September 3, 2008

No 'home' advantage in Cardiff

The hosts couldn't have picked a less English venue to kick off next year's Ashes

Will the first Ashes Test be played at a 'neutral' venue? © AFP

The reporter from the South Wales Echo possibly hadn't thought through the implications when, at the end of the rain-wrecked ODI at the newly refurbished Sophia Gardens (or SWALEC Stadium, as it would love to become known), he decided to ask Andrew Flintoff his opinion of the venue that, in just under ten months' time, will host the first Test of the 2009 Ashes.

"It's damp," deadpanned Flintoff, in the most underwhelming endorsement imaginable. Then, sensing he ought to come up with a slightly more upbeat response, Flintoff tried again, but still couldn't muster the necessary enthusiasm. "It's better than last time I came," he said. "It's not Old Trafford, but it's all right."

Admittedly, Flintoff was the wrong man to ask. As a proud Lancastrian, he was duty-bound to be indignant about the manner in which his home ground has been stripped of Ashes status for next summer's seismic contest. And besides, as dress rehearsals go, Cardiff's three-over rain-dodge on Wednesday was never going to set the pulses racing, for players or spectators.

Back in 2005, however, those pulses were working overtime. On the final morning of the third Test, 10,000 fans had to be locked out of Old Trafford, as Ashes fever officially took hold of the nation. Try as one might, it was hard to envisage the same scenes being recreated in the heart of Cardiff next summer, and that wasn't just the weather dampening the enthusiasm. It was the venue's simple lack of familiarity that jarred as well.

Home advantage can be a hard thing to quantify, but by and large it is made up of a series of strands that, when drawn tightly together, create a formidable hurdle for opposition teams to overcome. Contributing factors might include the knowledge of local weather patterns and their impact on pitch conditions, or the feel-good factor that courses through the players as they walk through the gates and recall the glories of matches past. Perhaps there's some quirky feature in the dressing room that can be guaranteed to get under the skin of visiting sides, or maybe that role is reliably performed by the boisterous local support.

Whatever the ingredients, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Australia would smooth England's path to the Ashes in 2010-11 by scrapping their now-traditional curtain-raiser at Brisbane's "Gabbatoir" in favour of a more neutral venue. Only a complacent, naïve or unthinking board - and probably all three at once - would disregard the sort of backing that England could have counted upon at Old Trafford (and Trent Bridge for that matter) next summer, and trust the opening fixture of such a key series to a ground where England have contested fewer overs of international cricket than seven rival nations, Australia included.

How will the pitch play for England's quartet of seamers? Stuart Broad may have struck twice in the ten overs that England have managed over the course of two matches against Pakistan and South Africa, but we can only really speculate - Glamorgan's struggles at the foot of the second division of the Championship aren't exactly a reliable indicator of form. How will Monty Panesar protect the unsettlingly short and straight boundaries at either end of the ground, 40 yard distances which, as Shaun Pollock was miming in the lift between punditry stints, invite gentle chip shots into the River Taff?

There are too many unknowns for Cardiff to truly be classified as an England "home" Test - and geographically, of course, it is anything but. Notwithstanding the silent "W" in the England & Wales Cricket Board, it is a point of pedantry that swings both ways - Welsh cricket fans bridle whenever Cardiff is mentioned, for convenience's sake, as part of England, and yet those same supporters would doubtless take umbrage if it was suggested that they were any less passionate as a result.

Glamorgan's struggle at the foot of the second division of the Championship isn't a reliable indicator of how the Sophia Gardens pitch will play © Getty Images

The real problem with the venue, however, is one of perception. Locating Cardiff on a map is one thing, but it's only when you arrive in town that you really appreciate that you've set foot in a rival capital. The little details play their part, in particular the bilingual signposts, but for the keenest sense of trespass, there's nothing quite so forbidding as the towering magnificence of the Millennium Stadium, which is unmissably placed slap-bang in the centre of the city.

With due respect to the SWALEC, this is the only stadium in town - it boasts 76,000 seats compared with a puny 15,000, but, with Land Of Our Fathers being played out on loop over the tannoy, it is also clear that this is a venue where Englishmen tread at their peril. With that in mind, it's not easy to bridge the mental gap that such a monolith creates. English sportsmen do not come to Cardiff to be cheered to the rafters. They come here to be rucked and mauled to oblivion. Anything else is quite frankly a disturbance of the natural order.

