Daniel Brettig, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, where the title is “Australia enjoy fruits of Dubai detour”
Australia had the chance to hit the ground running in India, after the time spent preparing for the series in Dubai © AFP
More than a decade ago, Shane Warne trained privately for his 2004 return from a drugs ban with the help of a specially prepared pitch at Melbourne’s Junction Oval. Unlike the MCG, the ground was available for public use and this was not an official training session for Warne’s club side St Kilda, keeping it within the parameters of his ban.
The curator of Junction Oval at the time was Toby Lumsden, who would go on to prepare the surface on which Warne made his official return to cricket in a Victoria second XI match a week later, before he went on to produce a pair of influential displays in Sri Lanka and India that same year. Thirteen years on, Lumsden has again played a small but vital part in Australian cricket history, as curator at the ICC Academy in Dubai.
Australia’s cricketers were still in Sri Lanka last September when Cricket Australia made contact with the academy’s management about setting up a training camp ahead of the India tour. Preparations for Sri Lanka had been elaborate and lengthy – Steven Smith’s tourists spent nearly three weeks in the island nation before the first Test in Pallekele.
But something was evidently missing in those preparatory days; perhaps it was a struggle to adapt to humid Sri Lankan climes direct from an Australian winter, or the practice and warm-up match pitches prepared for the touring party did not match up to those unveiled in the Tests themselves. Either way, the batsmen in particular were clueless to combat the variation wrought from the surfaces by Rangana Herath and company.
This sensation was oddly familiar for the team performance manager Pat Howard, the coach Darren Lehmann and then selection chairman Rod Marsh. A similar disconnect had taken place in India in 2013, when there had been very little in common between practice and warm-up pitches and those the team encountered in the Tests in Chennai, Hyderabad, Mohali and Delhi.
A few months before that trip, England had benefited from training on a variety of pitches at the ICC Global Academy in Dubai, before going on to win in India. They had been among the first international sides to take full advantage of the facilities on offer followed by numerous others, including West Indies ahead of their winning campaign at the World T20 in 2016.
In many ways it was surprising that Australia waited until 2017 to add a Dubai leg to their planning for an Asian tour. There has always been a strong Antipodean link to the precinct, dating back to Marsh’s involvement right from the start as the academy’s first director of coaching. In that role he had helped oversee the creation of arguably the most expansive and comprehensive cricket training facility ever devised, taking in more than 30 outdoor pitches with soil taken from across the globe – 12 from Pakistan, 12 from Australia and four from England, plus 10 synthetic or “hybrid” surfaces.
The hybrid had been the brainchild of Tony Hemming, head curator at the academy and the neighbouring Dubai International Cricket Stadium, which hosts Pakistan’s Test matches among other events. Hemming’s experience had also taken in the preparation of turf under the roof at Docklands Stadium in Melbourne, and his hybrid model for a surface that took sharp spin in conditions not amenable to more natural preparation was taken up by Howard at CA’s National Cricket Centre in Brisbane.
Hemming’s diligent work over many years, plus Marsh’s help to envision the ideal training facility for elite cricketers, created an environment first seen by an Australian cricket side on a limited-overs trip to the UAE in 2012, and again in 2014 ahead of an unsuccessful series against Pakistan. In 2012, Hemming’s staff produced pitches for fixtures played overnight due to the oppressive heat at that time of year, and at the time he said predictability was Dubai’s asset.
“It’s just a constant monitoring of programmes,” Hemming said. “We use computers and excel spreadsheets to maintain what we’re doing on paper. And the fortunate thing about this region for us is, because of the weather pattern we’re not getting rainfall, so I can plan on paper really well.
“If I was in Melbourne or somewhere else, you could plan on paper, but it could be thrown upside down because of the weather pattern. So the best thing about here is the weather pattern’s stable and we know it’s just a pyramid getting hotter and hotter up to the top in July, then its a decrease, an up and down slide basically to prepare the turf.”
That predictability meant that Howard and Lehmann could ask the academy for the specifics of the practice pitches they required, down to how many needed to spin sharply – in the manner the tourists encountered in Pune – and how many had to be flatter, slower surfaces – as is now expected for Bengaluru. Similarly, the relatively temperate climate offered up in February meant that the Australians could plan long training sessions without worries about burning out players or conversely having to rush off for rain breaks.
“Having that week in Dubai, and having freshened up as well after our summer was fantastic for me and my preparation,” David Warner said this week. “And I know the guys that went to Dubai early, they were all talking about how good it was to prepare over there and get their mind set and get the miles in the legs to come here. We’re truly grateful for that opportunity.
“Sometimes when you come here to these countries, in these conditions you probably don’t have as much preparation because as a player sometimes when you’re in this heat you fatigue quite fast. And the next day, when you’re not used to it, you can’t back up.”
Less expected were a pair of departures between September and February. Marsh resigned his commission as selection chairman following the loss of the Hobart Test, Australia’s fifth consecutive Test defeat. Hemming, meanwhile, left the academy after a decade-long tenure in January, accepting an offer to oversee the pitches and outfield of Perth’s new multi-purpose stadium.
Even then, another Australian was on hand – Lumsden. He had assisted Hemming during the academy’s design and building phases. He returned to the facility in January to take up where Hemming left off, and was one of many taking pride in how well prepared the Australians appeared once the Pune Test got under way. As was the case with Warne, the groundsman deserved a quiet moment’s satisfaction in helping set the scene for something memorable, while also enhancing the academy’s chances of further use by CA.
“If we win the series we’ll probably be going back to Dubai, I would’ve thought,” Mitchell Marsh said. “For me it was awesome and I really enjoyed it. In the future if it happens it will be great.”
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig