Home advantage has always counted for something in Test cricket, but after England wrapped up the Ashes series with a match to spare, is it now counting for too much?
England’s innings-and-78-run win, on a typical seaming English pitch, in the fourth Test at Trent Bridge on Saturday gave them an unbeatable 3-1 lead in the five-match Ashes series — just 18 months after they had been whitewashed 5-0 in Australia.
Yet last weekend’s result meant that in the 14 years since Australia last won a series in England, seven out of eight Ashes campaigns had gone to the home side — the exception being England’s 3-1 triumph “Down Under” in 2010-2011.
And what is true of the Ashes is equally true of Test cricket overall.
In the past two years, only four teams out of 23 have won a series outside their own region.
Australia and New Zealand have both won series in the West Indies, while Australia have won in South Africa and Sri Lanka won in England last year.
Modern tours, mainly as a result of a desire by boards to maximize their income, are now increasingly compressed affairs.
When Rodney Marsh, now Australia chairman of selectors, made his first tour of England as Australia’s wicketkeeper in 1972, the team had 10 first-class matches before they played the first Test.
This year, the team Marsh helped pick had just two warm-up games, against under-strength Kent and Essex sides.
The four Australians chosen as Cricketers of the Year in the 1973 edition of Wisden, the sport’s annual of record, had all acknowledged the benefit of their previous experience of English conditions, with swing specialist Bob Massie, fast bowler Dennis Lillee and opener Keith Stackpole all having played league cricket.
Batting great Greg Chappell had, Wisden said, been “one of the best players with [county side] Somerset in the 1968 and 1969 seasons.”
However, increasingly busy international schedules reduce the time available for top players to spend a full season with a county, while the wages in the highly lucrative Twenty20 Indian Premier League — which cuts across the start of the English season — dwarf anything on offer in county cricket.
Significantly, Australia opener Chris Rogers, who has fared the best of the tourists against the swinging ball, a feature of cricket in England that has done so much damage to their Ashes chances, was in the international wilderness for much of the time he spent playing for several county sides.
“It is like when Australia play in India and vice-versa — that’s very one-sided too,” former Australia fast bowler Glenn McGrath told the BBC. “Batsmen learn to play in their own conditions and struggle to adapt.”
Ian Healy, a former international teammate of McGrath, has questioned whether the lengthy presence of wives and girlfriends on tour has proved a distraction for the Australia squad.
That was sent up rather well by Healy’s niece Alyssa, a member of the touring Australia women’s team contesting their own series in England, who on Monday tweeted a picture of her boyfriend, Mitchell Starc, a fast bowler in the Australia men’s side, with the caption: “Mitch just doing his best to ‘distract’ me before the [women’s] Test tomorrow.”
However, the kind of practical changes that might give touring teams a better chance of winning away Test series are unlikely to be forthcoming any time soon.
“Look at the past five years, there has not been many victories away from home for any team,” said Australia captain Michael Clarke, who has announced he will retire after the fifth Test at The Oval having ending up on the losing side in his four Ashes tours of Britain.
“I think it shows how much that home-ground advantage helps,” he added.
“It is the greatest challenge of being an international sportsman, being able to win home and away,” Clarke said.
“It’s tough, but that’s the way it is,” he added.
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