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Away days

Long and languorous cultural experiences once, away tours are now short, sharp and intensive bursts

Mike Selvey  |  

In the film Up in the Air, George Clooney plays an executive who lives his life on the move, out of a suitcase, in hotels, and collecting air miles. Essentially, home is wherever he unzips his travel bag. He lives the life, in fact, of the modern international cricketer.

If you are an England player these days, playing in all formats, you might expect to be away from home for perhaps all but 60 or so days of the year. The Indian team has been in consistent demand because of the television money that their presence might bring to the home board (beware on that one: the landscape is changing). And Pakistan players are the equivalent of the Flying Dutchman, doomed, if that is the right word, like the 17th-century ghost ship of legend, never to see their home port. The lifestyle brings with it considerable reward, but it is frenetic, closeted, regimented and protected to a large degree. Cricketers have always been itinerant beasts, but in many cases, the days of languid touring, setting up base, getting to know the country on an intimate basis, are long gone. Modern tours can be raiding parties or lengthy sieges, but wherever they are, they are never less than intensive.

"It is in and out now, get the job done and away. There is little chance to make that connection any longer, and I think the game is the poorer for it" Andy Flower

On October 23, 1873, at the invitation of the Melbourne Cricket Club, a team under the banner of WG Grace's XI sailed from Southampton. Seven and a half weeks later the side disembarked in Australia. They proceeded to play 15 three-day matches, taking them to the end of March 1874, whereupon they made the return journey, arriving back in England on May 17. A tour of seven months in total, then, for which Grace, incidentally an amateur, is nonetheless said to have received £1500, in addition to expenses for his fiancée's trip.

There was, of course, no Test cricket then, and indeed none of the matches were recognised as first-class. Now move to the present day. The England team have just completed one of the most intensive spells of Test match cricket that any side can have undertaken, with seven Tests - two against Bangladesh and five against India - in the two-month period between October 20 and December 20. Foreign conditions, no respite, no practice games to recharge, tinker, adapt, work on strategy and techniques. It is, frankly, brutal, to the extent that those England players who are not multi-format will be given six months in which to rest up after the tour. The following winter England will undertake one of their longest tours since the days of boat travel, when they leave for Australia in late October, and, after an Ashes series, ODIs involving Australia and New Zealand, and Tests in New Zealand, they will return in the first week of April. So as much as some things change, others remain very much the same.

The author (second from right, with towel around shoulders) enjoys the touring life in Bombay, 1977

The author (second from right, with towel around shoulders) enjoys the touring life in Bombay, 1977 © Patrick Eagar/Getty Images

The whole nature of touring has gone through transformation, though. Take another England tour to India, during the winter of 1976-77, under the captaincy of Tony Greig, in which your correspondent participated. Although there had already been a World Cup, the itinerary, which also involved Sri Lanka and Australia, saw no one-day cricket aside from a couple of matches in Sri Lanka en route to Australia. It may well have been the last tour of its kind, a red-ball tour as it were, pure and simple. There were six Tests - five in India and the Centenary Test in Melbourne - and no fewer than nine first-class matches in addition. Progress round India was methodical and largely clockwise. Tests were in Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, Bangalore and Bombay. There were warm-up matches before the series, four of them, in Pune, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, and Jalandhar, and between Tests, games in Guwahati, Nagpur, Hyderabad and Indore. Before the Centenary Test there was a single match, against Western Australia in Perth. There was a tale to the tour, which unfolded gradually, a novel perhaps rather than a short story, with the dramatic climax of the Centenary Test itself, and from it all, the Packer revolution.

Andy Flower, who toured in the '90s as a player with Zimbabwe and then in the noughties as head coach with England, laments what he refers to as the "loss of narrative" to modern cricket tours. He is, he says, from the old school, which believed that cricket tours embraced interaction with the public and cultural inquisitiveness. "The social nature has changed," he says. "The interaction between players and spectators is different."

Modern tours can be raiding parties or lengthy sieges, but wherever they are, they are never less than intensive

Greig's tour personified how such a relationship can be profitable. Before the series started, it was agreed that there was much to be gained by getting the crowds onside. So it became a rule that before the start of a match, the entire touring party would don blazers and circuit the ground, waving to the crowd. If there was a lull during play, Derek Randall would be asked to do some cartwheels in front of the stands, whether or not he was playing. Mundane stuff? Perhaps, but the effect was huge, with the crowds leaving aside the fervent patriotism that might otherwise have been. After his success in the first Test, John Lever had stayed behind with Greig to do some interviews. The team bus left them behind. So Greig flagged down two motor scooters, and he and Lever were given a lift back across town as pillion riders. Can that be imagined these days?

