Test cricket must address problems at home

The game’s oldest format is doing itself little favours in the battle for supporters’ attention.

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Picture Credit: Tim Felce

England’s victory in the 2010/11 Ashes series was referenced a lot this past winter. As Joe Root’s current set of Three Lions stuttered to a 4-0 loss in the side’s latest trip Down Under, rain delays and lunch breaks were continually punctuated with that win of seven years past.

It is easy to understand why. After all, that series victory – a 3-1 thumping by every measure of the word – was only England’s second triumph on Australian soil in over a quarter of a century. Of the 35 Ashes series played in Australia, England have won 14 of them, yet only three such wins have arrived in the last 46 years. Of the last nine Ashes series, only one, that England victory, has been won by the visiting side.

That tale is something of a microcosm for Test cricket as a whole. Of the last 24 international Test series, a mere four have been won by the away side. In just two more have the visitors mustered a draw. In all, it is a sequence which means that, on average, out of every four series played, the home side will win three.

The cause

Home advantage is nothing new, nor is it specific to cricket. Given the ability within the sport’s laws to adjust and tweak pitches to the home side’s favour – to a far greater extent than, say, football, where any edges to be gleaned are fairly slim – it is unsurprising that fortune often favours the hosts. It has been a staple of the game ever since its inception.

Yet recent trends point increasingly in one direction. Moreover, they are trends which are damaging the sport itself. Proclamations as to the imminent death of Test cricket have been in existence as long as the format itself, but it is undeniable that the ‘purest’ form of the sport finds itself increasingly under pressure. As news broke recently of two England players, Alex Hales and Adil Rashid, opting to give up red ball cricket for good in pursuit of the greater glories (and purses) seemingly offered by the one-day formats, it was difficult not to fear that many others may soon follow suit.

The reasons for the continued turn towards limited-over cricket are varied, and financial concerns surely top the bill. Yet to absolve Test cricket itself of all blame would be erroneous and, in truth, damaging, in that it would give the purveyors of the format no reason to look at their actions.

The issue of home advantage is one of the more pressing concerns, given that it has recently turned great tussles into one-sided walkovers. 88,172 people turned out at the MCG on Boxing Day 2017 for the first day of the fourth Ashes Test, yet that was in celebration of a series already won by Australia rather than in expectation of a thrilling sporting contest.

The powers-that-be atop the red ball tree cannot rightly lament the money thrown at the white ball game when they seem unwilling to do anything to arrest the increasing predictability of their own game. Overseas tours are becoming noticeably shorter; the amount England crammed into seven weeks in the southern hemisphere was, frankly, ludicrous. Players are given no time to adapt to different surroundings. That, combined with the fact their own home pitches are prepared to suit their own needs, means that they are never likely to be able to perform away from home on a consistent basis.

The solution?

The simplest – and thus, least realistic – solution would be for home sides to stop preparing pitches they know favour themselves. Whilst it would certainly level the playing field, in some cases quite literally, it would also be infeasible. Home advantage should still remain a factor, just not to the extent we are currently witnessing.

That being said, it should not be beyond the thinking of the various cricketing boards of the world that perhaps one pitch per series might be prepared with the objective of taking the hosts out of their comfort zone. This would still afford the home side an advantage across the series as a whole, but would also enable players to become used to playing on ‘foreign’ surfaces. Correspondingly, it might also improve their chances of victory further afield.

Rejigging the domestic schedule in such a way that it doesn’t bend so willingly towards one-day cricket would be beneficial, too, particularly in the case of England. This winter’s touring bowlers were scorned for their inability to extract bounce from the wicket, yet what can be expected when the County Championship season is limited to periods of the year whereby fast-medium bowlers are able to gather up bags of wickets just by hitting the top of off-stump? It is an important attribute; it is not the only one.

Four-day tests have been mooted in the hope of injecting more entertainment into proceedings, but it is difficult to see how this will in positively affect the problem of predictability. Test cricket’s issue with boredom is not solely because people see it as slow and dreary, but because people who see it as that invariably know who is going to win, as do those who love the format and find themselves trying to defend it.

There is no easy answer and, as the T20 juggernaut continues to roll on, it becomes increasingly difficult to envisage the format not being left behind. Yet, for all people can lament that the five-day game isn’t exciting enough to keep interests piqued, the truth is that the Test cricket’s problems lie a lot closer to home.

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