4/11/02 - Feature Article by Justin Lichterman
As international cricket tours become increasingly condensed, the scheduling of warm-up and practice matches is ever more complicated and important. For the coming World Cup season, the United Cricket Board of South Africa has done a superb job balancing tour schedules with quality practice opposition for visiting teams.
The ICC’s ten-year Test Championship program means that the three-month long tours of the past ultimately will vanish. With each country obligated to play every other Test nation both home and away, no team can afford to spend a sizable chunk of time on a five Test tour. Already, only the Ashes is contested regularly over five or more Tests, and, sad as it may be, the reality is that cricket tours are becoming shorter and shorter. With international matches the real moneymakers, it is the quantity of warm-up matches that must give way.
Sacrificing quantity, however, should not mean sacrificing quality. In fact, by improving the quality of opposition touring teams play on tour, home Boards might encourage fans to watch the warm-up matches, ensure the development of local and international cricket, unearth future stars, and generate enthusiasm of the upcoming international matches.
Sri Lanka’s current tour of South Africa is a case in point: the tourists have only two first class and one limited overs warm-up games. Those matches, however, come against South Africa A and the Rest of South Africa sides. As a result, the Lankans face quality opposition, rather than weaker first class teams, as was the norm in times past. The warm-up games provide immediate intensity as Protea-hopefuls press their claims to national selection. Compare that to tours of England, where warm-up games might include matches against British Universities, Minor Counties sides, or the weaker counties.
Even South Africa traditionally has tours begin with a friendly match against the Nicky Oppenheimer eleven. By presenting Sri Lanka tough warm-up opponents, the tourists are forced to adapt quickly and immediately access the mental approach required for international cricket, rather than playing lackadaisical cricket against hopelessly out of depth schoolboys and bottom-of-the-rung provincial teams.
The matches against South Africa A this season have exposed several former Proteas and players of promise to high calibre opposition. Should they be needed in case of injury or lack of form, batsmen like Neil McKenzie and Boeta Dippenaar will already have squared off against the tourists and be better prepared to step into the fray at a moment’s notice. A player like Robin Peterson, on the fringe of national selection and likely to make South Africa’s World Cup squad, has solidified his claims for an international cap with productive outings, while newcomers like Monde Zondeki and Alviro Peterson can only benefit from the exposure.
Similarly, the UCB’s decision to have a “Rest of South Africa” side take on the tourists was a positive move. In so doing, the UCB placed player development on the front lines by exposing players with potential to Sri Lanka’s best. This taste of Test cricket is a step in the right direction for up-and-comers, and is a model other nations could emulate. Australia, with the strongest first class system of all Test nations, already involves their Academy players in tour warm-up games.
Is it any wonder Australian players make the transition to international cricket relatively seamlessly? Scheduling more matches between tourists and “A” or “Rest of” teams might also be a healthy step toward narrowing cricket’s current competitive imbalance.
With South African cricket once again facing a racial crisis, the press and politicians are ignoring the facts on the ground. As the UCB increasingly employs the RSA A and Rest of South African teams against touring opponents, transformation from the top down inches closer to becoming reality. By exposing players to touring Test sides, the UCB develops players of all colours and better prepares them for success, rather than just window dressing, in both provincial, and later international, cricket.
Scheduling is perhaps the most important, and most overlooked, aspect of preparation for international cricket tours. As international cricket grows and tour schedules become more compressed, ensuring that tourists face quality opposition in warm-up matches is vital, and makes sense for local Boards. As tourists square off against local “A” and “Rest of” sides, international cricket will be the greatest winner.