Before the first Ashes Test begins at the Gabba a week on Wednesday, England’s sole opponents will be the England Lions, the national second string. On one level, it is another microcosm of how Covid-19 has ravaged the normal rhythms of the sport. And yet, in the curious case of what killed the tour match, the pandemic is not the real villain.
Covid has accelerated the demise of tour matches, but they were already on life support. Traditionally, the cricket tour was a journey to all corners of a country, taking in cricket and much else. In the “Bodyline” series of 1932-33, for instance, England played six tour matches before their first Test. As well as the five Tests, they traversed from Perth (which did not yet host Test matches) all the way across mainland Australia, including Newcastle and Toowoomba.
They even had time to spend a fortnight in Tasmania, playing in Launceston and Hobart. Absurdly as it seems in this time-constrained age, England even stayed on for a fortnight after the fifth Test to play two more tour matches. Then again, with the boat trip home lasting 30 days, it made sense for them to see all of Australia while they could. Even as flying transformed how easy it was for teams to reach another country, the notion of the tour lingered on.
When Australia came to England, their match against Yorkshire was labelled the sixth Test; in 1968, it was one they lost by an innings. For England teams down under, tour matches would sometimes bring ignominy. The traditional tour opener, a one-day match at Lilac Hill in Perth, too often set the template for the entire tour. In 1998, an Australia XI – Australia A in all but name – scored 376 for one in 55.2 overs to thrash England by nine wickets in Hobart. Trouble of a very different nature came on the 1990/91 Ashes tour: David Gower and John Morris tired of watching England in action during a tour match against Queensland and hopped on a Tiger Moth plane instead, which hovered as low as 200 feet over the Carrara Oval.
Most tour matches were not taken as seriously as the Test matches they accompanied. Yet they were first-class games in their designation and in the eyes of those who played them: matches that counted towards a player’s records, and contested by two teams who wanted to win, even if they might declare more enterprisingly than in the Test arena. For states and counties alike, playing against their Ashes rivals would be among the highlights of the summer; defeating the tourists was a prize to cherish.
For the sport itself, tour games served a wider purpose. In the days before television made the game’s biggest stars ubiquitous, tour matches were a rare chance to see some of the world’s best players. With conditions often an equalising factor, even the finest in the world could be humbled: the West Indies were bowled out for 25 at Sion Mills by Ireland in 1969. As recently as 1997, Australia’s Ashes tour included tour games against every first-class county.
But as cricket entered the hyper-commercial age in the 2000s, tour matches did not quite fit in. The money they made was trifling set against what boards could earn from more lucrative international matches, especially limited-overs games. The prize of winning tour matches had generally been honour rather than cash. But as rewards in domestic competitions became greater, domestic teams came to regard staging tour matches as little more than exhibition games.
Naturally, they still wanted the gate receipts. But while they had once regarded the matches as a highlight of the summer, now coaches saw them as an unwanted distraction – and a prime opportunity to afford their leading players, especially pace bowlers, some rest. When Australia came to England in 2015, Kent and Essex rested their entire first-choice bowling attacks. When Ravi Bopara, Essex’s captain, won the toss on a flat pitch on a scorching day he chose not to have a bat, as any captain with victory on their mind would, but to bowl in what appeared to be a prearranged deal.
Most importantly for Essex, it maximised the chances of the game lasting the scheduled four days. Australia provided England similarly inadequate preparation before the 2017/18 Ashes tour. The matches against a Western Australia XI and two Cricket Australia XIs effectively pitted England against a sprinkling of players who were not first choice for their state sides.
Yet, just as hosting teams have contributed to undermining tour matches, so have the tourists themselves. During Duncan Fletcher’s reign as head coach, warm-up matches often ceased to be 11-a-side, turning them into little more than glorified nets. Players, already fatigued by the relentless schedule, preferred to manage their energies for the matches on which they would be judged.
In 2019, Australia thought there could be a better way. Scrapping the traditional pre-series warm-up matches altogether, Australia instead organised a first-class match among their best 22 players, divided evenly between the teams: effectively, an old-school trial game. Marnus Labuschagne’s performance in the match led to him being selected for Australia’s full Ashes squad. Labuschagne enjoyed a brilliant debut Ashes series as Australia avoided defeat for the first time in five series in England.
Even before Covid-19, England planned to learn from Australia’s success in 2019, and schedule matches against England Lions. With Lions players all sensing an opportunity to impress coach Chris Silverwood and captain Joe Root by outperforming the senior squad, such games should have a competitiveness that tour games long ago lost. The only snag for England was that they have not just brought an extended squad from home; they have brought the weather too.
Their first warm-up game was limited to 29 overs because of rain; the second begins on Tuesday. Even when bubble life no longer exists, many sides – particularly the wealthiest boards – will prefer to keep a similar arrangement. For countries who can afford to take an enlarged party, there are obvious advantages – exposing more players to the Test environment and having injury replacements on hand, while allowing fringe players competitive cricket against the very players they hope to replace.
Knowing they can no longer trust their hosts to provide proper competition in warm-up games, touring teams have now taken to doing it for themselves.