly for the first Test. It would be understandable and preferable from the neutral’s standpoint if the pitch preparation led to Ashwin taking the new ball and igniting puffs of dust early in the game. Rajkot, Mohali and Mumbai all appear to have the dry and hot weather that readily creates pitches on which this Indian team has been impregnable.
|Average monthly rainfall|
|Test||City||Date||Oct rain||Oct days of rain||Nov rain||Nov days of rain||Dec rain||Dec days of rain|
|1||Rajkot||9-13 Nov||19 mm||1||6 mm||1|
|2||Visak’nam||17-21 Nov||258 mm||8||115 mm||3|
|4||Mumbai||8-12 Dec||56 mm||3||17 mm||1||5 mm||1|
|5||Chennai||16-20 Dec||279 mm||11||407 mm||12||191 mm||6|
But the Indian sub-continent encompasses a wide range of climatic types. Average monthly rainfall in Visakhapatnam (2nd Test) and Chennai (5th Test) in the build-up to, and during their matches, is significantly greater than the summer rainfall in the damp north-west of England. The pitches, barring sustained and significant effort from the ground staff, will inevitably be moister and more friendly to seam bowling at those grounds (assuming the weather is in line with norms). We will get a feel for the extent to which the groundsmen in the country are willing, or required, to bend nature to the demands of India’s continued impregnability when the series reaches these two centres.
Test cricket benefits from a strong and interested Indian Test team. The sport also gains from fast-moving, exciting matches. I hope, though, that the pitches played on in this and future series reflect the diversity of India’s environment. And, even if England cannot breach India’s impregnability, stiffer challenges may come in the next 15 months with planned visits from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Note 1: Thank you to Nakul Pande for this observation, via Twitter, about Nagpur 2012 v Nagpur 2015.
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.
Whitewash – the long view
An England team has been humbled in Australia, losing five consecutive Test matches. The clean-sweep is a fair reflection of the home side’s dominance. The visiting team can look back at unfortunate incidents, missed opportunities and questionable selections, but a gulf in quality has been exposed.
That’s the predicament English cricket finds itself in at the start of January 2014. 93 years ago, its touring predecessors suffered the same series result. How do the two series and their consequences compare?
England travelled to Australia in late 1920 as holders of the Ashes, seeking a third consecutive series victory. But that provided little evidence of form as the previous encounter had been eight years and one World War ago. The tourists’ batting was thought to be their strong suit. Cardus, reflecting on the ‘wonderful’ summer of 1920 just past, observed (with an analogy that intrigues):
Look at the men who will bat for England in a few weeks in Australia – Hobbs, Hearne, Hendren, Woolley, Fender, Russell. Individualists all – some of them very Lenins of cricket!
The team was led by JWHT Douglas, who had a proven record as a captain overseas with victories in Australia and South Africa, albeit achieved before the Great War. He had not been first choice for the role, though. Reggie Spooner of Lancashire was offered the captaincy, but declined it because of business commitments (1).
Hopes were, of course, even higher for Cook’s team of 2013. Setting out to secure a fourth consecutive Ashes victory, with the first Test at Brisbane starting fewer than three months after the close to final Test of the 3-0 series win on home soil. Cook, himself had never lost a series as captain and had lead England to its first victory in India in 26 years.
Douglas’ squad numbered 16, half of who suffered illness or injury in Australia. The most severe loss was Jack Hearne, who became ill at the start of the second Test and played no further part in the series. Harry Makepeace incurred an injury ‘of its time’ – damaging a thumb when starting a car.
This winter’s tourists also lost a pivotal member of their batting order early in the series, with Jonathon Trott’s departure owing to a stress condition. Graeme Swann’s exit – retiring mid-series – might also be seen as ‘of its time’.
