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Impregnable India

Image: India Meteorological Dept

Image: India Meteorological Dept

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.

Bowling Wickets Average Economy Strike rate
Spin India 191 18.20 2.46 44.3
opposition 97 37.79 3.56 63.6
Pace India 51 29.00 2.81 61.9
opposition 68 40.37 3.02 80.2

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
India 5632 45.41 55.6 14 21
Opposition 4053 23.70 43.0 1 20

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
3 Mohali 26-30 Nov n/k 0 n/k 1
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
Source: http://www.imd.gov.in/

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.

 

Back-to-back Tests

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.

back to back tests 2010s-page-001

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.

back to back tests compared-page-001

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.

back to back test results-page-001Surprisingly, 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

whitewashAn 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.

Note:

(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

AshesThe 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

clarke and warnerGoing 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.

new home advan 1-page-001

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.

new home advan 2-page-001

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.

warm up 1-page-001

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.

warm up 2-page-001

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’.

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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.

The three captains: F Mitchell, CB Fry, SE Gregory

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’.

Winter sabbatical

The England touring party announced for the Test series against Pakistan in UAE generated little controversy. Selections worth a mention were: retention of the county championship’s top wicket-taking spinner, Panesar; the decision not to promote any of England’s next generation, fearless batsmen – either they are still too vulnerable, or the older models adequately robust (Bopara?); and Steve Davies back as second keeper.

The first Test starts on 17 January – two months and three weeks since England last played international cricket. It feels like the break has been longer; an impression, I think, that comes from the unrelenting schedule that the team has had over the last two years. I’m content to consume the England matches pretty much whenever they come along, but I do recognise there could be benefit to both the freshness of the players and the sharpness of my appetite if larger gaps were re-established between series.

I did experience a personal first on 26 May 2011. I completed a day of work, without recognising, let alone pondering, or checking on the score of, a test involving England. It could have been evidence of a jaded interest, but it felt more like middle-age eroding my ability to maintain an active interest in multiple subjects. That, or I was caught out by a Test beginning on a Thursday.

Twenty-three years have passed since the England cricket team last had a winter sabbatical. No international cricket was played by our team from September 1988 to May 1989 – eight months. The hiatus was the result of the biggest smudge on the international fixture list of the late twentieth century: South Africa. India were to be the hosts of the England team that winter. But the hosts would not grant visas to eight of the England party who had toured South Africa as ‘rebels’:  Gooch, Emburey, Bailey, Barnett, Dilley, Lamb, Newport and Robinson. The first, Gooch, was appointed captain at the end of the 0-4 defeat to the West Indies. His South African connections had already strained relations with India when it hosted the 1987 World Cup.

Peter May, Chairman of Selectors, was asked if India’s possible reaction was considered when the tour party was selected. Cricketing merit alone was considered, he explained, which drew the following, surprising to me, reaction from Graeme Wright in Wisden

is it not naïve of the chairman and his selectors, at the end of the 1980s, to think it unnecessary to look beyond the cricketing point of view?

Wisden 1989, Editor’s notes

The tour was cancelled in October, with the players receiving a proportion of their tour fee. New Zealand appeared able to act as substitute hosts, but wanted a triangular ODI tournament involving Pakistan, their scheduled visitors. Pakistan turned this down (despite, as Wisden’s Editor notes, playing at that time against Alderman and other Aussie rebel tourists to South Africa) and the offer fell through.

Prior to that winter, England had gone without international cricket in the winter of 1975/76 and before that in 1971/72 . The earlier southern hemisphere summer featured just one Test series: West Indies v New Zealand – played in the northern hemisphere. South Africa’s exclusion from the international game was the cause on both occasions.

England had eight months to prepare for the Ashes series in 1989 – admittedly without the benefit of central contracts to control the activities of the players. Those expecting to play a part in the matches against Australia had an abundance of time to address technical flaws, build fitness and otherwise hone their game. This would be a rare opportunity as Mike Atherton, who made his debut that summer, was to find. He netted weekly through the autumn of 1989 under Boycott’s tuition:

it was probably the only time in the whole of my career when I was able to work on technical aspects of my game for a lengthy period. After that winter, I played non-stop for England until my retirement. It is one of the problems of continuous cricket – there is little opportunity to right the faults that, almost unknowingly, creep into your game.

Opening Up, Mike Atherton

I don’t know whether Botham, Gooch, Gower, Lamb, De Freitas, Emburey and the other England probables used the winter of 1988/89 constructively. Nor do I know if Dexter, Stewart and Gower invested time in analysing and plotting a path to defeat the Australians. But the series of 1989 turned out to be one of the most chaotic in England test history. Trounced 4-0, using 29 players – an average of 3.6 changes per test in search of fitness and form – with only Gower and Russell playing the full series. The England bowlers barely averaged 10 wickets per Test.

