There has been a very interesting discussion on Twitter about the logic of England’s schedule next summer. After the clearly too short South Africa v Australia series there has been a lot of discussion about why South Africa are only playing three Tests on these shores in 2012 and the soundness of that decision. I think I have probably made it known here and on Twitter that I think it is a bad idea, but it is not a straightforward issue and I want to spell out my thoughts.
The ECB are axeing one Test to fit in a five ODI series against Australia. From the standpoint of a spectator this looks like lunacy, but there is a reason. By agreeing to host the five ODIs against Australia England will play a reciprocal series in Oz just before the World Cup, so as to get their eye in. Also, it has been pointed out that the ODIs are money spinners and the ECB need money to fund nice things, like central contracts.
I still don’t like the decision though. For one thing, I question the soundness of the reasoning. It’s true that England have not done well at recent World Cups, but the problem goes deeper than preparation. That’s not to say that England will necessarily continue to fare poorly at World Cups (they used to fare poorly in Test matches too), but extra preparation time is still unlikely to dramatically improve the performance. Australian conditions are not as alien as Indian conditions and acclimatisation was not England’s problem in the last World Cup. (Whilst the conditions were problematic, England played better near the start of the tournament. If the issue had been acclimatisation they would have improved over the course of the tournament. The same would have happened in the most recent five match series, but clearly didn’t.) Certainly more preparation will not would not hurt, but it will only be a benefit if a lot else goes England’s way as well. Given that there will be warmup matches against other sides before the World Cup it looks like overkill. It’s not by itself enough to justify losing a Test match.
I’m not convinced that this series will offer a significant boost to the ECB coffers either. We saw this summer that there is still a strong appetite for Test cricket in England. (Wales not so much.) The four match series against India was about as one sided as they come, yet there were very large crowds every day. The images of the queues for the final day at Lord’s are still incredible. The crowds will clearly come when England play a strong side like South Africa. A Test match against the second best side in the world is not less likely to draw crowds than a meaningless five match ODI series, even against Australia. It can’t even be said that it is due to the Olympics, as the 2012 games fall during the Test series anyway. The decision would make a lot more sense if it had been a Test match against the West Indies to go, as the Windies are less of a contest, but we only played a two match series last time. I don’t know if that has a direct bearing on the current decision, but it would be understandable. There are still other, better ways that the ECB could have fit in five ODIs against Australia though. They could have reduced the number of ODIs against the Windies and/or South Africa, for instance, and played Australia at the tail end of the season. It is not a reasonable decision and I have yet to see a good explanation for it.
More broadly though, I oppose the notion of playing extra ODIs at the expense of a Test match. I understand that ODIs are important, that smaller nations need them to develop and that more matches mean more money for the ECB. (And I don’t think the ECB are being greedy, there is a lot of good they can do with more money.) This sends a message that the ODIs are a priority though, which is not a good message to send. Unless England actually win the World Cup, a good ODI performance is unlikely to raise the profile of cricket as much as a good Test series is. If I ask about the summer of 2005, how many people will wax lyrical about the tied NatWest Trophy final? It was a very good ODI series, but it was not in the same postcode as the Test series. I think the same will hold with the World Cup. It would be very nice if England win it, but it will not be a disaster if we don’t and anything short of making the final is very unlikely to be as exciting as a full Test series. Even if England do go to the final I don’t think anyone will be saying that it was down to the extra preparation (see above). It’s possible, of course, and it’s possible that South Africa will be two up after three matches, but neither are likely. More likely we will be denied a conclusion to the series, just as South Africa and Australia were today, in exchange for a World Cup performance that still fails to capture the imagination