But all touring teams, particularly in the first part of the twentieth century, can expect casualties and to need to select teams from a reduced squad. These matters provide background to stories of thumping defeats, but don’t afford explanations. A fast bowler – the quickest of his day – was where Australia’s superiority on the field was most pronounced. Mitchell Johnson, like Jack Gregory nearly a hundred years earlier, was too hostile for England’s Lenins. Gregory’s pace – “for which nothing in English cricket was adequate preparation” – found its greatest support not from another fast bowler, but Arthur Mailey, whose wrist-spin took 36 wickets in the series.
England’s much touted batting order faltered, yet found some consolation in the performance of the greatest star of all. Kevin Pietersen was England’s leading run-scorer but could derive but a fraction of the satisfaction that Jack Hobbs could from his performance. 505 runs, with two centuries, despite some injury problems. Pietersen has faced heavy criticism for the manner of some of his dismissals – from press, followers and possibly, coach. I suspect he would need to score more than 500 runs, or travel back 90 years, or find a correspondent as romantic as Cardus to receive this indulgence of a dismissal:
Hobbs, in the moment of crisis, so fascinated by his own art that he heeds not the dangers lurking about him! On this occasion, indeed, he was out ‘leg before wicket’, no doubt attempting to ‘damn the consequences’, with his own hazardous but ravishing glance to leg from a ball on the middle stump, the riskiest stroke, but as sweet as stolen fruit.
The heat of the Ashes contest infected the crowd, who jeered an antagonist in the opposition, then cheered loud and long when he was dismissed. Stuart Broad’s predecessor was ER Wilson, who earnt this reception by cabling complaints about the Australian crowd’s behaviour back to England, from where they bounced back to an Aussie audience.
The local crowd also jeered when they saw an England cricketer labouring in the field, failing to keep the batsmen to a single. The fielder was Hobbs, who was carrying a leg muscle injury. But according to Hobbs, the crowd made amends in “one of the most peculiar incidents in my life.”
The moment I appeared at the door of the pavilion, the spectators rose from their seats and cheered like mad, shouting, “Good old Hobbs!” They even sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” This was undoubtedly intended to make it clear to me that any chaff directed at my fielding had been due to ignorance of my injured leg
Could the team’s leaders remain in positions of authority after such a humiliating defeat? That’s the question preoccupying England cricket followers in 2014. Flower appears to have the backing of the ECB and he, in turn, supports Cook continuing as captain. In 1921, Douglas continued as captain. “Much has been taken from English cricket this winter, but much abides,” concluded Cardus. Yet, two Tests and two defeats later, Douglas was replaced.
Everything about Andy Flower’s role is twenty-first century. The tourists’ manager in 1920/21 was Frederick Toone. His sphere of influence was off the field. So highly respected were his organisational and diplomatic skills and so untarnished was he by the performance and scoreline, that he managed the next two MCC/England tours of Australia.
For precedents to apply to Flower, there’s a need to look to the more recent past. In 2007, Duncan Fletcher remained in charge for the World Cup campaign that followed the Ashes whitewash. Failure there led to his resignation, with a sense that he had contributed greatly to the development of English international cricket but that the team needed new leadership.
Mickey Arthur remained coach to the Australian team deep into 2013, several months after the 4-0 clean sweep to India. Failing to win a game in the Champions Trophy and with off-field controversy buffeting the team he was denied the chance to coach in the Ashes. Both Fletcher and Arthur exited having failed to conjure a recovery in their next assignment after being whitewashed. Maybe Flower is also being given an opportunity to turn around the fortunes of the team quickly.
His situation, however, differs from that of Fletcher and Arthur, both of whom had successors ready to take over, men who also represented changes of direction from the previous regime. Peter Moores was thought to be more consensual than the man blamed for the stubborn selections in the 2006/07 Ashes, as well as having strong connections back into the county game from which Fletcher had distanced his England set up. Darren Lehmann, in England in 2013 with the Australia A team, enabled Australia to end their association with their first foreign coach and replace him with a leader whose style was player-friendly, not technocratic; warm, not aloof. Flower, perhaps as a result of his authority, has no obvious successor who would bring a fresh approach to the running of team.
