Those playing Test cricket away from home have never had it so good. Journeys to play series once lasted several weeks - and the boat trip from England to Australia a full month - but now a day of air travel suffices. Players stay in plush hotels, accompanied by a backroom team designed to prevent them worrying about anything beyond the cricket - and they no longer have to wait for months to see their families. The broadcasting of games all around the world, the use of modern analytical tools and training facilities designed to replicate foreign conditions before players have even got on the plane have all taken the mystique out of playing overseas. Neutral umpires and the Decision Review System have long ago destroyed any remaining semblance of home bias in officiating.

Yet home advantage is becoming more potent. In every decade since the 1940s, sides have performed better at home. An away side in the 1940s had 77% as much chance of victory as the home side, but just 50% in the 2010s (excluding Tests involving Bangladesh or Zimbabwe).

 

Decade-wise look at away wins
Number of teams (Zim and Bang excl) Span Matches Away wins Home wins Ties Draws Win/loss ratio
6 1946-49 45 10 13 0 22 0.769
7 1950-59 164 48 65 0 51 0.738
7 1960-69 186 40 57 1 88 0.701
6 1970-79 198 45 69 0 84 0.652
7 1980-89 266 56 87 1 122 0.643
8 1990-99 307 71 129 0 107 0.550
9 (incl the one-off Super Test) 2000-09 362 92 168 0 102 0.547
8 2010-15 172 44 87 0 43 0.506

 

"Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail" is the clichéd refrain from coaches to their players. Perhaps those who schedule tours should be admonished instead. England's two most notable away victories in recent years, the Ashes success of 2010-11 and the win in India in 2012-13, both came after they had played three warm-up games before the first Test - the sort of thing the 21st century international fixture list seldom allows for.

"That's one of the big challenges of modern tours," says Graham Thorpe, England's batting coach, who credits an extensive lead-up with being critical to England's victory in Pakistan in 2000-01. "In an ideal world you'd love three warm-up games."

When Australia toured England in 1997, they fitted in ten first-class matches outside of the Test series, compared with four in 2015. Last summer India managed to get through the entire tour of England without playing a first-class match outside of the Tests. In a desperate attempt to ensure all squad members have some game time before the Test series, warm-up games often descend into farcical non-first-class matches that provide meaningful practice for no one: 18 Indians played against Leicestershire and Derbyshire last summer.

When Australia played Yorkshire it was famously regarded as the "sixth Test". Now even nominally first-class warm-up matches have become glorified exhibitions

"If you have warm-ups as a glorified net session then you don't have that intensity - the intensity is the most important thing in practice and warm-up games," Thorpe reflects. "I always used to like hard, intense warm-up matches to try and replicate what you'd get in a Test match the week later."

It is not only tourists who show disdain for warm-up games: domestic sides, in England and beyond, increasingly regard them as an inconvenience. When Australia used to play Yorkshire it was famously regarded as the "sixth Test". Now even nominally first-class warm-up matches have become glorified exhibitions. Apparently under order from the clubs, Kent and Essex inserted Australia on benign wickets this summer: maximising chances of the game lasting four days was prioritised over maximising chances of winning. Playing on flat wickets against weakened pace-bowling attacks gave Australia scant preparation against the swinging ball.

Such a derisory programme of warm-up matches prevents touring players from adjusting to the different requirements overseas. "In England a fast bowler will bowl 20-24 overs in a day's play," says Jerome Jayaratne, the head of coaching for Sri Lanka. "In our domestic cricket our bowlers are not used to that workload. So in England the chances of them breaking down is greater and it's very difficult to get the best out of them - especially when you only have a gap of three days between Tests."

The unremitting schedule once a series has begun renders it impossible for struggling players to locate form: last year in England, India played five Test matches across 42 days, with no tour matches after the first Test. "You really want those games, particularly if you're a batter," says former India coach John Wright.

Virat Kohli, who ended the series averaging just 13.40, would doubtless have agreed. His fate reflected a deeper trend. As one Test metamorphoses into the next, weaknesses become exacerbated. A small gap between sides can morph into a chasm, as England proved in their 5-0 defeat in 2013-14 and Australia reiterated during their calamitous performances in the third and fourth Tests this summer.

Conditions in both series played a critical part. "In England the wickets are getting slower, so the batsmen are not being exposed to fast, bouncy wickets," Graeme Swann said recently." When they go to Australia it is a culture shock. They can't deal with these guys with raw pace on fast, bouncy wickets The Aussies come here and nick everything. We go there and get bumped out. That is it in a nutshell."

