August 9, 2015

A weapon called home advantage

The contrasting fortunes of the two teams in the Ashes underlines the importance of home conditions in bilateral contests

The conditions at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge were unlike what the Australians are used to at home © Getty Images

The astonishing fluctuations in the ongoing Ashes series have defied even the most qualified observers to explain the inexplicable.

It was beyond the comprehension of triumphant captain Alastair Cook after his England team had completed the demolition of Australia before lunch on the third day at Trent Bridge to regain the holy grail of Test cricket between the two oldest and fiercest rivals. It was, he said simply, "beyond belief".

Others advanced other reasons.

Geoffrey Boycott and Shane Warne named one-day cricket, principally the T20 version, as partially responsible for undermining the application of batting skills necessary for the traditional, unrestricted, red-ball game. Even Australia's 60 before lunch last Thursday would have been an ignominious T20 total; they didn't even survive the 20 overs.

"There's so much one-day cricket, people have to play shots, hit the ball," Boycott said. "I think it gets into the heads of batsmen." For him, such extravagance was anathema.

Australia's former captain and leading run scorer Ricky Ponting blamed the failing techniques and mental approach of his countrymen. Boycott was "amazed" how poor they were against the moving ball.

Warne expanded on the theory. "Test cricket is all about technique, the basics, and all about fighting," he said. "Technique is a real issue on these sorts of pitches. Play it as late as possible or leave it. It's about getting an ugly score, hanging in there, not giving your wicket away."

At the same time, as Australia were falling apart at Edgbaston, Brian Lara was initiating a session for up-and-coming young players in his native Trinidad, entitled "Master Class". He echoed the comments on the necessity for mastering the basics.

He welcomed the evolution of the different versions of the game, not least the latest and the "very exciting" T20; it gave the public a wide scope to enjoy. His acceptance was conditional.

"I want to impress (on the participants) the importance of having the foundation, the things I grew up with in the '70s and '80s," he said. "Understanding how to bat, developing the technique and being able to go on the attack."

His favourite players were those capable of playing all formats. "The guy who can form that game and transcend all boundaries is the guy I like to see play."

In other words, the ability to adapt.

It was a point also made by Michael Holding on Sky commentary. He referred to the misuse of the term "great" in relation to players and teams.

"To be considered a great cricketer or a great cricket team you've got to do well wherever the game is played at the highest level," he said. The West Indies team under Clive Lloyd, of which he was an integral member during his career, is one of the few that merits the ultimate adjective by his criterion.

So was an accommodating pitch at Lord's, where Australia amassed 566 for 8 and 254 for 2, both declared, in their victory by 405 runs the sole reason that their techniques and mental strength weren't genuinely tested as they were elsewhere?

Boycott felt that was precisely the case - that conditions were like in Australia; there was even warm sunshine throughout.

For the two subsequent Tests, new England coach Trevor Bayliss, an Australian, got his fancy for the "typical English seaming wicket… that would suit our bowlers". They did and Australia's batting imploded for 136 and 265 at Edgbaston, 60 and 253 at Trent Bridge.

In 2011, Australia put the horrors of 47 all out behind them with a comeback win at the Wanderers © AFP

And that is basically the nub of the matter. It has been known throughout the game's history as home advantage. Just as England's batsmen, unaccustomed to quick, bouncy surfaces, were undermined by Mitchell Johnson's left-arm, over-the-wicket, bodyline assault in Australia in the previous Ashes contest, so were Australia's batsmen found out by the exaggerated swing and seam movement of the Dukes ball in the skillful hands of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and their cohorts.

As tours have been condensed to fit in five ODIs and a couple of T20s, there is no longer the opportunity for visiting teams anywhere to acclimatise to alien conditions. The 1981 Australians were scheduled six three-day county matches and three ODIs before going into the first Test; this time, they had two against depleted Essex and Kent sides.

There have been 13 totals in the past 25 years lower than Australia's 60 at Trent Bridge. Eight have been by teams away from home, three by those at home (two West Indies, one Zimbabwe), two on neutral territory (Pakistan in the UAE). Five were before the advent of domestic T20 tournaments.

Just a few have been aberrations. Australia followed their second-innings 47 against South Africa in Cape Town in 2011 by compiling 310 for 8 in the second Test in Johannesburg to complete a series-leveling victory.

After Curtly Ambrose demolished England for 46 and sent them to defeat in the second Test in Port-of-Spain in 1994, England immediately recovered to win the next Test in Barbados by 208 runs. The most stunning turnaround after a double-figure disaster was in Australia's 1999 series in the West Indies.

In the aftermath of a 5-0 sweep in the Tests and 6-1 in the ODIs on their first Test tour of South Africa following the demise of apartheid, West Indies were routed for 51 by Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie in the second innings of the first Test of the subsequent home series in Port-of-Spain. The margin of defeat was 312 runs.

Placed on notice by the West Indies Cricket Board that his captaincy was on the line, Lara's response was immediate and astonishing. His typically commanding 213 in the second Test, in Kingston, underpinned a West Indies victory by ten wickets; his even more celebrated 153 unbeaten in the third in Barbados carried his team past their 311 winning target, with last man Courtney Walsh, the king of Test match zeros, his partner.

England needed no such individual spark for their remarkable Ashes triumph. Theirs was an all-round effort that took advantage of every team's most treasured ally, home advantage.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for 50 years