Flintoff did not mean to be churlish about Glamorgan's redevelopment. Given the constraints of time, and the need to be sympathetic to its delightful riverside setting, the expansion has been achieved as tastefully and effectively as anyone could have hoped. But how will he and his team-mates feel as they wait in the Ystafell Newid inside the "Really Welsh" pavilion on July 8 next year, while the strains of Jerusalem announce the start of the 2009 Ashes? No more than mildly disorientated, you would hope. Nevertheless, of all the contests to jeopardise in such a way, English cricket really couldn't have picked a less opportune one.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on September 6, 2008, 9:08 GMT

    It's great that Wales has been given some international cricket and as the number of international games increases I'm all for expanding the number of venues. But surely it's a mistake that their first Test match is the opening match of an Ashes series. This puts the home team players under unecessary pressure and it would have made commercial sense too to give Cardiff a first game against less prestigious opponents first.

    In terms of crowd allegiance, whenever I've been to Cardiff for county cricket and worn an "England" sun hat this has invariably drawn comments from the locals, who, it's well known like nothing more than to see Scotland, N Ireland or frankly anyone else put one over the old enemy England whether at rugby, football or cricket. I feel sure there will be at least a few Welsh in the crowd not sorry if Australia win.

    The reality is that the E(&W)CB is trying to do the right thing in taking games to new venues, but hasn't thought it through properly.

  • Christopher on September 4, 2008, 22:51 GMT

    The development, and use, of Sophia Gardens at the expense of Old Trafford is the most appalling evidence of the rapacious, dangerous avarice of the ECB, surpassing their treatment of Lords. There is no genuine "cirkceting" reason to play a test match in Cardiff, especially over Old Trafford, easily the venue best suited to England, as recent results attest. Indeed, the decision is also frankly insulting to Lancashire; Glamorgan have, in recent times, produced one cricketer of any note, whereas Lanacashire have produced many genuinely central figures in English cricket. Not that the county won't survive, but all the same, it does rather suggest that the ECB is afflicted with supreme myopia and disdain for the counties below it.

    That the facilities at Old Trafford are somewhat antiquated is, to my mind, immaterial; the wicket is the quickets of any internation wicket bar perhaps the Waca, and the support far better than at any other English venue.

  • Pavel on September 4, 2008, 18:41 GMT

    I feel that the only valid arguments against staging a Test at Cardiff can only be purely cricketing ones (i. e. state of the wicket, boundaries etc.). Still, if it was acceptable for the Millenium Stadium to deputise for Wembley, I do not see why it is not acceptable for Sophia Gardens to be an "English and Welsh" Test ground. Diminuendo also makes a valid point: for someone who lives in the West Midlands or the South-West (cue Somerset, Gloucs, Worcs, Warwicks) Cardiff is a better option than northern venues such as Old Trafford, Headingley, Trent Bridge and Chester-le-Street. And I'm sure all the people who miss Simon Jones from the England side are not influenced by the fact that he is Welsh!

  • Duncan on September 4, 2008, 17:19 GMT

    If Lancashire CCC had bid enough up front then Old Trafford would be hosting an Ashes test despite the fact is in need of redevelopment. Every time this issue has been raised the run down nature of Old Trafford is cited as the reason. Its nonsense, it just boiled down to who bid the most money to host the tests. Glamorgan have massive backing from the Welsh Tourist Board so had an arguably unfair advantage. That said, I think the vast majority of spectators at the Ashes Test next year (and maybe for the 3 overs yesterday) will have come over the border from England. The atmosphere sounded great during yesterdays brief action. The short straight boundaries are a bit of a joke mind you. Perhaps thats why the atmosphere is good, because the crowd are closer to the action than nearly every other ground.

