July 25, 2014

No home advantage in World Cups

A small pool of teams could be an important reason why only one team has lifted the trophy in front of its home crowd

Australia have four World Cup titles and six final appearances, but they couldn't go all the way in the only tournament they have hosted so far © Getty Images

When MS Dhoni hit the six towards long-on to win the 2011 World Cup, it was the first time in cricket's history that the winning side was playing in front of its home crowd. I was reminded of this fact during the recently concluded football version of the same event, where home nations have won six out of 19 tournaments.

Home advantage is a well-discussed and dissected facet of sport, and it holds true in almost all kinds of sports. The presence of supporters, of a familiar place and climate, of pressure on referees, are some reasons why home advantage works so well. In cricket, where external conditions like the weather and the pitch make so much of a difference, there is generally a tendency for home sides to win matches. So why have cricket's World Cups not yielded more winners at home?

Let's take a look at the basic numbers first, using the football World Cup as a comparison. In ten ICC World Cups, only twice have the finalists included a team playing in front of a home crowd. On three occasions (Australia in 1992, England in 1999 and South African in 2003) the hosts haven't made it to the knockout stages*. In 19 FIFA World Cups, only once (South Africa in 2010) have the hosts failed to make it to the knockouts, and only three times (Italy in 1990, Germany in 2006 and Brazil in 2014) did the hosts fail to record their best-ever finish.

Of course, this is a case of comparing apples and oranges, and there are several major differences in the two sports. The most obvious one is the pool of teams involved. Cricket's first World Cup in 1975 had eight teams, and the most it ever had was 16 in 2007. The small pool has had several impacts, most notably in terms of the ability for one team to dominate. Football, which is a far truer global game, has had a much bigger and competitive pool to work with.

West Indies played the first three finals, winning in '75 and '79. Australia had a run of playing five finals out of six, from 1987 to 2007, winning four trophies, including a hat-trick. Moreover, 1979 is the only World Cup final not to include either Australia or a subcontinental side. In contrast, in football only five countries (Italy, Brazil, Netherlands, Germany and Argentina#) have played consecutive World Cup finals.

Intriguingly, neither of cricket's two dominant sides hosted the tournament in their prime. West Indies hosted the World Cup 24 years after they had last made it to a World Cup final. Australia only hosted the tournament in 1992, when despite being defending champions they were still building the side that would rule the world for almost two decades.

The terrible performance of England as hosts must also be brought into account. Having hosted 40% of all World Cups so far England have only made it to the final once at home. This despite the fact that the ODI format was invented in England, and that for at least the first three World Cups, most English players had an advantage in terms of their experience of playing it.

Finally, the most important reason is that even if cricket has varied playing conditions, its players end up playing in all of them very often, and across different formats and tournaments, affording opportunities to learn many intricacies. In contrast, most footballers coming to the 2014 World Cup might have never played in Brazil, or even South America, before the tournament.

It might be argued that Sri Lanka in 1996 should be counted as another exception to the trend of teams doing poorly at home but a combination of the co-hosting schedule along with perceived security threats meant they only played one match at home. In contrast, their 2011 run saw them play every match (except one group game) until the final at home. Their only losses came in Colombo against Pakistan, and in the final against India in Mumbai. The story of New Zealand in 1992 was similar - they played all their matches at home, and unlike Sri Lanka, were a far weaker team but still topped the group. Somehow, after winning seven matches in a row, they lost to Pakistan in their final group game**, and then again in the semi-final. India's 2011 run was also not quite stellar, with one defeat and one tie in the group stages, but they roared through their final three games at home and overcame the obvious pressure.

And I think that for all the explanations, pressure seems to be the most interesting factor here. A non-statistical recollection of the tournaments of 1987, 1992, 1996 and 2003 would show that all feature instances where the home sides buckled under the pressure.

The more unpredictable format of T20 has had five world events, with only Sri Lanka in 2012 being the only home team to make it to the semi-final stage (they lost in the final, the only ICC event they have played at home). South Africa and West Indies fell in the Super 8s, while Bangladesh and England didn't even make it that far.

The next ICC event will be the 2015 World Cup, and while both hosts will be contenders, cricket's history suggests that it would be unwise to back either Australia or New Zealand for the win.

* Intriguingly, the first World Cup South Africa ever hosted was the one for rugby, which they won in such romantic fashion it was made into a film. Obviously, it used up all the luck needed for the other two sports.

** It was alleged at the time that New Zealand lost that game to ensure their semi-final would be played in New Zealand.

# 03:53:55 GMT, 22 July 2014: The article originally omitted Argentina from this list

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here