It is certainly a seductive explanation. Yet favourable home conditions are nothing new: the Old Trafford groundsman in 1956, when Jim Laker took 19 for 90 in the Test, admitted that England captain Peter May had pressured him into not watering the pitch before the game.

Neither Thorpe nor Wright believes pitches around the world have become any harder for away teams over the last 20 years. To Wright "pitches now are probably more consistent". Complaints about "chief executive's wickets", as pitches brought about due to the apparent wish of many grounds to produce surfaces to prolong Tests are labelled, have become a common refrain. So the real change has not been in how much conditions benefit the home side, but "the players' ability to adapt to each environment," as Thorpe says.

It was telling that after Australia's Ashes defeat, Mitchell Marsh declared his intention to have a stint in county cricket: "Everyone that comes over here says that it's awesome for your cricket"

Trent Bridge, scene of Australia's 60 all out, has become symbolic of the failure of touring teams to adjust to the moving ball. Over the past 30 years, the wickets here have remained "very similar to how they've always been," according to head groundsman Steve Birk. What has changed are the performances of touring sides. England have won nine of their last 12 Tests at Trent Bridge, after having won just two of the previous 15.

Birk believes the change stems not from the pitches but the attitude of touring batsmen: "People now are not prepared to leave the ball - everyone wants to score at four or five an over."

Thorpe also suggests that adhesiveness has become a scarcer quality among Test players today. "A lot of people say, 'Do we have the ability still to play long Test innings?' Maybe that type of player is becoming rarer." While the influence of T20 cricket is detectable in the approach of both home and away teams in Tests, it is more corrosive on the performances of away sides, who lack experience of the demands in overseas conditions.

It was telling that after Australia's Ashes defeat Mitchell Marsh declared his intention to have a stint in county cricket: "Everyone that comes over here says that it's awesome for your cricket."

"From Justin Langer to Matt Hayden and Rahul Dravid, players benefited because they had to adapt their games to different conditions and solve different problems," Wright reflects. "A lot of them improved their batsmanship and ability to adapt to conditions through county experience. You're continually playing in different conditions. And as an overseas player you're expected to perform - that's what they pay you for so, you've got to work it out."

The same was true for bowlers. "When you're playing in different countries the lengths you need to bowl are different - a good length in England is a different length to Australia or India because of the different pace and bounce," says Wright. The onerous schedule of domestic T20 and international cricket means that few can use county cricket as a finishing school.

Just as young players from the subcontinent can benefit from experience of English conditions, so Englishmen stand to gain from playing in Asia. Having toured Sri Lanka in early 2014, England Lions will shadow the senior side in the UAE next month. "If we can get lads to tour countries before they play for England that's a starting point," says Thorpe who advocates "extreme practice" as the best preparation for foreign conditions. Facing spin in the nets, batsmen are compelled to use smaller bats and are sometimes even barred from playing a forward defensive on the crease to imbue them with the urgency of moving decisively forward or back.

But such steps can only count for so much, set against the unrelenting schedule of international cricket today. Players do not merely suffer from a paucity of warm-up matches but also often from being weary before tours even begin.

"A lot of people say, 'Do we have the ability still to play long Test innings?' Maybe that type of player is becoming rarer"
Graham Thorpe

Perhaps it is no coincidence that South Africa, by far the most successful away side this decade - they have won eight of their 16 Tests against the top seven teams and lost only one, while every other country has lost more Tests than they have won - are also one of the countries to play the least. This means campaigns can be planned further back in advance. A lack of Tests (and his regular omission from the ODI team) also ensures that Dale Steyn, whose pace can render conditions irrelevant, need not sacrifice speed for longevity: his 75 wickets at 23.58 apiece have underpinned South Africa's away success.

For too many of the game's elite players today, international cricket has become relentless. Inevitably it is away from home, with scant time to prepare for series and no time to recalibrate techniques or minds once the skirmishing has begun, that the effects manifest themselves.

"It's become even more challenging in this era because of the different formats they have to play," Wright says. During a bad tour overseas, "there are times when you look at it from a coaching perspective and think, 'We've got to get the side up for this game.' But if you're in that situation you're in a lot of trouble." It is not only in Tests that home advantage is becoming more significant: home teams have won a higher percentage of ODIs in 2015 than in any previous year.

The boon teams enjoy from playing at home is intrinsic to cricket. Yet increasingly the advantage accrues less from the hosts' familiarity with conditions than in their visitors being underprepared and overfatigued.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts