• The ultimate test

    Lord Byron evidently knew little of cricket administrators when he wrote in Don Juan: ‘Sweet is revenge – especially to women’, writes LAWRENCE BOOTH.

    And while he would almost certainly have been cheering for England during the three Ashes series between 2013 and 2015, Byron might not have approved wholeheartedly of their tactics.

    The narrative – which began with a 3-0 win for England, veered to a 5-0 thrashing by Australia, then somersaulted backwards to another England victory, this time 3-2 – had at its core one of contemporary cricket’s most persistent storylines. The pitch – and, with it, the ethics of home advantage.

    Those last two words have become so inseparable in cricket’s lexicon, so much a part of what the host nation is expected to exploit, that to question them is to stand accused of naivety. What is home, after all, if it is not an advantage? 

    And so, when Australia arrived in England in 2013, the England and Wales Cricket Board performed a quick calculation. Since Graeme Swann was the best spinner on either side, they reckoned, groundsmen at the five Ashes venues would be encouraged – never ‘instructed’, of course – to leave pitches dry. His off-breaks would do the rest.

    And they did. Swann finished the series with 26 wickets, while the Australian spin duo of Ashton Agar and Nathan Lyon managed only 11. On surfaces that were slow or low and usually both, England won a dour, unloved series 3-0, firm in their belief that the means justified the end. It was not a popular win, even among many of their own fans. 

    A few months later, Australia exacted their revenge. Even by Brisbane’s standards, the pitch for the first Test at the Gabba looked lively. England were blown away, Jonathan Trott flew home with stress, and – to unrestrained cackling in the Australian media – the tour became a nightmare. 

    Swann, who barely turned a ball, retired from cricket after the third Test in Perth because of a dodgy elbow, having picked up seven wickets at 80 apiece. As far as Australia were concerned, it was job done and point proven: England couldn’t hack it on their firm, bouncy tracks – which, in Aussie eyes, are the only tracks worth playing on. Slow and low was for wimps. Man up, ya pommie bastards!

    Recently, the Australians returned to our shores to defend the urn. Once more, pitches moved front and centre. They grumbled that Cardiff was slow enough to neuter Mitchell Johnson, while England then moaned that Lord’s – where Australia squared the series – was not ‘English at all’. 

    You may have spotted the trend. If you lost, you grumbled about the pitch. If you won, you simply pointed out that both sides had been dealt the same conditions.)

    In the next two Tests, England coach Trevor Bayliss – an Australian pleading for lateral movement! – and captain Alastair Cook got their wish. The surfaces at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge were as English as fish and chips. Undone by swing and seam, Australia were bowled out for 136, 265, 60 and 253. 

    The Ashes were lost, and Michael Clarke would leave his job with a parting shot at pitches that preclude five-day matches, short-change the fan and, he might have added, make it harder for Australia to win in England. 

    These three series formed a handy microcosm of a common complaint: away wins are becoming rarer than admissions of wrongdoing from the Indian board. 

    Touring teams are confronted with a double whammy of limited warm-ups and conditions they would not normally encounter in their own backyard. There is, goes the complaint, little time to acclimatise, let alone work on skills in the middle of a series comprising the back-to-back matches so beloved of the administrators. 

    These days, you’ve not been a Test captain unless you’ve endured a whitewash in some far-flung corner of the old Commonwealth.

    And, when teams play each other as regularly as England and Australia, the desire for instant payback can override the desire for competitive cricket. But is revenge really sweet? Or has it become just a bit passe?

    Yet the Ashes – in which only one of the past eight encounters has been won by the away side (England were 3-1 victors in 2010-11) – is far from the only instance of home heavy-handedness on the global circuit. 

    Take Australia and India, who between 2011 and 2013 dished out reciprocal 4-0 maulings – with the second of them, in India, leading to Australian grumbles about pitches which they felt resembled the surface of the moon (as if the BCCI should have rolled out the carpet with something resembling the surface of the Waca instead). 

    Occasionally, Asian attempts to trap western sides in their webs of spin can  backfire: England memorably won in India in 2012-13, partly because their own slow bowlers, against the odds, outperformed the hosts. 

    And the same thing can happen in reverse: Sri Lanka pinched a 1-0 win in England in 2014 from the penultimate ball of the series after seamer Dammika Prasad located the fabled Headingley length more easily than his English counterparts.

    But, in general, the rule is one of thumb, not spinning finger: leave home at your peril. 

    When India won in Sri Lanka in August, it was their first series victory away from home for four years, a period in which they lost 15 of 22 Tests and won only one. Some would argue that, for India, crossing the Palk Strait is hardly an away trip at all.

    Australia themselves have not won in England since 2001, while Pakistan have won only one series outside Asia (excluding Zimbabwe) since 2003-04. New Zealand, for all their improvement, haven’t won outside Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and West Indies since they stunned England in 1999. 

    As for West Indies, they have almost given up altogether: not since 1994-95, when they won in New Zealand, have they won an away series against any of the other sides in the top eight.

