“That there is something mysteriously wrong with modern cricket tours, most cricket fans know quite well,” wrote the West Indian legend Learie Constantine in his 1949 book, Cricket Crackers. Now, seven decades later, that line is as relevant as it was back then. Only, the specifics of the complaint have changed.
With the Indian team’s management persuading Essex to curtail the side’s opening game by one day to a three-day joust, the focus has naturally returned to the relevance of such matches in present day cricket. For the second time this year, skipper Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri have decided that their team would be better off getting extra days of practice ahead of the first Test.
The purists will point out that a shortened game is not the ideal preparation for the Tests ahead. The romantics will lament the reduced significance of the tour game. But the modern professionals will go ahead and do what they believe is best for them. Their thinking is that that a more intense session at the nets would simulate conditions for the bigger battles better than a tour game.
India cancelled the only warm-up game – scheduled as a two-day affair against a Cricket South Africa XI in Paarl – on its most recent tour of South Africa and preferred extra days of practice in Cape Town ahead of the first of the three Tests in January this year. The home side won the first two games and India pulled one back at the Wanderers in Johannesburg.
In fact, the cancellation of the Paarl game did not appear to harm the Indian team overmuch in the low-scoring opening Test in Newlands which South African won by 72 runs. It is very unlikely that the game in Paarl would have prepared the Indian team for a Test match in which neither side topped 300 once and in which 18 wickets fell in one day after rain washed out the third day’s play.
Of course, there was a time when all cricket tours of England would feature a festive game against Derrick Robins XI but those were days when such tours would extend over four months. Now, with the international programme being so crowded, teams have got used to the idea of depending only on the odd game and more practice sessions as the mode of preparation.
More recently, cricket Boards, prodded by the leadership of their teams, started using these tour games to play mind games with the visitors. From fielding the strongest squad to picking only a bunch of youngsters, from rolling out flat tracks that would be far from the ones laid out for Test matches to offering far-flung venues, every ploy in the book surfaced.
That has become so commonplace now that the tour games itself have started to have little significance for either team. And, even if they are longer, cricket tours now have more international games than matches of lesser status. From acclimatisation, the buzzword has now changed to adaptability. Players who take less time to adjust to the conditions are teams’ prized possession.
Come to think of it, while the cricketers fine tune this talent of theirs, fans and critics have to embrace the idea of the tour game losing its relevance in the modern scheme of things. It is alright to be wistful and bemoan the disappearance of the idyllic paced cricket tour with stops in various outposts, but it is more important to accept the changing dynamics and thought process.
Back in 1967, ML Jaisimha succeeded in the Brisbane Test after being flown in as leg-spinner BS Chandrasekhar’s replacement. When Chetan Sharma pulled up with an injury during the tour of England in 1986, fastmedium bowler S Madan Lal was summoned from the Lancashire League
A year ago, left-handed opening batsman Shikhar Dhawan was recalled from a holiday in Hong Kong to stand in for an injured M Vijay in the opening Test against Sri Lanka in Galle. He responded with a magnificent 190. This is an indication of what is expected of the contemporary players.
It is significant that the modern cricketer has been conditioned to be ready to be para-dropped in to a Test match and immediately lend his shoulder to the wheel. With all players nurturing such skills and being in a state of mental preparation to do duty, it is no surprise that the tour game does not hold much except perhaps by way of being a morale booster for those seeking rhythm.
In the event, it is hard not to train thoughts at the Board of Control for Cricket in India which decided to let Kohli pick county cricket ahead of the inaugural Test against Afghanistan as it would help him prepare for the Tests against England. Was its song and dance justified? Of course, he skipped county cricket with a shoulder problem and will go into the Tests with little preparation.
To be sure, such last-minute change of plans as engineered by the Indian team harm the local host more than they would affect the preparation of the cricketers themselves. If there is some way the Boards can come to an understanding earlier, the associations or clubs scheduled to host visiting teams in such games will not be left to seek face-saving devices.
Perhaps even fans have come to terms to such matches being given the cursory treatment by the visiting sides. The days when they would laze in the sun, complete with sandwiches and bitter packed in their picnic baskets, are behind them just as the smell of linseed oil on cricket bats wafting the air in such games is a thing of the past.