  • Julian on September 4, 2008, 16:20 GMT

    As a Welshy now living in London, I enjoyed this piece. Sophia Gardens will foster its own culture of support just as the other grounds do. I know from watching there and at Lord's over the years that Welsh cricket fans are just -- if not more -- passionate than their English counterparts. It may come as a shock to hear that many of the noisiest test matches crowds in England may contain some Welshmen. I suspect the Cardiff test will be very bosterous after lunch. You only have to absorb the atmosphere at the Millennium to know that. And correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Manchester struggle to get sell-out crowds in recent tours less sexy than the Ashes? I also reckon the 'Englishness' of the venue will become significant after the match if, god forbid, the Aussies go one up. I do think it surprising though, that Sophia Gardens is on the Ashes calendar so quickly. And we've yet to see if ticket prices deter the locals - just the invitation an Englishman needs to cross to the dark side.

  • Cricinfouser on September 4, 2008, 15:56 GMT

    If yesterday's "match" was anthing to go by there won't be any trouble with the support raised for the England & Wales Cricket Team in Cardiff at all. The crowd were more vocal for the reading of the team sheet than some crowds at other grounds have been for wickets, and given that at least 50% of them were huddling under the stands at the time that's quite an achievement.

    Cardiff doesn't just serve South Wales, but gives anyone who lives west of Bristol the chance of going to see test cricket at a ground that doesn't take six hours to get to. That's an awful lot of people who have no interest in making things comfortable for Australia.

  • Simon on September 4, 2008, 15:52 GMT

    Perhaps Mr Miller might like to reveal whether he is a member of LCC or is on their payroll to continue the long running whining about Old Trafford not getting a Test Match for the next few years whilst they try and drag the place into the 21st Century. Cardiff will be holding the 1st Test Match next year, selected via as independent process as possible (the process Chaired by the ex-Head of the TUC) so good luck to them.

    If Mr Miller can't be positive and supportive of Cardiff maybe he should stay in Lancashire and snipe away from the comfort of his members seat at Old Trafford.

    And I'm not Welsh, but do live int he South of England and getting to London is hugely expensive whether by train or car so another alternative is always welcome.

  • Simon on September 4, 2008, 11:19 GMT

    I'm hugely unsure of Cardiff as a ground but can it be any worse than playing at Lord's. Can't even rememeber the last time there was even a result there. We only seem to play there to give the opposition side a nice little visit to the "home of cricket" and then play out a dull high scoring draw on a lifeless surface. As for Cardiff, it is the England and WALES cricket board as Nasser Hussain has pointed out a few times, just wished the team had played there a few times before the Australian's get here. A test against New Zealand would have been really helpful. I disagree with most of the venues for next year but I guess we've just got to get on with it and win without the swing the England and Wales Cricket Board has denied us.

  • Mark on September 4, 2008, 11:18 GMT

    Interestingly enough, this issue was brought up on TMS during the ENG v NZ series. Intriguingly, it was brought up by the NZ pundits (Bryan Waddle and Jeremy Coney i think) who questioned whether it was wise to take a test match away from Old Trafford and take it to Cardiff. There was a hint of suggestion that it may have been done for commercial reasons. Anyway, more importantly, messrs Waddle and Coney highlighted that England have won five out of the last six test matches at Old Trafford, the other being that epic draw against AUS in 2005, and that Monty takes a hat-full of wickets every time he turns up in Manchester. The question that begs being asked at this point is would the Australians take a test away from their most successful venue, where one of their bowlers is at his most potent, and take it elsewhere? We all know the answer is a firm 'no.' Australia set the standards in test match cricket at the moment, and England should take note of these nuances.

  • Dimuthu on September 4, 2008, 11:13 GMT

    I'm very much a neutral for the Ashes, but still love to watch it. I think there's one aspect of this all that ppl have not mentioned yet. London gets to host 2 Ashes test matches, whilst Manchester loses out to Cardiff. Doesn't that seem rather unfair? It's obviously for the £££ that the Oval will never lose out hosting an Ashes test. I really feel sorry for the Old Trafford crowd, but I also feel sorry for Cardiff (and Wales overall) for getting step-motherly treatment for this. The ECB should have revamped the stadium to get it to "Ashes Standard" before giving the test to it though (imho). The weather is always terrible in the whole UK, so just because it gets a few more centimetres of rain per year doesn't mean it should be ruled out completely. Rather have the 1st test there than a potential decider anyway!

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