It was so heartening to read your email cutting the SENA cult down to its size. I read some of the follow-up discussions on Twitter and in the comments at the blog where a few people launched a spirited defence of the relevance of SENA. But even conceding some ground (~ 5%), it’s hard to deny that SENA is primarily a hierarchical filter and not a point of separation between otherwise comparable cricketers or teams. Micro-scrutiny of cricketers and their records is nothing new to cricket fans. The problem with SENA is its mainstream acceptance and the inevitable dumbing down of an otherwise possibly worthwhile argument.
For instance, when Ganguly came out to bat in the Mumbai ’01 Test and his record appeared on screen (statsgurued – 2711 runs at 46.74), I remember Chappelli adding a punchline that went something like: he has 7 Test hundreds and none against Australia, South Africa, Pakistan and West Indies. It was a sharp observation and one I hadn’t heard from anyone else before. He didn’t harp on it all session or make it a universal quality standard, just let one stinging line float out there as a point of scrutiny for a batsman with a fantastic record. This was 2001 – forget going all the way back to ’80s and ’90s – and Chappelli got the filter for batting against quality fast bowlers spot on – Pakistan and West Indies in, the EN in the SENA out.
Cricinfo’s S Rajesh even put the holiest of them all, Sunny, under the scanner on his fair-weather record against West Indies but he did so with the level of depth and balance required for such an exercise. Cricket has always had a healthy obsession with micro-scrutiny but SENA has diluted the nuance considerably rather than enhance it.
I have a problem with the definition of alien conditions to begin with. If India and Sri Lanka are similar then what explains the big gap between Murali’s record against India at home vs away? If India’s whitewash of Sri Lanka in their backyard is dismissed as a home+ win, what explains the lack of a series win between 1993 and 2015? And what about the reverse, why is Sri Lanka yet to win a Test in India, let alone a series?
If SENA can be clubbed together by virtue of similar conditions (*shakes head*), what explains Hayden’s relatively mediocre record in SEN of the SENA? Or Anderson’s rough run in South Africa and Australia? If India is a spinner’s paradise, why did Warne struggle to dominate in India as he did in the rest of the world?
How are the flat wickets of the last decade in Australia a greater test of skills for Asian batsmen and spinners and not their fast bowlers? Between Bumrah and Pujara in this series, who surmounted a greater challenge for performing in Australia?
We should factor in natural selection too. Pakistani fast bowlers are so good at exploiting the dry subcontinent tracks. Even Shami has a terrific record at home. Lyon is so effective in a country not known to be kind to his tribe. So, shouldn’t he be picking wickets in his sleep in the UAE? If McGrath had the benefit of bowling in friendly conditions in Australia for a majority of his career, why didn’t Waqar take a bucketful of wickets in Australia every time he went there?
What about team strength? Wasn’t Kumble’s away record in the first half of his career as much a reflection of the team’s weakness – both batting and fast bowling – as his lack of versatility? Isn’t McGrath’s success in the subcontinent as much a result of the support he had? He adapted beautifully but would it have been possible had he been playing for a weaker team?
What about the respective board’s financial resources over time? Is playing well away merely about conquering the technical challenges in adapting to the cricketing conditions? What about adapting to the new place, weather, language, and the food? You talk to Indians who have been living in Australia for more than two decades and everyone either directly knows some of the Indian cricketers of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s or is one degree away from someone who has hosted them home. You compare that with the current Indian team who have the leverage to call off a tour if they didn’t get the sparkling water of their choice.
And what of the opportunities? By virtue of playing for a heavyweight like India, Kohli could get through a horrendous 5-Test series in England and be back in quick time for another 5-Test series, which gave him the scope and scale to overcome his exposed weakness quite emphatically. Forget Jayawardene, even the previous generation Indian cricketers didn’t enjoy this luxury of playing so many long series. To make a case that this Indian team is superior to the previous ones without contextualising the growth in stature is silly. As the great Kamal Haasan often says: if I could see farther, it’s because I am standing on the shoulders of Sivaji Ganesan.
Now with this reality in the backdrop, Sangakkara’s record looks even more impressive – he came good in a wide variety of conditions when he had such a small room for failure, if at all. And guess in which three countries his average is less than 40 – South Africa, India and West Indies.
Why is the factor of alien conditions more important than challenging conditions? Mahela’s away record is less than impressive but how many batsmen have stood out as often as he has in highly challenging conditions at home? Flat-track bully is fine but what does home-track bully even mean? And like you argued in our podcast recently, Pujara’s away record wasn’t particularly great till this Australia series but hasn’t he played as many great innings on mighty tough surfaces at home (and SSC too) as any batsman in history?
As a fan, everyone wants their team and favourite cricketers to perform well both home and away. But if we are forced to pick one, should we choose home success or away success? What about the boards? If India keeps winning in SENA countries and losing at home, what would happen to BCCI’s exchequer? Who will turn up at the grounds? And which broadcaster is going to bid record amounts for telecast rights? The situation could be far more dire in the case of England and Australia – losing summers and winning winters could keep cricket out of the mainstream public consciousness forever.
There is the big elephant in the room in cricket narratives of the performances in/against England and Australia getting extraordinarily disproportionate weightage. When Nasser Hussain insists that Kohli has to prove himself in England for him to be considered a great batsman, after Kohli had a stupendous home series against England, I wonder if he’ll consider it as critical for an English great to prove himself in the subcontinent. That hypocrisy is greatly enabled by how happily insular the cricketing ecosystems in Australia and England at large are. But that’s a battle for another day. For starters, I would be happy if we don’t play ourselves into the caste hierarchy by constantly seeking their validation.