The nature of the ICC's Future Tours Programme, and with it the congested fixture list and the predominance of international cricket, means that the days of Flower's "narrative" are gone. What we might call the meandering nature of tours, the relaxed travel around a country, the stop-off matches in smaller venues, the upcountry games in Australia and the visits to the smaller islands of the Caribbean, predates the blanket media coverage, particularly television. Cricket had to be seen as a live event and the main way to see it was to attend the matches. As a result, the crowds were vast, India's grounds packed. And the matches that preceded the Tests - the warm-ups - and those sandwiched by the Tests, had a value beyond that towards the visiting team alone. Cricket fans in Pune, say, or Guwahati, way up in Assam in the north-east of India, had heard of the tall, blond Greig but now they could see him.

The Indian players are mobbed wherever they go, and have to find refuge in security-heavy team hotels and buses

The Indian players are mobbed wherever they go, and have to find refuge in security-heavy team hotels and buses © Getty Images

Today, on the subcontinent, he might have been glimpsed through the window of a tour bus in a fast-moving escorted convoy on the way to or from the airport or the ground, but little beyond that. There are armed guards on hotel floors that have sealed access. It must be a stifling existence. Even the Indian team - or particularly the Indian team - has to be cloistered and protected. A few years ago, when the Indians played a warm-up match against an England Lions side, MS Dhoni was escorted round the outfield by no fewer than five security guards. When Greg Chappell was India coach a decade ago, he expressed his admiration for the manner in which Sachin Tendulkar was able to compartmentalise himself, appearing dispassionate when fundamentally he was anything but, simply because to give even fleetingly to one person meant he had to do so to all. It was necessary self-denial. Touring Asia was once a cultural opportunity. As a tourist with a school side, I travelled by train right round India, a treasured memory that is denied modern cricketers.

With the international imperative comes the restriction, generally, in the number of warm-ups. Remove the value that they had as showpieces in their own right, and they are strictly about preparation. And who, yet, has been able to determine what the optimum for this is? "The time when they were an event in themselves has gone with the advent of shorter itineraries, and cramped tours," says Flower. "It is in and out now, get the job done and away. There is little chance to make that connection any longer, and I think the game is the poorer for it. The more international cricket there is, particularly without real context, the more diluted becomes its value."

The transition from one cricket culture to another is not just about practice time, but an attempt at reinventing techniques that have been ingrained

For Flower too, the warm-up matches that Zimbabwe played before a Test series in India in late 2000 proved invaluable. In the first he made 0 (second ball), and 119, and followed in the second with 94, having not batted in the first innings. In the two subsequent Tests, he made 183 not out and 70 and 55 and 232 not out.

Over the years England for their part have tried all manner of preparation. The benefits have been variable, contingent, not least, on the quality of the opposition - both local, and, to come, international. Personally the chance to play for a county against a touring side was not to be missed, and both teams benefited. Middlesex was the only county side to beat the 1976 West Indies in a first-class match. The norm now is for a county to field a weakened side, which, frankly, benefits no one. A couple of decades ago, when touring the Caribbean, England might play four warm-up matches before the first Test and hardly come across a pace bowler. There was little to be gained, in other words, beyond acclimatising.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

When Andrew Strauss' team won in Australia in 2010-11, the pre-series preparation was meticulous, even to the extent of sending the pace bowlers ahead to Queensland to acclimatise while the main party played in Hobart. A similar schedule for the next Ashes tour saw England whitewashed. And in fact, aside from tours of Bangladesh, we need to go back to 2004 and South Africa, to find the last time England won the first Test of an overseas series. That it came on the back of a single warm-up match in which they were heavily beaten merely muddies the water. Against that, Pakistan certainly profited from the extra preparation time they spent in England last summer, with a memorable win at Lord's in the first Test.

Yet whatever the preparation, the nature of tight schedules with shorter tours, the marked difference in pitches between those habitually found in Asian conditions (and to a large extent in the Caribbean now) and those elsewhere, make it harder for touring sides to adapt sufficiently. Asian batsmen, for example, have generally been stereotyped as wristy and delicate-touch players with soft hands, but that is born of expedience. Spin bowlers, operating on low, slow, turning surfaces, are a staple. Batsmen from the southern hemisphere, more used to pace on the ball, are hard-handed and hit through the line. Lateral movement, spin or swing and seam, can undo them.

Given two teams of absolutely equal ability, long tour or short, and whatever the preparation, the home side will have an advantage

So in a way the transition from one cricket culture to another is not just about practice time but an attempt at reinventing techniques that have been ingrained, in the same way that white-ball skills do not translate as readily to red-ball as many would like to think. For evidence of this we need only look at the detrimental impact ODI cricket had on Alastair Cook's Test match batting; or the inability of Eoin Morgan to adapt his white-ball game to Test matches (he is, in his own words, a "nick-off merchant"). Only the very best can truly adapt across formats, and for the most part they do so by ploughing a largely orthodox furrow - Virat Kohli, Kane Wiliamson, David Warner and Joe Root, for example. AB de Villiers, whose range of skills and the capacity and willingness to use them are breathtaking, is an exception.

The key, though, to sides wishing to be regarded as the best, lies in an overall capacity to adapt to all conditions and opposition. Asian sides have struggled to win matches away from their comfort zone every bit as much as non-Asian sides confronted with the unfamiliar conditions of the subcontinent. Australia have been flummoxed in India and Sri Lanka recently; England have just been flummoxed in India; even the great West Indies side of the '80s was undone in Madras by Narendra Hirwani's legspin, and, on two occasions in Sydney, first by the legspin of Bob Holland, and then, bafflingly, by Allan Border's left-arm orthodox. At home, teams are largely in control of conditions, whether it is English greentops or Indian turners, and have a large pool of players on which to draw if necessary (although, as we have seen with Australia recently, that aspect is not necessarily an advantage).

Tours are a way to explore new cultures (and get great shopping deals)

Tours are a way to explore new cultures (and get great shopping deals) © Getty Images

Winning away from home - not just matches but series - is the real challenge for all sides, but it was ever thus. These days the game is played at a faster rate. The percentage of drawn matches is decreasing: from six games in every ten three decades ago, three in ten a decade since, to fewer than one in six this year.

If that would intimate more chance for visiting teams, then the reality is that the advantages for the home side to pull clear are greater. The number of matches won by sides away from home has remained pretty steady in the last decade, with anomalies only in 2007 and 2013, where the figure was five and two respectively. But that means by definition - given that the total number of matches remains steady around the 80 mark and that draws are less frequent - that the home teams are winning more. It goes a long way to explaining the increased incidence of series whitewashes.

Pakistan are the equivalent of the Flying Dutchman, doomed like the 17th century ghost ship of legend, never to see their home port

The toss is lent an importance that it doesn't warrant. Since the start of 2007, there have been 106 wins by sides away from home, and of these, 50 came when the toss had been lost. Home teams might more readily appreciate how much it matters, and of course there are instances when it really does define the course of a game. But it is not fanciful to suggest that much of the advantage that seems to be garnered from the toss is psychological.

Non-Asian sides still continue to struggle in Asian conditions, whatever the toss, and likewise Asian sides in what might be called non-Asian conditions. And so the cachet of a series win abroad against challenging opposition has to be more meritorious than one at home. Thus, since the start of 2007, and leaving aside visits to Bangladesh (no longer a pushover admittedly, but that is a recent development), only four times has a non-Asian team won a series in Asian conditions (England in India in 2012-13; South Africa in Pakistan in 2007-08 and Sri Lanka in 2014; and Australia in Sri Lanka in 2011), and only seven series wins by Asian sides in non-Asian conditions, excluding Zimbabwe (India in England in 2007, in New Zealand in 2008-09, and in West Indies in 2011 and 2016; Pakistan in New Zealand in 2010-11; Bangladesh in West Indies in 2009; and Sri Lanka in England in 2014).

Australian players on top of a tourist double-decker bus in London, 1980

Australian players on top of a tourist double-decker bus in London, 1980 © Getty Images

Then, of course, comes the anomaly. Since 2007, the South African team appears to have mastered the art of winning series away, or at least not losing: 17 series since the middle of 2007, and 11 of them won, with five drawn. The only loss came at the hands of India a year ago. They have twice won in England, thrice in Australia, and once each in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. There is some clarification necessary: seven of the series involved two matches, and one was a single Test against Zimbabwe.

This means several elements: firstly, the chance of a comeback from either side, in the manner, say, of Grand Slam tennis, is reduced in a short series; secondly, a short series is less demanding, less debilitating physically and psychologically. And given two teams of absolutely equal ability, long tour or short, and whatever the preparation, the home side will have an advantage. So it just might be that the South African team has been a very good and resilient one during that period, and a good team will usually beat a poor one over a series. And the longer the series, the more likely this becomes. When all is said and done, there is no substitute for ability.

Mike Selvey is a cricket writer and former England cricketer