Finally, returning to the longer view theme of this piece:
The England team fails to rally late in the series. As the fifth consecutive defeat is recorded, the players look drained and trapped in a pattern of repeated mistakes. Time away from cricket, or at least away from Australian opponents, would seem the best best remedy.
It seems cruel on the England of 2014 that many of the key figures in the Test series defeat – Cook, Broad, Bell, Bresnan, Root, Carberry – must stay on for a further four weeks, meeting their vanquishers in eight limited overs fixtures.
Douglas’ England team did get to sail home at the end of the Test series. But any hopes they may have had of putting distance between themselves and their opponents were not to be realised. Amongst the passengers sharing the voyage were the Australian squad on its way to England for the return series in the northern summer of 1921.
(1) I have also read that CB Fry was offered the captaincy, but turned it down because of injury.
Sources: A Cardus for All Seasons (Neville Cardus); My Life Story (Sir Jack Hobbs); A History of Cricket (HS Altham & EW Swanton); Wisden
Chaotic Ashes campaigns
The Ashes, when originally coined, was a commemoration of a loss. And losing teams in these contests often provide the best stories. This Australian team appears to be a good example.
Punching an opponent in a bar, last-minute replacement of the coach, a polarised dressing room, injuries, selection puzzles, batsmen bailed out by tailenders, DRS confusion, heavy defeat.. the components of a squad spiraling towards defeat are there. Friday at Lord’s – a demonstration of village cricket that lasted two sessions – has been the on-field nadir.
But the ‘most chaotic Ashes campaign’ tag starting to be applied is inappropriate for two reasons: the series is still live and there is some fearfully strong competition from the recent past. Here are three nominations.
2002/03 – England
Australia’s retention of the Ashes was decided by 1 December, after just 11 days of cricket. Casualties started a month before England headed to Heathrow. Graham Thorpe pulled out of the tour for personal reasons. Darren Gough made the trip, but never made it onto the field of play. Flintoff travelled too – to rehab and home. Simon Jones played the first of the 11 live days of Test cricket when he suffered the career-threatening knee injury. Five of the other first choice squad incurred injuries that left them unavailable for Test matches. Amongst those called-up to plug the gaps, Silverwood, White, Tudor and Snape were all injured. Jeremy Snape broke his thumb facing his first ball of his first match with the tourists.
The gap between the two teams was set on day 1 of the first Test – when Hussain put the Australians into bat and they reached stumps on 364-2. Victories by hundreds of runs or by an innings followed as Australia motored to scores above 400 and dismissed England with pace, spin and accuracy. England didn’t win a match until their 14th of the tour and the first when the opponents were not Australian (Sri Lanka in an ODI).
1994/95 – England
England, with an upset at Adelaide, took this series to the final match. But there had been chaos along the way. Injuries again ravaged the first choice squad. Six replacements were summoned and the team physio, called upon to be a substitute fielder in a match, broke a finger taking some practice catches. Alec Stewart had three separate fractures to fingers. Phil Tufnell was deemed unwell enough to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, from which he discharged himself the same day. The team for the fourth test at Adelaide picked itself, comprising the only eleven fit players.
Captain Atherton felt hamstrung by the squad selected by Ray Illingworth, Chairman of Selectors. Evidence of ill-will was found in comments made by the Chairman at home in England and used by the media in Australia to bait Atherton.
The image Atherton uses to introduce this series in his autobiography is telling: he and Angus Fraser sharing a box while batting together in the fifth Test at Perth.
1989 – England
England were clear favourites ahead of the series. They lost 4-0, picking 29 players (13 making a single appearance) as the selectors cast around for players with form and fitness. A different pair of opening bowlers played in each Test. And there was deeper discontent. Gatting, the selectors’ preferred captain, was black-balled and Gower given charge instead. Recruitment for a rebel tour of South Africa was happening behind the scenes, breeding cynicism and resentment.
I moved overseas during the series and remember asking a friend about it when back in Britain the following year. He said he thought it was best ignored and didn’t want to discuss it now.
