Alex Stockton reflects on the real lesson from England’s tour down under…
Well, that went well didn’t it? England’s test team were outplayed this winter down under, make no mistake. We didn’t score enough runs, and didn’t have the necessary penetration with the ball and in the field. Although the ODI side looks outstanding, and have to be considered serious contenders for the 2019 world cup, there’s no hiding the fact that this winter’s Ashes was barely better than the embarrassment of four years ago.
I’ll admit it now, too, I was hopeful of England doing something this time around. The Australians’ uncertainties were, seemingly, as clear as our own, and our senior players can match the best in the world when they’re on song. Many were aware of the potential fragility of the three lions’ batting line up, but it was exposed far more severely and frequently than that of the hosts. Add into the equation the Australians’ three-pronged pace attack of Starc, Hazlewood, and Cummins, and it’s clear to see why Joe Root’s men struggled so much.
It certainly isn’t all doom and gloom, though. For now, it is, but I’m extremely confident that England will beat India at home this summer, and that really brings us to the main point of the piece: the significance of home advantage. It has been clear for a number of years now that home advantage goes a long way in test cricket. The Australians prepare fast, bouncy tracks, while India rarely stray from their speciality, either: flat, dull pitches that spin in the second half of the game. England aren’t exactly exempt, either; Anderson and Broad are almost unplayable in home conditions, with a bit of grass on the pitch. The main question is, does anything need to be done about it? Is test cricket simply becoming too difficult for visiting sides? Surely it’s not good for the game if it is, as it’s going to become rather boring if the home team always wins.
What can be done, though? No-one can seriously expect teams to relinquish such a crucial, clear advantage. It’s the same reason that countries haven’t disarmed throughout history, in many ways. No-one wants to make the first move, in case their rivals aren’t quite so sporting. Say England and Australia agreed to conform to an ICC approved, standard model pitch. Without wishing to delve too deeply into some of the slightly more unsavoury themes of world cricket, what would stop India from retaining their advantage and continuing to prepare tracks that turned beyond measure? The ICC? I think not …
Perhaps world cricket could look to our very own domestic game. For a couple of seasons now, the visiting captain has been allowed to opt for an uncontested toss. That is to say, if the away team wants to bowl first, they’re allowed to. The rule has prevented teams with strong seam attacks from preparing exceptionally green wickets, as doing so would almost guarantee a difficult day of batting for the hosts. The official line from the ECB is that this move was to “restore balance”. There’s more chance of spinners coming into the game, and a more even contest between bat and ball. Ticket sales might well also have had something to do with it, but that cynicism is perhaps reduced by the lack of funds generated in such a way, anyway.
In conclusion, it was always going to be difficult to win in Australia. It always is. For the team to fare better next time round, however, a change in the entire setup of English cricket might be necessary. The problem is, before things get better, they might well get worse.
For teams to consistently win away, it might be that surrendering their home advantage is the only answer. Rather play to their strengths, sides wishing to travel well may have to learn to play through their weaknesses. For example, preparing green wickets in English domestic games simply isn’t going to help the national side win in India, Australia, or elsewhere. While it’s obvious that England can’t replicate the conditions of the aforementioned countries, some kind of leveller will surely be considered by the powers that be.
We’d be guessing about the ECB’s next move, and it seems unlikely that the ICC will look to regulate playing conditions at the moment (despite their somewhat suspect ruling in the 2016 Champions’ Trophy).
Until next winter, at least, it’s New Zealand away, with Pakistan and South Africa at home. All three series are more than winnable, but the real test will come in nine months or so, when Root’s men next travel.