The grass in South Africa is always greener

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There is no embarrassment in teams being routed on foreign tours for as long as the home ground advantage continues to virtually decide the results of series.

Every team ensures that their home conditions give them that edge over the visiting side. This though makes for very one-sided contests.

Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration

~ Charles Dickens

 

The interminable contentment we derive from lazing on OUR couch, in OUR home, is often underestimated. Human beings are uncanny, freakish characters. They hate change yet, perhaps somewhat wistfully, go about proclaiming that ‘the only constant thing in life is change’. We humans do not like any kind of metamorphosis, be it in our personal life, our surroundings, or our professional life. We are more-often-than-not lethargic lackadaisical beings who thrive when we are better accustomed to our surroundings. When there comes a change, our behavioural responses and reactions turn weird. We do not connect with our immediate vicinity well enough and, as such, feel intimidated and vulnerable.

It is ironic that human beings are apparently nomads. People used to move around all the time, from one place to another. The world was their home. With the advent of boundaries and political segmentation, borders and the regions they sequester became more significant than ever. A step into the other side breeds insecurity. Sure, with technology bringing everything closer to home, humans no longer need feel as alienated and intimidated elsewhere; but this is only a sort of theoretical accustomisation. A 25-km radius marks the practical comfort zone for most of the modern-day populace.

It is no different in sports. While individuals adapt late to change, teams adapt even slower. The concept of 'home advantage’ has often been discussed in sports but it has never been as magnanimous as it is in cricket — particularly so in ­Test cricket — these days.

 

Home advantage should be used when playing at home. But where do you draw the line? How do you differentiate a bit of advantage from a massive advantage? To what degree is customisation of pitches ethical?

 

“We were disappointed the last time we went there, and we’ve got a score to settle,” Faf du Plessis had remarked before the start of India’s tour of South Africa. His words hold much greater significance than the world of cricket grasps. Test cricket has become so predictable that even before a series starts, you are more than likely to know the winner — just check the venue.

This pattern has become so inveterate that even when a top-tier Test team visits a minnow nation, there is no guaranteed winner. Bangladesh, who have just four victories away from the luxury of their domicile in 49 Tests, have beaten England and Australia at home over the last 18 months.

Take the Ashes for instance. In the last ten editions, only once has a team won the series away from home (England in 2010-11 in Australia). Other than in 2005 and 2009, the results have not even been close. The Ashes weren’t always this way. In the 15 years before that, more than half of the series were won by the visitors.

“In international sport there is so much pressure nowadays. When you get home conditions, you make sure that you create pitches that completely suit your side. Home advantage is more important than ever,” Michael Vaughan had remarked two years back. He had a point. Test cricket was getting too predictable for everybody’s liking, particularly since 2013. A look into the results on a decade-by-decade basis gives a better idea.

 

Performance of teams at home and on overseas tours over last four decades

Decade

Home wins

Away wins

Draws Home

Win/loss ratio

1980s

87

56

122

1.55

1990s

142

80

124

1.77

2000s

215

134

114

1.6

2010-2013

110

61

58

1.8

2013-now

119

49

39

2.42

 

The table gives a clear idea about how big the home advantage is these days. Teams just don’t lose at home. Remember Gautam Gambhir’s infamous “Come to India, we’ll show you” taunt to the Aussies in 2011-12 in the midst of India’s wretched Australian tour? Gambhir’s jibe was based on India’s juggernaut-like image within the sub-continent. But does this braggadocio have any actual teeth amid such a substantial imbalance in conditions?

In cricket, the pitch plays an indispensable role. The saying, ‘the grass on the other side is always greener’ literally comes true for the Indians when they tour SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia) countries. Extra bounce, seam movement, swing — all mostly unavailable in Indian conditions — suffuse the grounds in these countries, and make life quite miserable for sub-continental teams. The corresponding flipside holds true for these nations when they tour the sub-continent.

The pitch is so vital to the game of cricket that a lot of cooks enter its kitchen — from curators to team captains — and get involved in pitch preparation. Remember the poor Wankhede curator who had to suffer abuses from Indian coach, Ravi Shastri, after the pitch seemingly did not favour India in the final ODI of a five-match series against South Africa three years back? Teams want to maximise the home advantage and prepare surfaces that suit their kind of players and work against the opposition. In hindsight, there is little wrong with that. Home advantage should be used when playing at home. But where do you draw the line? How do you differentiate a bit of advantage from a massive advantage? To what degree is customisation of pitches ethical?

It makes you wonder if the overarching governing body, the International Cricket Council, should intervene in pitch preparation. Of late, pitches are being rated to ensure that Test match surfaces are maintained to a certain basic quality. As much as an unplayable surface for batsmen is rated as ‘poor’, a ‘flat as a pancake’ pitch isn't spared either. We saw the Nagpur track — where South Africa played India — which was not very different from a piece of agricultural land being rated ‘poor’ by the ICC while the Melbourne Cricket Ground also received a ‘poor’ rating during the Ashes for dishing out a pretty dour track that had nothing for the bowlers.

Implementing this impartially and vehemently promoting the same across nations will improve pitch quality and balance while not erasing the home advantage entirely. It is a feasible solution (albeit the results of matches that are done and dusted won’t change). However, it works as a warning for teams who look to gain an unhealthy/unfair advantage at home.

 

Adapting to conditions is another vital factor on away tours, but, of late, packed schedules and fatigue have played their part and, more often than not, teams land into unfamiliar conditions with less than a week available to acclimatise before the first Test. The BCCI sandwiched a Sri Lanka homes series between the tour to South Africa and the limited-overs series against New Zealand at home. It left little time for the Indians to adapt to South African conditions and the results are there for everyone to see. No warm-up games were played and the no.1 ranking began to seem a burden mere days after the tour began.

Let us face it. Overseas tours are as tough as University Exams these days. How can teams hope to compete with so little exposure or preparation to foreign conditions? These days, tours are shorter, warm-up matches are rare and home teams dish out mediocre net bowlers and even poorer teams for pre-match preparation. This problem is more acute in (Test) cricket than in other sports. There are as many as three basic factors that affect teams when touring overseas — pitch, ball, and climate. Negotiating and overcoming these for all of five days is a test of mental and physical endurance for every individual visiting player.

Ideally, one should hope that teams improve once they get accustomed to their surroundings. After all, humans take time to adapt, but once they do they find success in the new environment and develop confidence. But this hasn’t quite been happening in recent times. England lost nine out of ten Tests in their last two tours of Australia, not once showing enough evidence that they had made peace with their surroundings.

Another critical yet largely ignored factor is crowd support. A tit-for-tat policy has often seen home crowds arriving at stadiums in large numbers and intimidating the hapless travellers. The crowd strength — biased and loud — can also sway the decisions of neutral umpires. When a whole stadium erupts at a leg-before-wicket shout, the on-field umpire is tested immensely in having to maintain his perceptual clarity in the face of an incorrigible display of spectator partisanship.

 

 

In a Harvard University study of the English Premier League in 2008, spanning 5,000 matches and involving 50 referees, researcher Ryan Boyko discovered an equation that asserted that “for every extra 10,000 people in the crowd, the advantage for the home team increases by 0.1 goals”. Imagine when the strength of crowd is doubled or tripled. Some referees, only human, were found to be more swayed by the crowd than others. But what this ultimately suggests is that there is likely a high degree of intimidation that teams face when they visit other nations.

The Test championship is scheduled to start from 2019 in order to bring context to matches. This will see the top nine Test nations play three home and three away series over a two-year period. The top two teams will eventually meet in a final in 2021. While this would ensure some equality, it does not take into account that India could play Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and West Indies away from home — all of similar playing conditions — and three others at home and get away with an easy entry into the finals.

Cricket is so heavily dependent on conditions that even something as meticulously chalked out as the Test championship still has wide loopholes. How do you ensure neutral conditions or at least fair results when something as incorrigible as the environment can heavily influence results? Until and unless a feasible solution emerges, teams can lose away from home without shame and shamelessly challenge teams to come home and beat them.

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