Australia remain buoyant compared to the depths of these three campaigns. What, though, would it take for this tour to descend further? One scenario occurs to me: Michael Clarke fights a lonely battle at Old Trafford, recording a century in a heavy defeat and then succumbs to his chronic back problem. That may leave Australia in a desperate situation (unless it allowed Simon Katich to be called-up, of course).
Home advantage and the First Test
Going into the first Ashes Test at Nottingham, the challenges facing the Australian team appear considerable: a fragile batting line-up, whose star performer has a chronic back condition; inexperienced and injury-prone bowlers; a recent history of divisions within the playing staff; one player serving a ban for indiscipline; and a team manager installed only days before the start of the series.
I was interested to see whether, based on recent Test history, the first test of a series could present even greater difficulties for Australia as the touring team and whether warm-up matches help a touring team achieve better results.
I selected as my sample every series from (and including) the last Ashes series in England four years ago. That gives a total of 63 bilateral series, including one- and two-off contests and a total of 163 Test matches (footnote 1).
The chart shows that visiting teams performed worse in first (and only) tests than in 2nd – 5th tests. They were more likely to lose the opening match (15 percentage point differential) than they were all subsequent matches in series, with their chances of getting a draw dented slightly more than chances of a victory.
I refined that analysis to focus on the top eight teams (i.e. excluding any contests involving Zimbabwe or Bangladesh). The remaining results draw from 48 bilateral series and 138 Test matches.
In contests between Test cricket’s top eight teams the difference between first tests and 2nd-5th tests is more pronounced with the visiting team almost 20 percentage points more likely to lose the opening fixture than the matches that follow.
A potential cause of the slow start to series suffered by visiting teams is the packed international calendar that does not allow tourists much time to acclimatise. Going back to 1989 when Australia began their 16 year dominance of the Ashes, the touring team played five first class fixtures, three ODIs and had been in the country for over a month before the first Test of the series. The 2013 Australians have two first class matches, although almost all of the squad were present playing cricket in the Champions Trophy, Australia A tour or in county cricket. This is unusual as very few touring teams have the benefit of an international tournament, domestic cricket or an A team tour to get used to playing conditions ahead of a series.
Of the 48 touring teams in this sample, 46% played no first class cricket prior to the first test of the series. No tourists had more than three first class warm-up matches.
This distribution of warm-up matches allowed me to test whether there is an association of this kind of preparation with Test match results. Counter-intuitively, teams that had first-class match preparation fared worse in first Tests and overall than those without first-class match preparation. Perhaps all this shows is that first-class matches are only one part of a range of preparatory work that needs to be done before a Test series and too much emphasis can be placed on it. It is also possible that international cricketers do not take the opportunity of first class warm-up matches sufficiently seriously to get their full benefit.
Should Australia be concerned about the challenge of the initial test as a touring side? Australia’s own record away in this period is strong: 43% (3/7) of first tests and 33% (7/21) of all tests won as the away side. Their players have had a good opportunity to become acclimatised. Given their other difficulties, I don’t think they should be too preoccupied by thoughts of a ‘First Test effect’.
Footnote 1: the Pakistan v Australia series of 2010 in England was excluded as both sides were playing away. All Tests involving Pakistan in the UAE are treated as home fixtures for Pakistan.
Barren tours: India v England
A measure of the task facing Alastair Cook in his first major tour as captain is that it is nearly 28 years since England last won a test series in India. That come-from-behind, two-one victory happened five tours ago.
The chart below shows England’s longest sequences of Test tours to particular destinations without victory. A defeat for Cook, or a tied series, would push the current Indian sequence up to equal second place.
Thirty-six years and six tours elapsed between series victories in the West Indies. Spanning the cycle of West Indian ascendancy, dominance and decline, five England captains left without mission accomplished: Denness, Botham, Gower, Gooch and Atherton (twice).
