September 3, 2014

Why crowd support matters

A factor in improved away records in recent years, particularly in ODIs, is the presence of fans from the diaspora cheering for visiting teams

Indian fans turn in up in droves for ODIs featuring their side in England, which surely factors into the team's results © AFP

The penny dropped during Saturday's grotesquely one-sided ODI at Trent Bridge, the catalyst a velvety drive from Ajinkya Rahane even more mellifluous than his sing-song name. To MS Dhoni's ears in particular, the shrieks and roars and oohs and aahs that escorted it to the boundary must have sounded, simultaneously, as soothing as Ludwig Van's Pastoral Symphony and as rousing as "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

Why, this past week, have India have been playing more like champions than chumpions? Not just because their players are better at the shorter formats or their temperaments suit them better; not just because they are hell-bent on avenging that humiliating reversal in the Test series; not just because of the changes in personnel; nor even just because so many of those conquerors seem less motivated and more witless when it comes to the game's populist variants.

Instead, I'm inclined to believe an equally, if not more telling cause, amounts to nothing more complex than this: more than any other national or regional XI, Dhoni and Co crave approval and love. To them more than any rival, because they are under the microscope like no other, vocal encouragement matters. And whereas only a smattering of the Indian diaspora attended the Tests, doubtless on account of low expectations as much as tiresome alternatives such as jobs, they are turning up in droves for the rowdier occasions that promise so much more. And nowhere on the team's travels do those supporters congregate so readily and fervently as they do here.

Let's take a step back. One of spectator sport's foremost attractions is the way it compels us to contemplate the difference between favourable and unfavourable environments, between cosy and hostile terrain, between "home" and "away". Local conditions can be critical, but it is the sheer volume of onlookers, in terms of both numbers and wattage, that purportedly exerts the keenest influence. All too typical was the BBC commentator Andrew Castle's assertion, as Andy Murray rallied to take the third set of his 2013 Wimbledon semi-final against Jerzy Janowicz, that the Scot-Brit was "feeding off the crowd".

Naturally, it works both ways. Paul Ackford, the policeman turned England rugby union player turned journalist, recalled playing a match in Cardiff in the 1980s, when Anglo-Welsh hostilities were at their peak and the red rose never bloomed: the England team returned to their changing room to find their blazers "peppered with globules of spit provided by Wales supporters, standing either side of the tunnel, who weren't too impressed with anything English".

Notable academics, nonetheless, have researched all the evidence of home advantage, and one such, David Runciman, a political scientist at Cambridge University, is convinced it's pure tosh, arguing that players, fans and media alike "have merely bought into a myth of their own relative power or powerlessness, one that fits what they want to believe". The ingredients that count, he insists, are the usual suspects: "skill, luck and changes of circumstance".

Hence, perhaps, the consistency of the figures littering Scorecasting, a 2001 book by Tobias Moskowitz, a University of Chicago behavioural economist, and Sports Illustrated's L Jon Wertheim. By the outset of the new millennium, according to their rummagings, home teams, historically, had won 54% of Major League Baseball games, nearly 58% of NFL games, 59% in the NHL and 63% in the NBA; in 43 professional leagues in 24 countries covering more than 66,000 games spanning Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, Australia and the US, the share was 62.4%; for international rugby union it was 58%.

Dhoni and Co crave approval and love. To them more than any rival, because they are under the microscope like no other, vocal encouragement matters

"As radically as sports have changed through the years… the home field advantage is eerily constant through time," claim Moskowitz and Wertheim. In more than 100 baseball seasons, they discovered, not once had visiting teams collectively won more games than the hosts. The lowest success rate home teams had ever registered in a baseball season was 50.7% - in 1923; the highest was 58.1% eight years later. Just once, freakishly, in 1968, had away teams held the whip hand in the NFL; the NBA, NHL and the international soccer leagues had not yet witnessed this phenomenon.

