Friday, February 18, 2011

The Myth of Home Advantage

Home Advantage. While the origins of this sporting term are unknown, one imagines it started as a motivational term deep in a damp trench when nervous soldiers waited for a keen enemy to advance.

Superior equipment, years of training, and a thirst to conquer foreign shores were swept aside by natives who knew how the ground felt underneath one’s feet, and at what angles the Sun played hide and seek. The answer by any Russian Spetsnaz on how a ragged force of Mujahideen defied their Migs and Kalashnikovs’ will mirror a football fanatic’s explanation on how South Korea managed to reach a World Cup semi-final. Home Advantage.

Does home advantage exist any longer in One Day Cricket, and can this blanket term be applied to the fortunes of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the Cricket World Cup?

Statistically, India has won around 55 % of its home matches in the last ten years. During the same period away, the percentage is a shade below 50. Sri Lanka has a better success rate away and a terrific record of 60 % at home. In fact, for most nations except Australia and Bangladesh, the term home advantage loses its aura because the teams only show a maximum change within 10 percentage points in their success rates home and away. Australia has been astoundingly good both home and away, while Bangladesh has been universally disappointing, although its home record is significantly better than when the team travels.

Can we then throw away the bogey of home advantage especially over a multi-team cricket tournament? Is it just another starting point for reporters and their stories? The history of the World Cup certainly indicates so. Except Sri Lanka, no home team has won a Cricket World Cup at home. Even Sri Lanka won the Final, Semi-final and Quarter Final outside of Lanka in that tournament. In 2011, we all know that it will ultimately boil down to these three key matches with the other games being an exercise of routine.
So, for all purposes no team has won a Cricket World Cup at home in the previous nine attempts. Compare it to the Olympics or even the Commonwealth Games and you see a remarkable difference. In Football, the term home advantage is not a misfit for 6 of the eight World Cup winners have won one of their titles playing at home.

Why the striking difference between football and Cricket? Why do teams enjoy a numerical advantage when scoring away while a game of cricket is considered same in Barbados and Bangladesh?

Commonsense may indicate that with cricketing results so dependent on that volatile 22 yards as compared to the type of grass on a football ground – the practice would be the other way round. Especially with each host nation having its unique brand of pitches. Yet, history has shown that things do not work according to plan. Teams like India traditionally suspect to pace, bounce, and swing managed to win in cold England and reach a final at bouncy South Africa, while losing in a semi-final in front of fanatic support after winning the toss and taking two crucial wickets before everyone had even settled in.

The key, one believes lies in the nature of the game. More specifically, the sheer number of variables that overshadow fiery home support. For starters, unlike football – an ODI game at any given moment boils down to the contest between two individuals. The bowler and the batsman. It is an individual dual in the context of a team battle. The rest are supporting actors, their moments of glory heavily dependent on the way ball leaves bat. A rogue batting performance or a freakish spell can take things away in the shorter format irrespective of the Mexican waves in the stands. Compare this to the co-ordinated nature of football, where the movement and confidence of players swells with supporters and disappears when the crowd is booing you. 

If anything, the home team in an ODI can draw inspiration from the crowd during their bowling stint, when all eleven players are on the field. Opposing batsman can be distracted by deafening noises while bowlers can manage to find that extra yard of pace, or tweak of wrist when the wind of the crowd carries them on. When batting, crowd support more often than not does more harm than good – as concentrations are disturbed and batsman start behaving as immortals in front of worshipping yet fickly minded crowds – who at any moment can turn their opinion and start criticizing every attempted shot.

As to the pitch, unless one encounters real mine fields of spin or demons of pace – most ODI teams are full of pseudo – specialists well prepared to tackle home bred opponents if the duration of the duel does not extend over days like a Test match. One would expect this to increase in this edition, with increased exposure due to the IPL. So a Pollard would know a Mumbai pitch as well as an Ashwin. Scary thought that.

No pitch. No crowd. Is home advantage then the X factor which results in certain players doing well at certain venues? An Azhar at Eden or a Kallis at Centurion? At their base, home team players are more likely to have more favorite grounds due to frequent play. Yes, it is an advantage when Tendulkar lands in Chennai due to the romantic affair between the two. But, what about an South African who always performs at Nagpur? History has shown that one is as likely to have a favorite ground away from home as within it. Ask Laxman, who would gladly apply for a dual Australian – Indian passport if the Australian team comes bundled with it.

Does India have a home advantage? If anything, one would expect pressure on India and if the battle hardened team has a moment of weakness – then things can fold up at a crucial quarter final or semi-final. A batsman’s arm may freeze during a routine flick, or a fielder may drop a catch knowing that millions of eyes are tracking the trajectory of the ball as it nears his hands. As supporters we have to be careful and forgiving. As supporters, we have to support.

This year, when the enemy advances in waves – the Indian and Sri Lankan troops know that it will take more than the hidden traps they have laid, and the land they have to defend. This year, the killing fields are open. This will only make an Indian victory sweeter.

1 comment:

Subhodeep said...

Absolutely spot on. In cricket, the action is confined to just one ball whereas, there is something happening every second in football. Crowd support matters especially when the team is searching for an equalizer or the morale of the players are down.