There has been one even longer period between English series victories: 38 years and five tours of Pakistan. That record is put into perspective by a review of the match results – depicted below.
The series in Pakistan and India were relatively short and the hosts did not defeat England with the frequency achieved by West Indies and Australia. Nonetheless, India have dominated England during this recent barren tour period, which is shown by the aggregate batting and bowling data.
England’s most successful batsman in that period was Andrew Strauss (489 runs at 54). Tendulkar, who has played every one of the eleven tests, has 848 runs, averaging 60.
The surprise of the bowling figures – shown below, split by fast and spin bowling – is that India’s seam and swing bowlers have a better average than England’s and are on a par with their own team’s slow bowlers. England’s spin bowlers’ aggregate bowling average and economy rate are respectively 50% and 25% higher than India’s slow bowlers. Anil Kumble is by some margin the most successful bowler in this period, with 56 wickets at 23.6. For England, Andrew Flintoff has the most appearances (8) and wickets (24 ar 30.4).
The series that preceded the barren tours, in 1984/85, was tightly fought. For Mike Gatting, it was the highwater mark of his career as an England batsman, scoring over 500 runs. The teams traded victories in the opening two tests, with the third drawn in damp weather in Calcutta. The fourth test in Chennai was the decisive match. Another England player to experience a personal best was Neil Foster who took twelve wickets in that match. Looking back at the scorecard, with the hindsight of nearly three decades of disappointing results for England in Asia, what surprises is the size of that victory and control England had over the game.
The template for England victories, if two victorious series (Pakistan and Sri Lanka 2000/01) in the intervening years can provide a template, has been dogged batting allied to a bowling attack that seizes rare opportunities created by conditions favourable to swing bowling or incautious batting.
England of 2012 seem capable of that sort of approach in the field, with Anderson and co able to extract any advantage from the new ball. The batting, despite Cook and Trott’s plodding presence, is less reassuring, so poor was the response to very similar challenges in the Pakistan series earlier in the year.
So, after 600 words and four graphics (reputedly worth another 4,000 words) of pessimism for England, I should explain why I am very excited about the series. The lowered expectations, the vacancies in high-profile positions, create opportunities for players to do just as Gatting and Foster did 28 years ago and make a break through. That’s not a purely partisan view either, as those same openings exist in the Indian team as well. Whether or not England manage to end their streak of series without victories over India, I am hopeful this series could be a defining contest for players of the post-Strauss/Tendulkar/Dravid era.
It never rains but it pours: Australia and South Africa share an English summer
For a few days in early July, the cricket teams of Australia and South Africa will overlap, both being at play in England. With the exception of the international limited overs tournaments, it’s hard to pinpoint when this last happened. But step back exactly one hundred years, to 1912, and for four months the two teams toured England, playing matches against the counties, Tests against England and Tests against each other.
This summer is the centenary of Test cricket’s only ‘world championship’. The world’s top three teams – and only Test playing nations – competed throughout that season. Cricket followers in England were treated to: Hobbs, Woolley, Barnes, Fry, Rhodes, Faulkner, Taylor, McCartney, Gregory and Bardsley.
The conclusion of influential witnesses to this feast of top class cricket appears to have been: that it should not happen again. How had a venture of such ambition failed to engage and develop an appetite for more?
The series was the brainchild of South African magnate, Sir Abe Bailey. After the slow start that has become the norm for all countries new to Test cricket, South Africa won their first series in 1905/06 against England. Six of their first seven series were played at home, but this success spurred on the idea of a grand challenge on English soil.
One of the explanations for the Triangular Tournament’s flat reception was that the South African team was in decline and provided poor opposition in the Test matches. In eleven completed innings they topped 200 four times. They escaped defeat in only one of the tournament games – a wash-out against Australia.
Nor were Australia the draw they might have been. They were not at full strength. Personal differences amongst is elite cricketers saw players of the calibre of Victor Trumper and Clem Hill left out of the touring team.