In cricket this truism is writ larger - witness Australia's Harare humbling on Sunday. Varying climates and soils mean that terra familiar has long supplied a bigger headstart than in other ball games. Notwithstanding the sport's matchless penchant for draws, among the eight senior ICC members, to take the most glaring example, only New Zealand and South Africa do not boast a win-loss home record in Tests of 1.5 (60%) or better; Australia and Pakistan have won comfortably more than twice as many as they have lost. In the 2000s, no fewer than five nations emulated them. Change, nonetheless, appears to be brewing: of the 31 Test encounters staged by the seven (eligible) senior combatants over the past 12 months, just under 60% have been won by the home side.

Overall, Australia are alone in garnering more wins than defeats in overseas Tests: no surprise there. Still, prospects improve as the significance of time and pitch recedes. Australia and South Africa both have profitable away records in ODIs; ditto India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka in T20s, the last winning six times as many as they've lost.

Over the past five years, furthermore, the sands have shifted. While losing Tests abroad has remained the habitual fate for the other six senior teams, England have tasted victory as often as defeat (nine apiece), while in 17 matches South Africa have won nine and lost only one. More radically, Sri Lanka have won their first series in England, South Africa their first in Australia, and England their first in India in a quarter of a century. Having won 11 and lost 20 of their previous 39 Test rubbers against senior rivals, South Africa have not surrendered one of their past 12, winning eight. Plainly, the quality gap has much to do with this, likewise the mild-mannered pitches encouraged by chief executives and broadcasters, but dare we neglect the greater sense of ease and comfort fostered by more frequent tours?

If we accept that the audience are a leading actor in this drama, it seems logical to attribute this mini-revolution, in good part, to the shrinking of Test attendances and the diminishing of biased support. Yet the results of contests that attract substantial gates suggest that this is no longer terribly pertinent. In ODIs, Australia, India, Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka have all compiled winning away records over the past five years; in T20s, all bar Australia, England and West Indies have done so. Since the days of evenly distributed acclaim and all-round good hosthood appear long gone, this feels all the more laudable.

The IPL echoes this swing. In the first three instalments held in India, home teams collectively won 15 more games than they lost; in 2012, they won eight fewer. In IPL 7, King's XI Punjab, the outstanding outfit in the group stage, suffered two of their three losses at home, while Chennai Super Kings won an eliminator in Mumbai. Three of the four highest stands (by wicket) in IPL annals (and four of the top six) have been achieved by non-Indian players; three of the top four bowling returns in India have been recorded by a visiting bowler, five of the ten highest scores by a visiting batsman.

Which brings us back, confusingly if not quite perplexingly, to the national XI. Despite the general upswing in away fortunes, no country's Test results in the recent past have been quite so polarised. Since bowing to South Africa at the dawn of the century India have won 15, drawn five and lost just two of their home series against their leading seven rivals; away, the respective figures are five, four and 13.

Travelling support can help, and on that score England are economically and uniquely blessed. Graeme Swann has hailed the Barmy Army, who so often outnumber locals, as "the very heartbeat" of his Test tours: who are we to doubt such an expression of debt? From 1972 to 1995, England won just six and drew five of their 27 overseas series (of more than one Test), but matters improved royally once the Barmies began invading en masse (the maiden chorus comprised three mates on the 1994-95 Ashes tour): prior to last winter's mauling down under, their previous 27 such assignments had produced 10 wins and five draws. The ECB can bang on all it likes about the impact of central contracts and a two-tier Championship, but to ignore Bill Cooper's trumpet and those endless renditions of "Jerusalem" would be the height of ingratitude.

Just as West Indies once thrived on the lusty horns and drums of the Anglo-Caribbean community, who are now priced out of the stands, Dhoni and company do not depend on travelling support so much as Diaspora Aid, donated handsomely by the Bharat Army since 1999. The troops were barely visible at this summer's Tests, much less audible; they had snapped up their ODI allocation when there were still tickets aplenty unsold for the Lord's Test.

The Trent Bridge ODI drew squadrons from Leicester, Luton, Southampton, Birmingham, Coventry and London. When I checked on Sunday, the Army's Twitter feed had 2002 followers. Outnumbered they may have been in Nottingham by England fans, but it sure didn't sound like it.

What, then, can we conclude from this morass of conjecture, contradictions and clichés? Only the blindingly obvious. While the elements that determine the outcome of sporting contests remain myriad, diverse and often intangible, the benefits of applause persist.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now