    Whether this is good for international cricket is a moot point. If tours simply become endurance tests, designed only to fill the gap before the next home series and therefore the next crack at redemption, no one can blame the fans for losing interest and looking towards Twenty20 for their fix. 

    More than a few of them found the 2015 Ashes dull for that very reason. Indeed, Australia’s victories at Lord’s and The Oval felt faintly heroic in the circumstances – even if the nature of those pitches (flat, dry, straight up and straight back down) paradoxically confirmed the thesis: in conditions that felt more like home, Australia prospered. Throw in some lateral movement, and they were all at sea.

    And yet, as so often when cricket’s seismic trends are up for discussion, we would do well not to forget South Africa. 

    As Hashim Amla’s side prepare for a testing four-match series in India, starting in Mohali on 5 November, it is astonishing to reflect that their last defeat away from home took place in 2006, in Sri Lanka. Truly, it was another era: the first World Twenty20 was still a year away, and Jacques Kallis still had a bald patch.

    And it had taken something special to stop them: Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene put on a world-record 624 in Colombo, and Muttiah Muralitharan claimed 22 wickets in the two-Test series.

    Since then, South Africa have always found a way, winning a remarkable 10 series out of 15 abroad – including two triumphs in England and Australia. India are the only Test team not on their list of successes in that period, though a South African team led by Hansie Cronje did win there in 1999-2000 – the first touring side to do so for 13 years.

    Even more eye-catchingly, South Africa have only lost one away Test out of 21 since India beat them in Kolkata in February 2010. They have not merely bucked the trend: they have questioned its very right to be called a trend in the first place. 

    And it explains why South Africa are so far clear at the top of the Test rankings that – to borrow Shane Warne’s assessment of Sachin Tendulkar – daylight is second.

    How to explain their anomalous record away from home? Unsurprisingly, a core of great players has been handy. And, since that defeat by Sri Lanka, the away records of South Africa’s leading cricketers leave little to the imagination. 

    Amla has averaged 61 and AB de Villiers 60; before they retired, Graeme Smith averaged 57 and Kallis 53. Early in his career, Faf du Plessis’ away average is 63. Most teams would settle for two of their leading batsmen boasting such stats; South Africa have had five. It’s little less than freakish.  

    The bowlers have done well too. 

    Dale Steyn’s Test haul outside South Africa since 2006 is 167 wickets at 23 (only Pakistani off-spinner Saeed Ajmal, with 178 at 28, has more in the same period, and he is now an outcast after being forced to change his bowling action). 

    Morne Morkel has managed a highly respectable 115 at 30, and Vernon Philander 48 at 25. If South Africa had a world-class spinner, they would be unstoppable.

    Cream always rises. But smaller helpings can prove healthy too.

    Mainly for reasons of cricketing realpolitik – South Africa remain financially unattractive opponents compared with India, England and Australia – the Proteas have not had the enthusiasm drummed out of them by endless long-haul flights and lonely nights in hotel rooms.

    They have played only 37 away Tests in that period – compared with 54 by India, 50 by Australia and 49 by England (Pakistan’s tally of 62 reflects the fact they have been unable to host a Test since the terrorist attacks of March 2009). 

    And, for what it’s worth, South Africa’s burden in home Tests since that defeat by Sri Lanka in 2006 tells the same story. Where they have hosted 41 matches, England have staged 62, Australia 48 and Sri Lanka 42.

    In other words, South African cricketers have come to regard tours as less of a chore, more of an opportunity. Rest and recovery are not considered dirty words. There is a lesson here for administrators the world over: overwork the goose, and the golden eggs may turn rotten.

    Amla’s team will be pushed all the way by an Indian side playing with more purpose now that Virat Kohli has replaced the inert MS Dhoni as captain. But their victories in England and Australia in 2008 drew on a desire to make history. Until then, South Africa had not won in England since 1965, and they had never done better than draw in Australia.

    Now, faced with the only team to have held firm at home against them in the last nine years, the South Africans again have the chance to create their own kind of history.

    And they will have to do so on pitches designed with India’s spinners in mind, not their Steyn, Morkel and Philander. Yet the best teams regard such situations as challenges, not obstacles: it’s hard to imagine the phlegmatic Amla moaning about first-day turn in Nagpur, or the heat and dust of Delhi.

    Indeed, the shrewder captains now make a point of embracing difference, knowing very well that they will have to clamber off their high horse the moment they next host a series on pitches tailor-made for their own team.

    Besides, don’t the greatest players want to say they have conquered the bounce of Australia, the sideways movement of England and the spin of Asia? The loss of national characteristics would be another nail in cricket’s coffin.

    The problem is the schedule: once the home team gets on a roll, they can be almost impossible to stop. But until administrators ease the burden on their cricketers, and until they give them the time they need to acquaint themselves with life outside the comfort zone, we should expect more of the same. 

    When that Mohali Test gets under way, the onus on South Africa to maintain one of the proudest records of the modern game may be greater than they imagine.  

    This article first appeared in the November issue of Business Day/Sunday Times Sport Monthly.

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