England’s 500 overseas Tests: from horse-drawn carts to DVD marathons | Simon Burnton | Sport

The first official Test was played between Australia and England in Melbourne in March 1877 and 143 years later England’s match against S...

The first official Test was played between Australia and England in Melbourne in March 1877 and 143 years later England’s match against South Africa in Port Elizabeth will be their 500th overseas.

The bald statistics are that in that time England have won 29.9% and lost 36.5% of their 499 Tests on foreign soil, compared with 42.2% and 23.4% of 521 at home (though only Australia have won a higher proportion of their away games, while they along with India and Pakistan do better at home). But behind the numbers are countless tales of friendship and frustration, of triumph, tedium and endless travelling.

“I remember how Matt Prior and I watched something like 60 DVDs in about three weeks,” said Stuart Broad of the 2008-09 tour of India. “Each day had a pattern, if we weren’t playing a Test. We would train from nine to noon, then we would come back to the hotel for lunch. Afterwards we would watch a film, then we’d watch another. Then we might order room service and sit through another film, before finally turning in. It was a good job that was a short trip, as if we’d had to do that for much longer it would have driven us mad.”

Tours don’t get much longer than the very first. The players left England on 21 September 1876, arriving in Adelaide via three boats, several donkeys and a horse-drawn cart at lunchtime on 7 November. After much further travelling around Australia and New Zealand, and very mixed results, they left for home on 19 April, travelled by boat to Brindisi, on the heel of Italy’s boot, and then overland to Calais before arriving at Charing Cross at around 7pm on Saturday 2 June, 255 days after their departure.

That week the batsman George Ulyett, widely known as Happy Jack, gave an interview to his local paper, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, in which he emphatically failed to live up to his nickname. “George has had about his fill of Australia,” they wrote. “At any rate, he would not like to go again under similar circumstances. He ascribes many of their defeats to the immense toil they underwent in getting from place to place. The trip was not a success in any respect.”

Five years later the ship carrying England to Australia was in the middle of the Indian Ocean, about 350 miles away from the nearest significant port, when it collided with another vessel, tearing a hole in the hull “large enough to drive a coach and pair through”. “What my sensations were I cannot describe,” said the bowler Dick Barlow. “Inwardly I bade everyone at home goodbye. Ladies were fainting and praying, passengers and crew rushed hurriedly about. The lifeboat and other small boats were launched. We had 400 souls on board and the sea was infested with sharks.” The hole was entirely above the water line and on mercifully smooth seas they made it back to shore.

Steve Harmison bowls during the tour match against the Nicky Oppenheimer XI at Randjesfontein, Johannesburg in December 2004.

Steve Harmison bowls during the tour match against the Nicky Oppenheimer XI at Randjesfontein, Johannesburg in December 2004. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Compared with all this, the business-class flights that carry modern cricketers to their foreign assignments are no kind of ordeal. “Generally, there was a rhythm to a tour which I liked, with a decent balance between matches and days off,” wrote David Gower in his book An Endangered Species. “I generally found touring interesting and fun, and even the two long tours of India, which involved some pretty average cricket against local sides in some less than salubrious venues and hotels, provided some extraordinary experiences which I treasure.”

Other players have had contrasting experiences, suffering on tour from stress and homesickness. “Today is the day I wish I wasn’t a professional cricketer,” Steve Harmison said in 2004, as he sat at Heathrow preparing to fly to South Africa. “Today is the day I wish I worked in an office in a nine-to-five job. Today is probably the worst day I’ve known as a cricketer. There have been an awful lot of tears in the family. How do you tell your kids you won’t be home for 10 weeks?”

Marcus Trescothick struggled so much to cope with his travels he retired from international cricket at the age of 32, 11 years before the end of his county career. “You get down now and then and have a little think to yourself and it soon passes,” he said in 2001 after his first trip, to Pakistan. “It did get boring, of course. You spend so much time in hotels. When you’re at home you have so much to do and not enough time to do it – when you’re touring you have too much free time and nothing to do.”

The opener’s discomfort was reflected in his performances, and he went on to average 36.20 in away matches, and 51.05 at home. Similarly Denis Compton averaged 60.04 in 76 innings on home soil, but 36.88 in 55 knocks abroad. On the other hand Ken Barrington has the finest touring average of any English batsman, of 69.18 over 58 innings, but averaged 50.71 in England and Chris Broad averaged an impressive 57.44 across 20 Test innings on tour, but a meagre 26.12 in 24 innings at home.

Of bowlers, the Surrey spinner Tony Lock had an average of 34.58 in 21 matches away but 19.51 in 28 at home, while Trevor Bailey, who used to take lengthy home videos of his adventures abroad, averaged 23.25 away, and 35.93 at home.

Broad and Jimmy Anderson have played in 11.8% and 13.4% of England’s foreign Tests respectively, putting them second and joint third on the all-time list, and neither is finished yet. On, then, to Port Elizabeth and English cricket’s latest milepost, where there is more history to be made.

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Newsrust: England’s 500 overseas Tests: from horse-drawn carts to DVD marathons | Simon Burnton | Sport
England’s 500 overseas Tests: from horse-drawn carts to DVD marathons | Simon Burnton | Sport
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