Whilst the Australian T20 team was losing to Sri Lanka in Melbourne in one of the great series (the very best), the Test team was piling on the runs in a tour game in India. This was played against an Indian ‘A’ side that was made up of a few bog standard domestic trundlers. Plus Ashok Dinda. On a flat, green tinged road. When they got to Pune they were faced with the complete opposite; a rank turner and a side packed with spinners. Plus Ishant Sharma. And whilst the tactic backfired hilariously for India, what everyone forgot is that the tour game was a complete farce (the worst) and that tour games generally are the single biggest problem undermining the credibility of the Test format.
We probably should point out that this is not exclusively an Indian issue. In the modern game at least, this came to the fore in the 2013/14 Ashes, when Australia prepared roads for England and assembled an Australia ‘A’ team for them to play that had a bowling “attack” (we use the word loosely here) comprised of Ben Cutting, Trent Copeland, Moises Henriques and Jon Holland. The point being to give the tourists nothing that would resemble what they would find when they turned up at Brisbane and faced Mitch Johnson. Like so many tour fixtures since, this wasn’t a contest as much as a glorified net session.
Critics (such bad people, so dishonest) complain endlessly that touring sides are not giving themselves a chance by planning long itineraries ahead of away series anymore. Where once a side would spend months becoming acclimatized, now they fly in and fly out, jamming in as many series as possible to rake in the cash (so much cash, you wouldn’t believe). England, for instance, played zero tour games ahead of their recent series in India, which they then lost four-zip. But what seems to be forgotten here is there’s little point undertaking a long preparation if the hosts deliberately serve up rubbish to ensure the tourists are as under-prepared as possible before the first Test. Hence Australia have spent most of their time in Dubai instead, playing inter-team matches ahead of the Indian tour.
This is the sort of thing that seemed remarkable at first but is now so common place that people don’t even bother paying attention anymore. Nobody cared much that the pitches prepared for Sri Lanka’s two tour games in England last year were nothing like the Test pitches they were subsequently annihilated on. Or that Bangladesh picked a ‘Cricket Board XI’ side to play Australia in their ultimately aborted tour in late 2015 that didn’t contain a single front-line spinner. Or that Australia made Pakistan play a Cricket Australia XI in their only warm-up game ahead of their recent Test series, made up of mostly Grade players with just a handful of First Class games to their name. A game Pakistan subsequently won by over two hundred runs and which barely lasted two days. Sometimes it’s not even so deliberate; domestic calendars are so packed these days teams can’t afford to pick first XI’s for tour games. So when Australia played Kent and Essex ahead of the last Ashes, they faced largely second string bowling attacks.
We could go on and on with examples but there is no real point: every tour nowadays is like this. All cricket boards pull this shit and it’s constantly excused. It might even be considered as ‘gamesmanship’. The end result, though, is lopsided Test series that are over before they even begin because teams are not being given a chance to prepare properly. It’s now getting to the point where it’s not only affecting the touring sides anymore. South Africa spent a month in Australia ahead of their recent Test series, in which they played two two-day games, one against a typically atrocious Cricket Australia XI, the other against a second string South Australian side. It was a rubbish preparation for a Test series, but Australia’s was even worse. Some Australian players didn’t play a single First Class game ahead of it, and for those that did it was a Sheffield Shield game played with a pink ball ahead of a red ball Test. And then, ahead of the Third Test, they went back to Shield cricket, this time to play with a red ball ahead of a pink ball Test. It was a shambles, and with Cricket Australia having somehow managed to give the home side an even worse preparation than that served up to the tourists, Australia dutifully lost the series.
So whilst players are constantly criticised for being rubbish, for not having the temperament for Test cricket and for being more interested in money, it’s cricket boards who should be taking the blame for the decline in quality of Test cricket. Part of the reason is greed, the desire to jam more ODI and T20 fixtures into the calendar, but mostly tour fixtures are being turned into a farce because cricket boards the world over are petrified of losing Test series at home. They are terrified of their own fans (so much hatred), and the criticism the players and board will receive if the home side is seen to be under-performing. Away loses are excusable, home loses are not. So Australia’s lost series against South Africa led to a ‘crisis’ that was seemingly resolved when they subsequently beat a woefully under-prepared Pakistan side. After the criticism England, and especially Alastair Cook, received for losing to Sri Lanka in 2014, the ECB made sure the tourists were as badly prepared as possible ahead of the return series in 2016. And given the shambolic state of the BCCI, we look forward to the chaos that will erupt if India manage to go on and lose this Test series.
Given that every nation now does this, there is no real solution in sight. Perhaps this most recent debacle will show that when taken to extremes, touring sides will just undertake their preparation elsewhere in order to avoid pitches that are carefully prepared and opposing teams vetted (extreme vetting keeps the bad guys out) to ensure tourists are as disadvantaged as possible. And all of this because cricket boards are so obsessed with the bottom line, and petrified of the drop in interest that inevitably results from poor home performances (see Australia post 2011, England in 2014 or the West Indies since seemingly forever now), that they are prepared to go to any lengths to try and ensure home wins and happy fans. And, probably more importantly, happy sponsors (we love these guys). What seems to be forgotten in this endless race to the bottom is that fans would likely prefer to see a hard-fought Test series between two competitive sides, even if it means the home team might lose, than a rubbish romp against yet another dispirited, under-prepared bunch of tourists.
Especially when it all backfires so hilariously against the home side, it just leads to everyone laughing at them all the more.