September 12, 2009

A neutral home from home

Patrick Kidd
England will host Tests for Pakistan against Australia next summer because of the dangerous security situation. But will it work?

This article was written before the decision on the venues was taken

If history is any guide, next summer will be one for sellers of umbrellas and mackintoshes. That is the lesson from the extremely brief record of Test matches played in England between teams who do not wear the three lions.

Australia and Pakistan will play two Tests (and two Twenty20s) here in July, England stepping in as surrogate home for terror-torn Pakistan as South Africa did for the Indian Premier League this year. It will be the first time in 98 years that England is used as a neutral venue for Test cricket, although 105 one-day internationals have been played in this country by teams not called England since the 1975 World Cup.

The ECB is confident the matches, which count as a home series for Pakistan, will pull in the crowds. Yet the last neutral Tests tried in England were a damp squib in more ways than one.

In 1912, Australia played three Tests against South Africa at Old Trafford, Lord's and Trent Bridge as part of a triangular Test championship with England that emerged from the first meeting of what was then the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1909. The body has had worse ideas over the past century but the 1912 tournament slips into the file marked "lesser successes" at ICC Towers in Dubai. That year had one of the wettest summers since records began 150 years earlier. The crowds stayed away, the series was a financial flop. "Contests between Australia and South Africa are not a great attraction to the British public," reported the Daily Telegraph.

But Britain is a different country now. The effect of immigration, particularly since Indian partition in 1947, means that any Asian side that tours England will get an enthusiastic audience even if they are not playing the home side.

Only six more Tests have been at neutral venues. The 1999 final of the Asian Test Championship was played between Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Bangladesh, then Pakistan played two Tests against West Indies and three against Australia in Sharjah and Colombo in 2002 because it was felt unsafe to tour Pakistan during the early stages of the war in Afghanistan.

It is security fears again that have forced Pakistan to seek home Tests outside their country. The Lahore attacks on the Sri Lanka team in March made nations jittery about touring there, and with the 2011 World Cup fixtures and the 2008 Champions Trophy stripped from Pakistan it was inevitable that Test cricket would follow.

Australia were to tour Pakistan in March 2008 -- they last visited in 1998 -- but the series was postponed after Australia's players complained about security following a string of bombings. New Zealand have cancelled their December tour, instead inviting Pakistan to come to them. But it will still be classed as a home series for Pakistan, who will own the broadcasting rights. Indeed New Zealand has said it will lose money by staging the matches.

The ECB has no such worries. Pakistan v Australia is a big draw, as seen by the enthusiasm for both sides this summer in the World Twenty20, won by Pakistan in June, and the Ashes.

The effect of immigration, particularly since Indian partition in 1947, means that any Asian side that tours England will get an enthusiastic audience even if they are not playing the home side

"Pakistan performed outstandingly in the World Twenty20," Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, says. "The passion of the support for their team in England demonstrated why this country is an ideal venue for these matches." Clarke has also been asked by the ICC to head a taskforce to look into rehabilitating Pakistan in the international calendar. The ICC sees the move as a short-term solution but hopes the Pakistani government will improve security so they can play Tests at home again. "The problem is that nobody wants to come to Pakistan," says Haroon Lorgat, the ICC chief executive, adding rather delphically: "Pakistan must admit that the leg of a chair is broken. Then they would be able to fix it and find a place to be seated."

But IS Bindra, the ICC's principal adviser, warned that countries used to playing Pakistan at neutral venues will not want to return. "This is a very dangerous precedent," he said. Details about the series are sketchy. The TEN Sports network, with whom the PCB negotiated a US$140m five-year deal last year, holds the broadcast rights for Pakistan home games even if held at neutral venues. But do not be surprised if the matches appear on Sky Sports as well.

The ECB's Major Match Group met in early July to consider future series but no details were agreed for Pakistan v Australia except that it will be played next July between England's two Tests against Bangladesh and four against Pakistan. The latter replaces the scheduled series against West Indies, brought forward to this year.

It is believed one reason for the delay on a decision is because the ECB is still resolving the structure of the domestic calendar.

David Collier, the ECB chief executive, says England has a "responsibility to the global game. We are one of the few countries that has a number of international grounds and [the venues] are desperate for content." No doubt more desperate for this series than the financially unattractive one between England and Bangladesh.

MCC is keen on having one of the Tests at Lord's but Yorkshire and Lancashire have made strong cases based on their local Asian populations and such popular overseas players as Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan. "Of all of the venues, given our demographic, we'd be very well placed and would make Pakistan feel at home," Stewart Regan, the Yorkshire chief executive, says.

"When India played Pakistan at Old Trafford in the 1999 World Cup the crowd went nuts," a spokeswoman for Lancashire adds. "There is a large Asian community in the Bolton-Burnley-Blackburn triangle and the place would be full, mostly with people supporting Pakistan rather than Australia. It would feel like a home series for Pakistan."

Just have to hope that the fabled Lancashire climate does not turn the match into a repeat of 1912.

Patrick Kidd writes on cricket for the Times. This article was written before the decisions on the venues were taken, and was first published in the September 2009 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here