There is a four-letter word that has been pissing me off over the last few months.
This, of course, stands for South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia. And a cricketer’s or team’s record in SENA countries is often brought up when discussing Asian players and Asian teams.
The underlying assumption among this SENA brigade seems to be that South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia are currently the toughest tours for Asian teams. If a batsman or bowler – usually a spinner – can perform in these four countries, then he is viewed in a new light.
What began as some fanciful stat among a few cricket geeks on social media has now wormed itself into mainstream discourse. I heard SENA being mentioned on TV during the India-Australia Test series. And there are enough journalists and editors talking about it these days to suggest that it has gained widespread acceptance.
Here are some of my problems with this filter:
1 To put these four countries on a pedestal is to implicitly undervalue performances in non-SENA countries. An Indian batsman may score a hundred on a minefield in Sri Lanka – with the series tied at 1-1 and the weather oppressive – but it will still not match up with a hundred in a dead rubber in a SENA country (on a flat pitch with weather congenial and the bowlers second-string).
2 There is no SENA equivalent for Australians, English, South Africans and New Zealanders. Nobody seems to care which SENA players excel while playing in Asia. I am yet to see a list of SENA batsmen who average over 40 in Sri Lanka, UAE, Bangladesh and India (SUBI).
3 SENA averages can be heavily misleading. A player may have played two Tests in South Africa in 2013, missed a tour of New Zealand, had a poor series in England and been injured midway through a series in Australia but people pass judgement on his SENA record. Did he play in conditions that were challenging? Was his team facing a massive total? Was he making a comeback into the side? None of this is taken into account. Just the SENA numbers tweeted out. 400 RTs and 1400 likes.
4 Using SENA for historical comparison is plain absurd. Towards the end of the recent Melbourne Test, ESPNcricinfo’s editor in chief Sambit Bal tweeted:
“When India wrap this up, they would have two Tests in a SENA country for the first time since 1986, when they won in England #INDvAUS”
I took issue with that right then. Leave alone the factual oddities around this tweet – South Africa weren’t even playing international cricket back then, Australia were frail for the second half of the 1980s etc – but it was not like teams went to Pakistan, West Indies and Sri Lanka in the 1990s and 2000s and won comfortably. India didn’t win two Tests in a series in Pakistan until 2004. They didn’t win two Tests on a tour to West Indies until 2016 and in Sri Lanka until 2015. So to go back to 1986 is to brush aside the achievements of the teams that triumphed in Pakistan, West Indies and Sri Lanka.
Also, SENA makes no sense when talking of the 1980s. The two teams that were near-unbeatable at home in the ’80s were West Indies and Pakistan. India’s 0-0 draw against Pakistan in 1989-90 was a huge achievement. But nobody seems to remember that series. Even Sanjay Manjrekar, who had such a good series, didn’t bring it up when discussing India’s famous away performances. If India’s 1-1 draw against a Warne-less and McGrath-less Australia in 2003-04 is so fondly recalled, is a 0-0 draw against Wasim, Waqar, Imran and Qadir (and a formidable batting line-up) not worth even a footnote?
SENA is also irrelevant through the ’90s because England were hardly a force then, even at home. Australia, Pakistan, New Zealand and Sri Lanka: all these teams beat England at home then.
5 Sri Lanka was – and remains – a really tough place to tour. Just because India and England have beaten them 3-0 recently doesn’t mean SL have become minnows. In fact, their 3-0 win against Australia (in 2016) and 2-0 win South Africa (in 2018) show what a force they can be at home. I was watching an interview with Kevin Pietersen recently and was glad he picked his Colombo hundred (in 2012) as his most challenging knock. He spoke of the poor form he had been in and the extreme humidity he had to endure (constantly changing shirts and gloves).
6 The more one takes SENA seriously, the more one ignores great victories at home. I wish someone had asked Cheteshwar Pujara if the bowling and conditions he faced in this Test series were more challenging than what he faced when Australia came to India in 2016-17. India suffered a heavy defeat in the first Test in Pune. Pujara then made 92 in the second Test in Bangalore, 202 in the third Test in Ranchi and 57 in the final Test in Dharamshala. All three venues offered different conditions. Lyon and Steve O’Keefe were threatening for much of the series and Cummins had some terrific spells in Ranchi and in pace-friendly Dharamsala.
Pujara may well cherish the victory in Australia more (this was after all the first time India had won a series there) but I dream of a day when an Indian batsman scores 500 runs in a SENA country and 500 runs in a home series – and ranks the second over the first.
Hat tip to @Tope_Bhau on Twitter: Around the six-minute mark in this interview, Pujara talks about both the recently completed series as well as the series against Australia at home. It warms my heart to see that he refers to the home series as the “toughest series” he has been part of.