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.