Memorable cricket was played, however. Jack Hobbs scored a century on a wet and then drying pitch at Lord’s against Australia that he modestly noted as being, “specially pleasing to me”. Australia’s Matthews’ became the first and only bowler to take two hat-tricks in one Test match in the opening encounter against South Africa at Old Trafford. Sidney Barnes was in irresistible form for England, taking 39 wickets at an average of 10, proving deadly against South Africa at the Oval, returning 8-29 (13- 57 in the match.) But none of the matches was tight as comfortable victories or soggy draws ensued.
With England’s wettest June since records began just behind us, and a month’s rain falling in a single July day, it is pertinent, but no consolation, that the summer of 1912 suffered similarly. Rain took playing time out of more than half of the matches in the triangular tournament – played over three days. A Country Vicar (writer in The Cricketer) wrote of the day at the end of June when he and his wife had planned to travel to Lord’s to see England play Australia:
We awoke to the sound of rain – not just a passing shower, or a gentle drizzle, but a steady, relentless, persistent deluge. It was hopelessly wet.
We remained at home – a bitter disappointment!
Many of the matches were contested on pitches exposed to the weather. In a tactic that seems very distant, batting sides wanted to get out to the middle soon after a rain delay, while the pitch was dulled by the wet and before its spite was awakened by the drying sun. Scoring was further depressed by slow, sodden outfields.
The quantity of Test cricket played has multiplied in recent decades. Yet the record for the number of Tests played in a single English season – nine – continues to be held by this summer one-hundred years ago. Each side played the other teams three times. And this, for some, was another reason for wanting the Triangular Tournament set aside as an experiment. Jack Hobbs wrote:
the enlarged programme interfered very seriously with county cricket and anything that has that effect cannot be good for the game. . Nine test matches in one season cut too much into the county cricket programme – the backbone of the game.
International cricket spoken of as international football is now and not as the commercial underpinning of the sport that it has become. Hobbs had nine innings in the series, and another 51 that summer, the vast majority for Surrey. That puts his complaints of international ‘over-kill’ into some perspective, particularly when stood alongside his modern day county confrere, Kevin Pietersen, who despite his own stand against the bloated international schedule, won’t bat ten times this season for Surrey.
The commercial side of the tournament features prominently in Wisden’s overview. It reports total receipts of £12, 463 4s.2d (£1.2m in today’s money). The MCC and each county received a little under £160 (£16,000). In 2007, the ECB distributed £1.75m to each first class county. The cause of these disappointing figures, exacerbated by the weather, was the lukewarm interest in the matches between South Africa and Australia at Nottingham and Manchester, despite their scheduling for Bank Holiday weekends. It’s the ‘attendance’ risk faced by any multinational sporting event: the quality must be exceptional to overcome the absence of partisanship.
Amongst modern cricket fans keen to see Test cricket retain its primacy, there is support for a World Test Championship. The Triangular Tournament was exactly that and similar challenges to those faced in 1912 would have to be overcome if a modern equivalent were to be successful. There would be less dependence on ticket-sales as television rights and sponsorship would be the competition’s commercial engines. But the competition would remain prey to poor weather, drawn matches and host nation indifference towards many of the contests. My view is that Test cricket’s formula for success continues to be pairs of well-matched sides meeting each other infrequently, but over concentrated series of matches.
Australia will leave England very shortly, their number one ODI ranking narrowly retained despite defeat. South Africa begin their warm-up for a Test series that could see them supplanting the hosts as the top ranked Test match team. These rankings, overrated statistical constructs, are nonetheless transparent and official tables of merit. They allow every international fixture to fit into a wider framework. To me, one of the charming features of the Triangular Tournament of 1912 was that the method of determining the winner had not been agreed before the contests began. In fact, it remained obscure until the eve of the ninth and final match between England and Australia. Both were unbeaten (although England had more victories) and so this match was declared as ‘winner takes all’, and six days made available to reach a positive result. England triumphed at the Oval on day four, 22 August 1912, completing four victories to Australia’s two.
