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