June 7, 2012

A real test? Not in your backyard

Playing Test cricket overseas is the greatest examination of skill a cricketer must pass. Despite the increasing uniformity of the touring experience, playing abroad hasn't really got easier

For centuries, young men have travelled overseas as a means of expanding their horizons and experiencing foreign pleasures. From the Grand Tour of the 17th and 18th centuries, through to the modern-day gap year, it is an educational rite of passage that holds importance across cultures the world over. A modern-day cricketing equivalent exists too. Over the years thousands of eager players have left the comforts of home shores for an off season abroad. Every Test player is a first-time tourist at some stage in his career; there are many lessons to learn, much experience to be gained.

Cricket is a rare sport - no two wickets around the world are the same. Each ground, from village green to Test arena, has its own character and charms. There is no other sport that can lay claim to being played under such extreme variations of conditions. It is this variance that ensures experiencing the game in all its depth is a vital aspect of development for any cricketer.

I look upon my overseas club cricket experiences with great fondness. The soft "popping" wickets of Scotland taught me the valuable lesson of playing the ball late and straight. Sometimes the coin would stick vertically in the track upon tossing, and the average club trundler would become a fearsome prospect. The low, skiddy bounce of the mats of Holland provided the challenge of finding a way to score with no pace or bounce to work with. Both alien environments required a Darwinian approach to batting - adapt or perish. There was also the expectation that as the overseas pro you would win games for your team. Above all else, you could play how you wanted to play - becoming your own coach, and more importantly, your own man in the process.

For professional cricketers lucky enough (given the now-strict visa requirements) to now embark on such journeys these days, the gains of playing cricket through the calendar year can give them a significant edge over competitors back home. There is no time to down tools and lose the appetite for runs or wickets.

The path of county cricket has been a track well trodden in recent decades by overseas players attempting to make a name for themselves - Mike Hussey and Mark Waugh are two cases in point. In accumulating hours at the crease, they effectively had the batting volume of three Australian summers each year. For those who are long on Malcolm Gladwell's theory that 10,000 hours of practice are required to become an "expert", these two accelerated their learning through experience at three times the rate of their competitors.

What, then, of Test match cricket played away from familiar surrounds? I know from my own recent, albeit limited experience, I left Australia feeling like a fish who knew every corner of his bowl, only to soon be thrown into a vast ocean. Survival, which had previously been guaranteed, was now threatened by the widened environment.

It needs to be noted the term "home" series is a liberal interpretation. Most players might only play one Test a year in the comforts of their home ground - a ground they have intimate knowledge of. That is not to say they don't possess a deep understanding of other surfaces in their country, but it is nothing like the sense of ownership they feel towards "their" patch of turf.

Touring in a Test environment is the greatest test of skill a player has to face. The game itself does not change, but the parameters that it is played within are in some instances turned on their head; balls turning at right angles are as foreign for a Yorkshireman as having to fend off a throat-high bouncer is for someone who grew up on the red clay of Ahmedabad. If a spin bowler who turns the ball away from the bat produces a full, flat, leg-stump delivery in the Antipodes, it is usually punished with ease through midwicket for four. In Dominica, on Australia's recent tour, the same delivery was at times unplayable and treated with the respect given to an unexploded mine.

In some foreign conditions, players who have perfected a style of play at home over many successful years can be quickly forced to wonder where their next run is coming from. They face two choices: to push on unchanged and hope that strength of mind and luck carry them through; or to show the courage to deconstruct and rebuild their technique in a matter of days.

The best example of the latter was Matthew Hayden's sweeping masterclass in India in 2001. At the age of 30, he discovered a shot that went on to define him as a player. In doing so, he risked his career; the reward, in retrospect, was a place among the greats of the game.

Cricket is a rare sport - no two wickets around the world are the same. Each ground, from village green to Test arena, has its own character and charms. It is this variance that ensures experiencing the game in all its depth is a vital aspect of development for any cricketer

Touring in Test cricket, it seems, is harder than it looks. Of the top 20 run-scorers of the last 30 years, only four have had a better average away than they have had at home: Rahul Dravid, Steve Waugh, Allan Border and Graeme Smith. Border and Smith experienced incredible success abroad - on average scoring ten more runs each time they took guard with a fresh stamp in their passports. They also both share the "fighter" tag: known to thrive as captains when their team's livelihood in a game was dependent on their own personal success - a situation that occurs more regularly when you are touring.