Note: a comprehensive history of the tournament, its planning and aftermath is found in Patrick Ferriday’s ‘Before the Lights Went Out’.
Sri Lanka v England: an oxymoronic encounter
For 20 years I have spent August Bank Holiday on tour with my college old boys team. For the majority of that time, my wife has resented that annual occasion. In recent years, the resentment has found a semantic focus: it isn’t a TOUR! My team’s get-together doesn’t meet my wife’s criteria for a tour: we stay in one place and only play two matches (against the same team, too).
I imagine Andrew Strauss dealing with a similar domestic situation:
The England Captain: Right, I’m off to Sri Lanka for a Test series. I’ll call before bath time to speak to the kids. Love you.
The England Captain’s Wife: It’s not a series. You’re only playing two matches. You can’t call two matches a series. And don’t get sunburnt.
Two does not make a series. Mathematically, a series is many; colloquially, at least several. So what should we call these contests? A double-header? A two-leg tie – no, because the scores are not aggregated across the two matches. A pair – no, term already taken in cricket. A Test brace or couple? Outbound and return?
The two test contest has come in for some criticism as a format suitable for the highest form of the sport. Australia and South Africa exchanged blows in November 2011, ending up all-square with none to play. Almost everyone was left feeling they had been sold short. An opera without a fat lady, a thriller without the resolution. Only those Puritan souls able to take pleasure from leaving while wanting more seemed satisfied.
But, a contest over two tests dates from the very beginning of Test cricket. England’s visit to Australia in 1876/77 culminated with two matches between the countries. None of the players involved knew they were engaging in Test cricket. It’s only through hindsight that the matches were given authentic status. So, perhaps, we shouldn’t look upon it as precedent. Only once more were the Ashes scheduled as a two match affair: 1886/87. Twice more in the nineteenth century England contested over a two game affair – against South Africa.
For the next century, the standard set for a Test cricket contest was a three or a five match series, with occasional one-offs. The only regular exception was when New Zealand hosted England on their way back (although headed in the wrong direction) from an Ashes series.
This all changed in 2001. The expansion of Test cricket to ten nations, biannual ICC competitions and the introduction of a ranking system meant that some top-down order was needed in place of the informal, bilateral arrangements that had determined cricket’s international timetable. The Future Tours Programme Agreement (links to page with a link to the pdf of the FTP Agreement) defined a tour as comprising a minimum of two tests and three one day internationals. The rush to the bottom began. In the last decade, 46% of all tours and 33% of those involving only major nations (i.e. all bar Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) comprised two tests – see chart.
Does an increase in two test tours matter? It could do for any of the following reasons:
- Less Test cricket is being played
- Fewer matches means the better team doesn’t have time to emerge as the winner (i.e. more drawn series)
- Teams approach matches more negatively, for fear of falling behind and being unable to go on and win; or once ahead playing to conserve the advantage, not build on it (i.e. more drawn matches)
- The departure from the game of the extended narrative of the closely fought series, with fortunes oscillating between the teams.
The first reason does not stand up to scrutiny: the quantity of Test cricket played in this period is at an all time high. The fourth reason is difficult to evidence but feels a legitimate concern. Last year’s Australian tour of South Africa is an example of a contest that was cut short before it could mature. The second and third reasons are amenable to some analysis.
There were 121 series between major Test nations in the period March 2002-March 2012. The chart shows that the likelihood of a Test match in a two test tour being drawn was very similar to the likelihood of a draw occuring in a Test match in a three, four or five test tour. However, two-test tours were more than twice as likely to produce drawn series than longer tours. While, on the face of it, there is no evidence of more negative play, the truncated modern tour is leaving contests unresolved.
Should Sri Lanka and England’s oxymoronic encounter buck the trend, it could provide a near-oxymoronic outcome: best Test team loses again.
Note on ‘oxymoron‘: a precise definition of the term is that the two words of opposite meaning are used together intentionally for effect. ‘Two Test Series’ is more precisely a ‘contradiction in terms’.