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HUW TURBERVILL: The trend is for fewer tour matches. Modern cricketers are said to be so skilled, so adaptable, that they can hit the ground running. Evidence of one's eye from the Kensington Oval suggests otherwise however...
'Fail to prepare, prepare to fail' goes the cliché.
When I googled that quote I was expecting to see that it had come from a sports psychologist or some such. But it originates actually from Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States (its undiluted form is 'by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail'.)
It is the hot topic surrounding England's tour of the West Indies at the moment, after their emphatic defeat in the series opener at Barbados.
The trend is for fewer tour matches. Modern cricketers are said to be so skilled, so adaptable, that they can hit the ground running. They can switch between formats like a youngster in an amusement arcade. Evidence of one's eye from the Kensington Oval suggests otherwise however.
Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel, Jason Holder and Alzarri Thomas bowled full, fast and straight and the techniques of England's batsmen were found lacking, with the notable exception of Rory Burns in the second innings.
Joe Root and Jos Buttler had been playing in the Big Bash with varying degrees of success – Root struggled, Buttler was excellent. The requirements of keeping out West Indies' fearsome foursome – at least on that spicy surface – were to play straight and keep the ball on the ground though.
Jos Buttler and Joe Root both featured for the Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash
The finger is often pointed at Duncan Fletcher for devaluing traditional tour opening matches. In his time as England coach they started to be treated as glorified training exercises, it is said. Some of them lost their first-class status. To be fair, players had already begun to lose their appetite for long stays away from their families.
Gone were the six and seven-month expeditions to Australasia, to face all the states, five or six Tests, two one-day tournaments, up-country games, with an epilogue to New Zealand tagged on at the end (although last winter bucked that trend somewhat).
In the era of the IPL onwards (2008–), many players want to make their fortune – and as quickly as possible – in the various T20 tournaments around the globe.
As Derek Pringle reminded readers in his column in The Metro newspaper, the Schofield Report recommended 19 steps to improve English cricket after the 2006/07 Ashes whitewash and a dire World Cup display.
Ken Schofield was formerly executive director of golf’s European Tour, and obviously his word was/is not gospel. Vic Marks called the report "a knee-jerk reaction" in The Guardian.
But one of the recommendations was that England played at least two first-class matches before the first Test of major tours.
The two two-dayers against the CWI President’s XIs this winter obviously did not fit this criterion. In one of them the hosts made 203 for 19!
So just how important is playing (at least) two first-class matches?
Let’s take a look back in time.
Duncan Fletcher is often pointed at for devaluing traditional tour opening matches
England in South Africa, 2004/05. One three-day first-class match – a defeat to South Africa A. England won the first Test, and the series 2-1.
England in Pakistan, 2005/06. Two three-day warm-up matches, the opener not first-class against a PCB Patron's XI, the second against Pakistan A. England lost the first Test, and the series 2-0.
England in India 2005/06. Similar story - two three-day warm-up matches, the opener not first-class. First Test drawn. Series 1-1.
England in Australia 2006/07. The first match against New South Wales was 14-a-side, the second against Australia A was first-class. England were whitewashed 5-0.
England in Sri Lanka 2007/08. Two warm-ups, the opener not first-class. England lost the opening Test and the series 1-0.
England in New Zealand 2007/08. Neither warm-up match first-class, both multi-sided. England lost the first Test at Hamilton, but fought back to win the series 2-1.
England in India 2008/09. No first-class tour matches because of the Mumbai terror attacks. England lost the opening Test, and the series 1-0 (2 Tests).
England in West Indies 2008/09. You know the pattern by now. Two matches, the first not first-class. They lost the first Test, and could not recover, the series ending 1-0.
England in South Africa 2009/10. Two two-day matches, two draws, against a South African Airways Challenge XI (a contender for England’s least auspicious-sounding opponents ever). They saved the first Test by the skin of their teeth, thanks to Paul Collingwood and Graham Onions, and drew the series 1-1.
England in Australia 2010/11. This one is cited as the template, when England did get their preparations correct. They had three-dayers against Western Australia (won) and South Australia (drawn), then beat Australia A in a four-dayer. Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott saved the first Test in epic fashion, and England retained the Ashes with a 3-1 win.
England's 2011 Ashes success down under was preceded by three tour matches
England in UAE (v Pakistan) 2010/11. Two three-dayers. England won them both. Then lost all three Tests.
England in Sri Lanka 2011/12. Same as in Pakistan. England won them both. Lost the first Test, but this time tied the series by winning the second and final Test.
England in India 2012/13. Two three-dayers and a four-dayer, like the 2010/11 Ashes tour. The result? Although they lost the first Test, they won the series 2-1, the high spot of Cook's reign (and yes I know he won the Ashes at home twice).
England in New Zealand 2012/13. One four-day tour match. The three Tests were all drawn (after Matt Prior's heroics in the third).
England in Australia 2013/14. They tried to replicate the formula from four years earlier. Two draws and a win seemed to set them up nicely, but another whitewash followed.
England in West Indies 2015. Back to a pair of two-dayers. It did not appear to do them too much damage at the start of the main event. They drew the first Test, won the second, lost the third.
England in UAE (v Pakistan) 2015/16. Two two-dayers. Cook’s 263 ensured they drew the first Test. They then lost the next two.
England in South Africa 2015/16. Two three-dayers set England up for a 2-1 series win.
England in India 2016/17. Hot-footing it from the 1-1 series in Bangladesh, England felt they would be acclimatised. They drew the first Test, then lost the next four. It was the end for Captain Cook.
England in Australia 2017/18. A two-dayer, and two four-dayers, avoiding defeated, only to lose the series 4-0.
England in Sri Lanka 2017/18. Only a couple of two-dayers, but seemingly not a problem. England won 3-0.
So what conclusions can be drawn?
Clearly, there are occasions when one side is simply better than the other (Australia in the 2013/14 and 2017/18 Ashes for instance).
But there would also appear to be definite examples of where England did not give themselves enough time – in the 2006/07 Ashes; in West Indies in 2008/09, when they were forced to play catch-up for the rest of the series; and South Africa in 2009/10 when they put themselves in danger and were lucky to escape with a draw from the first Test.
When they did have ample preparation time, the results were laudable – think the Ashes 2010/11, and in India 2012/13.
What is going to give, then?
Well, if a Test renaissance - fuelled by Virat Kohli – does happen, maybe we will see more warm-up matches – as called for by Clive Lloyd and co.
But with ever more T20 and T10 tournaments sprouting up, do not hold your breath.
As our columnist Nasser Hussain observes: "The bottom line is that there is too much cricket."