If searching for proof that no one technique can simply be rolled out across the globe, look no further than Hayden, who discovered a successful recipe for dominance in India, yet still also averaged an astonishing 15 runs more in Australia than he did overseas.

When does a fad become a trend? Of the current top 20 batsman (as determined by the ICC rankings), only four have superior records on the road. Of the other 14 (with two Pakistanis omitted, since they haven't played at home for three years), the average disparity between their home and away records is 14 runs. For a player who averages 50, this represents almost a 30% decline. There may well, of course, be a number of factors at work - the drain of living out of a hotel, away from family and other support networks; illness; or even a general anxiety of the unfamiliar. Like any experience, until they are your own, you have no idea what is entailed in the journey.

The paradox is this: it is the current international player who should be best placed to deal with the challenges of touring. He is much more worldly than his forebears, and the world, we are told, is becoming more and more homogenous. With the proliferation of youth World Cups, A tours and academies, the foreign should be familiar by the time players have graduated to Test cricket. However, it takes longer than you might think to acclimatise. Every ground has its own feel, and often it is not until you have tasted some success on it that you feel entirely comfortable. In this age of three-format cricket, and the resultant tightening of scheduling - in terms of time between and within tours - the luxury of playing multiple warm-up matches is now non-existent.

I know from my recent West Indian tour. It was not until the last Test that I felt I had come to terms with conditions. Within days I was back in Australia. It is easy to forget that it was not that long ago that ODIs were played between Test matches - elongating preparation time and allowing players to immerse themselves in a destination. Now, touring can be a slap-and-dash affair.

The other paradox is that much of the touring experience is now uniform: five-star hotels, business-class air travel and around-the-clock security. It is only the playing conditions that differ. Steve Waugh made it a point to get to grips with local culture wherever he went. It was his way of breaking down the barrier and manufacturing some normality in unfamiliar territory. His record on foreign shores (5217 runs at 55.5) seems to show the benefits of that effort. Modern-day preoccupations and paranoia would make it difficult for a modern-day Steve Waugh. Perhaps that is why cricketers are struggling to emulate his on-field on-the-road successes.

Ed Cowan is a top-order batsman with Tasmania and Australia, and the author of In the Firing Line

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rajaram on June 10, 2012, 2:53 GMT

    Ed Cowan is an excellent cricket writer. A true Cricket thinker. Surprisingly, I can think of very few Cricketers who also write thoughtfully - Ian Chappell, Mark Nicholas and Aaakas Chpra. Please add to this list.

  • Christopher on June 10, 2012, 1:22 GMT

    Any comparison that placed any batsman ahead of Bradman is an admission of failure to properly research.Bradman played for 20 years,split by 6 years of war. In his worst series in which the entire field was on the leg side and he was bombarded with short pitched bowling from a bowler considered one of the fastest of all time in Larwood,he averaged 56-higher than any player from either side.Bowlers bowled with back foot drag,placing them closer to the batsman than is allowed under the front foot rule.He played on uncovered wickets.There were no drinks breaks.No helmets.No sight screens in England.There were timeless Tests. No flying before the war.He suffered from sea sickness.Nearly died in 1934.Took a season off in 1935/36 to recuperate and won the SthAust squash open.Was a member of the Davis Cup tennis squad as a teenager.Shot below his age at golf when 75.There was no direct communication with his home country on tours for months at a time before the war.Bradman remains untouchable

  • Christopher on June 10, 2012, 1:10 GMT

    This article was written only with the purpose of justifying Eds poor Test record. It had no intention of elucidating on the variegated conditions that are already well known to exist internationally,are the primary purpose of international tours and are the reason its called Test cricket.I cant imagine Hayden & Waugh spending countless hours excusing their own failure publicly.Perhaps thats why that team was so great. Their continued re-selection,even after being dropped,was a consequence of their peerless 1st class records-the kind of record that Ed does not possess.Regardless of all other factors,the Australian side is replete with coaches who review the opposition,the types of pitches and conditions and the methods by which they may be combatted, well in advance of any tour. The selection of players should be based soley on performance over time. Ed has 9 years of 1st class cricket and averages 40.His results are no better than the equally mediocre Marsh whose selection I opposed.

