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
June 7, 2012
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 Chennai. 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.
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.