November 20, 2013

The Ashes and the audience effect

Having a baying crowd in your corner can only be a good thing, can't it?

The screaming masses influence not just the players but often also the officials © Getty Images

Darren Lehmann effectively let the dogs out by calling for the Australian public to "get stuck into" Stuart Broad until "he cries and goes home". Yet how likely are we to see tears before bedtime? Broad hopes that he'll be barracked because that means, according to his copy of Sir Alex Ferguson's autobiography, that the Aussies respect him. "If the opposition fans are singing about you, then that's a good sign."

Take heart, Mitchell Johnson. After one ODI spell last summer, where he memorably fired out Jonathan Trott for a golden duck, he has graduated from Barmy Army boo boy to a fast bowling badass, threatening throat balls and finger-breaking. He was hardly on the warpath when whanging down wides and inspiring song lyrics, taunts he admitted affected his playing ability. "It's hard not to when that's all you hear," he told Fox Sports. "And the songs are very catchy."

Since the late 19th century, when Norman Triplett observed that cyclists rode faster when cycling with others, the "audience effect" has been well researched. In 1965, Robert Zajonc elaborated the theory by racing cockroaches along a tube. In a straight sprint, with a host of other cockroaches watching, the racers clocked quicker times than when competing alone. However, once the task was complicated by having the insects navigate a maze, Zajonc found that times were slower when the cockroaches were observed (as opposed to isolated).

The more complex the skill, the more likely performance will be impaired by the presence of others. Hence the "deer in the headlights" effect suffered by Test debutants - see Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan stuttering at The Oval this summer for details. If the participant is adept and well-practised, and the skill is relatively easy, the increased arousal via spectators and fellow participants will benefit performance.

Listen as Andrew Flintoff steams in at Edgbaston in 2005. With each step of his run-up the ground turned up the volume. By the time he hit the crease he was riding a wave of roaring fans and surging adrenaline, bowling at the crescendo of decibels and adulation. Ricky Ponting, a veteran campaigner, was rocked before he even took guard. The first ball drummed into his pads, the second bounced just short of gully. Last ball of the over he edged to Geraint Jones, and Flintoff had "set the place alight", as Mark Nicholas memorably commented.

And not only the players are swayed by the masses. A Harvard University study of the 2006-07 Premier League revealed that referees are far more likely to award penalties to the home team, with umpiring statistics in many sports recurring with the same bias.

This fabled "home advantage" can be as good as a 12th man. From February 21, 2004 until October 26, 2008, Chelsea went 86 consecutive home games undefeated, beating the previous record of 63 games set by Liverpool in the early '80s when the red wall of the Kop intimidated visiting fans, referees and teams.

So, with a flood of green and gold, a beered-up ground of barracking support, Australia are surely starting the Ashes with that extra man on the field.

Not if the Barmy Army turn out en masse. In 2001 the Wallabies were ambushed by the British Lions fans at the Gabba. "It was a sea of red," recalled captain John Eales. "It didn't feel like we were playing at home," echoed scrum half George Gregan.

But they are at home. And only this week Dean Jones rallied the nation to get behind the team with a Sachin-type fervour akin to Indian cricket. Although Aussie "fervour" is a different proposition altogether. The wit of sledging spectators has ruffled English feathers for over a century. From a joker asking Phil Tufnell if he could borrow his brain because he was "building an idiot", to the reviled captain Douglas Jardine being told to leave the flies alone. "They're the only friends you've got." With near-ridiculous understatement, this week Andrew Strauss warned the tourists that there were going to be "uncomfortable conversations" with Aussie fans.

However, that crowd-hyped cricketer could be overwhelmed by a partisan throng. In Sport and Exercise Psychology, Ellis Cashmore quotes the research of Harry Wallace: "When skill is needed, a home crowd can create an experience of pressure... and a competitor may choke."

Few sporting teams have choked more often on the big stage than the New Zealand All Blacks, despite their apparent supremacy, before they finally released their own hand from their throat and won the 2011 World Cup in Auckland. England's Tim Henman said he struggled with the weight of a nation's hopes at Wimbledon, and the French rugby team often falter before their baying Parisian support.

All this pressure-equals-poor-performance talk makes Tendulkar's focus at the crease even more remarkable. What mortal cricketer bar Sachin has survived the status of a god? After the "Little Master" walked down the steps for the last time at the Wankhede Stadium, amid the adoration and the delirium, he zoned out a billion voices to hit a classy half-century and take his seat among the pantheon of cricket greats.

Whether it be high praise or drunken insult, the audience is connected to the result. The Ashes Down Under will be contested between 22 cricketers and a few a million fans, with all of us playing a part.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky was nominated for the IMPAC literary award