The autumn net sessions Atherton mentioned were primarily for the benefit of Graham Gooch, who was piecing back together his technique after a summer of torment at the hands of Terry Alderman. Across tests and ODIs, Alderman had dismissed him six times. In my mind, all six involved Alderman releasing the ball from in front of the umpire’s eyes; the ball staying on the line of the off-stump or gently seaming in to the very centre of Gooch’s wide front pad as he pushed forward, round white helmet tipping towards cover point. In fact, he fell only three times this way.

The sabbatical of 1988/89 seemed to have done England no good at all. Any freshness came in the form of undercooked debutants. No strategy was in place to deal with Alderman’s bowling or the Aussie’s top order. England seemed to have had a rare opportunity to prepare a professional, focused campaign. Instead, they reverted to the amateur practices of selection and planning that Duncan Fletcher had to overhaul. The England of 2011/12 will have used the twelve weeks between the final ODI in India this October and the first test in Dubai far more productively.

And what about the effect of the cricket-less winter on my appetite for the game? I struggle to remember. I was in the final year of my degree. Maybe I benefited from fewer interruptions to my sleep during the winter. I would be interested to know how you remember coping with the winter sabbatical and the summer that followed.

Picca and other surprise quick tour picks


Graham Dilley’s death this week has drawn reminiscences of the part he played, batting with Botham, in the Headingley 81 victory and his high-step, drag and sling bowling action.

My obsession with cricket was relatively fresh when Picca broke into international cricket. And the manner of his breaking into the team excited me and so still defines him for me. He was picked for the 1979/80 tour of Australia and India as a twenty-year old, with just one full season of first-class experience. He was supposed to be fast and I conjured with the idea of how good he could be and might become if he was deemed ready to play Australia after so little grown-up cricket. The notion of an England bowler with ‘raw pace’ was thrilling.

Dilley stands, in the time of my cricket consciousness, at the head of a line of bold or optimistic tour selections of inexperienced but possibly destructive England fast bowlers. The inspiration, the whisper in the selection committee’s ear, is from an earlier generation. Frank Tyson, taken to Australia in 1954/55 with Fred Trueman left at home, had been a first-class cricketer for the same length of time as Dilley before his selection. Tyson was the decisive factor in the Ashes campaign, taking 28 wickets at 20, decking and bruising as many Australians as he dismissed. Tyson, though, wasn’t a pure example of the ‘surprise quick tour pick’, as he had made his Test debut in the final test of the English summer against Pakistan. His career, however, followed a pattern of injury and frustrated come-back, emulated if not surpassed by most of the later sqtp’s.

Twenty-five years after Tyson’s Ashes, Graham Dilley was selected. In the next twenty years, England made six more surprise quick tour picks. Why the increasing willingness to gamble on untested pace bowlers?

The West Indies provide the answer. Their quick bowling made them the most successful international team through the late 70s, 80s and into the 90s. England needed pace to compete. Touring with large parties (16 players) gave them the opportunity to have a flyer on a relative unknown. Series in Australia and West Indies, where wickets were traditionally, if not in actual fact, quick provided further motivation.

The six that followed:

Norman Cowans: selected for the 1982/83 Ashes tour, aged 21 and with 43 first class wickets in the locker. Cowans shone in the three run victory at Melbourne, taking 6-77 as Border narrowly failed to guide the Australia tail to their target. His test career, never a regular, was over in less than four years.

Greg Thomas: six years, a stress fracture of his back and 30 wickets for Glamorgan in 1985 made a questionable case for his inclusion in the team to tour West Indies in 1985/86. Wisden recorded that he had it in him to be England’s spearhead, but he only played five tests and suffered more injuries.

Phil DeFreitas: at 20, DeFreitas was a part of the ‘unit’ that undid Australia in the 1986/87 Ashes. The selectors’ gamble with a young player paid off, although his career didn’t develop as this debut series promised that it might.

Ricardo Ellcock: eight years and 40 matches after his first-class debut, Ellcock was chosen to tour the West Indies in 1989/90. He never made the tour, as he was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the back, and barely played cricket again.

Ashley Cowan: his selection for the 1997/98 tour of West Indies, sits at the intersection of two of the England tour selectors’ favoured routes: sqtp and response to a stand-out performance in the Gillette/NatWest Cup Final. Cowan took one wicket on tour, without appearing in an international. He never reappeared for England and struggled with injury for much of a ten year career.

Alex Tudor: chosen for the 1998/99 Ashes Tour ahead of Andy Caddick, Tudor had experienced bowlers ahead of him and bowled well when his chance came at Perth. His England highlight came the next summer – batting as nightwatchman, making 99* against New Zealand – before injuries and poor form kept him out of England contention.

Young bowlers, without solid county careers behind them, continue to break into the England team on tour and at home. Finn, Shazad, Bresnan in recent years. Dernbach and Meaker may follow. These promotions, in keeping with England’s thoroughness, are more calculated and certainly at this time of plenty, feel much less speculative, or even desperate, than the decisions that brought Dilley and his followers to the fore.