  • Deepak on June 10, 2012, 1:08 GMT

    @KiwiRocker- I am surprised at the way you have drawn a conclusion on this debate. Sachin's average in ODIs 44.83 has come off 463 matches in a career that started in 1989. Whereas Kallis' average of 45.26 has come in 321 games starting in 1996. Look at the strike-rates as well.. Sachin - 86.2, Kallis - 72.9.... Well, can Kallis maintain that average if he goes on to play as many matches as Sachin is the question. The obvious and the correct answer is a NO. Not only in ODIs, but in Tests too in which Sachin has played 36 games more than Kallis.

  • Deepak on June 10, 2012, 0:52 GMT

    @Meety - Also Sachin had to play almost all the world's best bowlers. For e.g. Ponting didn't have to bat against giants like Warne, McGrath, Lee, Gillespie.... Kallis didn't bat against Donald, Pollock, Ntini, Steyn. India doesn't have such GREAT bowlers to boast about that Sachin missed playing against.. Although there are spinners such as Kumble and Harbhajan who have excelled in patches. Anyway Sachin is a terrific player of spin and would have loved batting against Kumble and Harbhajan. So all in all, Sachin has faced all the world's deadliest bowlers during his time with an exception or two.

  • PALLAB on June 9, 2012, 19:06 GMT

    @Lord Dravid, stop this prattle about Tendulkar facing pressure of a billion plus. By my estimate barely 350-400 million Indians (coupled with a few million Indian diaspora abroad) people follow Indian cricket/ SRT closely in Tests, forget ODIs (usual facts about women not following, half population not having radio/TV/Print to follow). SRT is a professional cricketer and should be impervious (and admirably has been) to "massed followers'" pressure once he is on the ground playing. India's population also did not cross a billion till 2001 by which time Sehwag,Laxman,RD etc. started supporting SRT -something which he did not have in 90s. So this MYTH about SRT playing with a billion's expectations right thru his career needs to be BUSTED.

  • Vinod on June 9, 2012, 13:13 GMT

    What a faboulous article by Ed! shows his writing class, eloquently put along with diligently researched stats.....I'm a fan of each and every article by you...more power to your pen & Bat!

  • Gez on June 9, 2012, 7:57 GMT

    to those saying that bradman didn't have to face the same variety of opposition as tendulkar, you have a point. if bradman were able to play against india throughout his career, he would have averaged over 200 instead of the rather ordinary 99.94.

  • Bobby on June 9, 2012, 2:35 GMT

    I am amazed at the thought of a comparsion between J Kallis and Tendulya. Kallis has a superior average both in ODI as well as test matches as compared to Tendulya. Kallis also has a superior average of foruth innings so unsure why there is even a comparison. However, the main difference between Kallis and Tendulya is that Kallis has scored against everyone everywhere. Tendulya on other hand had a pathetic low 30's average against Pakistan when Pakistani bowling was at full strength and even now he is rather weak against them. J Kallis is the greatest cricketer who is in class of Sobers, Imran Khan and so on. Bradman was never tried and tested in moden day conditions and standard of bowling and fielding was different on those days so Bradman too is over hyped. No batsman ever compares to Sir Viv Richards but Kallis based on his numbers and victories for SA comes close. Tendulya has yet to win a test series or a tournament for India!..India's best overseas batsman was Dravid!

  • Andrew on June 9, 2012, 2:24 GMT

    @Rahane-fan - also "...a player get used to your opponents..." you do realise that Bradman's career spanned 20 yrs? The bowlers he first faced in England were not the same as who he played against in 1948. Like Sachin playing the WIndies, in his early days he would of played Ambrose & Walsh, there is nobody as good (no disrespect to Roach) currently playing. (BTW - Ambrose did not play in Sachin's first series v WI & only one rain affected series in WI). The other thing that people who mindlessly bleat on about Sachin is, how come Sachin does not average 80+? If the response is, it's harder for batsmen these days, why doesn't Sachin ave 55 & the next best batsmen not ave less than45? Except for the last year or two, we have lived in a batsmen dominated era, why can't Sachin ave 60+? Again I'll say I would have Sachin as one of the first batsmen I'd select in a world xi of players I have SEEN, but it is hard to emphatically prove he is the best of the generation, let alone of all time!

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