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Whatever happened to home advantage?

In the Chinese calendar, 2007 is the Year of the Pig. The lunar calendar calls it the Year of the Boar. And the United Nations has declared it the Year of the Dolphin. The ICC could well have designated 2007 as the Year of the Cuckoo, considering how teams have thrived in foreign conditions in recent times, to the point where the concept of home advantage is now being threatened with extinction.

Citadels have fallen like dominos. South Africa, for the first time, won both a Test and one-day series in the subcontinent, and India broke a 21-year drought by winning a Test series in England. More significantly, both triumphs were engineered in distinctly foreign conditions: Zaheer Khan swung England out in Nottingham, and Paul Harris made the most of a spinning track in Karachi.

Tourists have also thrived in the one-day arena. England not only secured their first ODI victory in Sri Lanka since 1982, they did the unthinkable by clinching the series. It was a success built on overcoming muggy, sluggish Dambulla and Colombo, which very few teams have achieved in the past.

Early in the year Australia lost three ODIs at home, two of which led to their first home finals defeat in 14 years. England surrendered a home ODI series to West Indies, and India were trumped 2-4 at home by Australia. Multi-nation tournaments were no different: West Indies had a forgettable World Cup and South Africa failed to make the semi-finals in the World Twenty20.

Among the honourable mentions: Sri Lanka held on to a 2-2 draw in New Zealand, India won their first Test on South African soil (the victory came in mid-December but the series was within grasp till the final day in January), and Pakistan won their second Test in South Africa in nine attempts.

A recent trend
The erosion of home advantage hasn't occurred overnight. It can probably be traced back to Australia's tour of the Caribbean in mid-1995, a seismic series that changed the world order. It brought to an end an unbeaten home record that stretched 22 imposing years. Sri Lanka's visit to Pakistan in September 1995, an almost forgotten series, was in its own way seminal: it ended a 15-year streak when Pakistan were unbeaten at home (including two Test series against a dominant West Indies).

The fashion caught on in the late nineties - South Africa, Australia and even Zimbabwe poached memorable wins in Pakistan (Australia's win involved one-dayers as well), and New Zealand upstaged England in 1999. But it's this decade - at the turn of which India lost a series to South Africa, their first home defeat in 14 years - that has seen the floodgates open.

India's case sums up the trend. Till the start of 2000, they had won just 13 of their 155 away Tests. In the last seven and a half years they have an away record that reads: played 46, won 16. In this time they have won Tests in every country other than New Zealand.

Australia are predictably way ahead of the pack - 26 wins out of 38 away Tests this decade - but the away records of all teams, barring West Indies, show an upward trend. (And even a very good West Indies side would always struggle when compared to the teams of the late seventies and eighties.)

It's all too familiar
A number of factors are responsible are for the trend, none more so than players' increasing familiarity with conditions and opponents.

The ten-year Future Tours Programme (FTP) initiated by the ICC in 2001 has made a big difference. It meant that lopsided schedules - for two years between 1994 and 1996, India didn't play even one away Test - were eliminated.

Added to this were the ICC's efforts to globalise the game, which led to the staging of matches in such non-traditional venues as Toronto, Nairobi, Tangier, Kuala Lumpur, Belfast, Glasgow and Singapore. While this globalisation may have led to complaints about player burnout, it has also helped in cricketers learning to acclimatise quickly. Matches have been played on drop-down and artificial surfaces; players have needed to land, warm-up, and play the next day. It has enhanced adaptability.

The England cricket board's decision in 2003 to allow two overseas players per county has played its part. Facing Muttiah Muralitharan, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne day in and day out served to diminish their aura somewhat.

The value of Under-19 and A tours cannot be underestimated. "Young cricketers of today are far more equipped than ten years earlier," Sanjay Manjrekar, the former India batsman, said on air recently. "Tasting success at the Under-19 level, adapting to different conditions abroad toughens you up even before you enter the international arena." Robin Uthappa, the young Indian batsman, will travel to Australia later in the year with the confidence of two previous tours behind him - one with Karnataka and another as part of India A.

A level playing field
To a large degree many pitches across the world have lost their exotic quality. The WACA is no more associated with trampoline-like bounce. In the last Test there, Monty Panesar claimed five wickets on the first day. Headingley doesn't serve up swing-fests anymore. And Indian pitches rarely turn from day one.

India's 1996 visit to South Africa saw them being shot out for 100 and 66 on a Kingsmead green-top, but matters have rarely come to such a head in this decade. Jamaica and Barbados don't inspire the fear that they used to ten years ago. Even surfaces in South Africa and New Zealand aren't as conducive to swing and seam as earlier.

"Never ever [seen such a pitch in South Africa] and hopefully never again," was Graeme Smith's response when he was asked about the Cape Town surface that was used for the Test against India early in January. "It's like playing in India," he went on to add. India contrived to lose the game, and with it the series, but they will be the first to admit that it was offered to them on a platter.

Former Australia coach John Buchanan, who presided over his side's golden period between 1999 and 2007, thinks the practice of playing ODIs and Tests at the same venues has served to neutralise pitches worldwide in favour of batsmen, since there is a tendency to prepare batting wickets for one-dayers more often than not.

Television, technology and comfort
The modern cricketer has several things going for him on his travels. He usually stays in quality hotels and mostly travels business class, as Buchanan points out. "It wasn't the case earlier. You get the food you want and don't really have to compromise much on your travels. I guess an overseas tour is far more palatable now than it was 20 years earlier.
"The role of television cannot be underestimated. You can prepare for a tour by recapturing your earlier visit to the country. You can also see how other teams have done there recently. You can simulate conditions and use the latest technology to iron out weaknesses."

Buchanan oversaw Australia's epic tour to India in 2001, during which Steve Waugh made a serious effort to get his side to embrace the local culture. "We made an effort to spend time away from the cricket field, trying to learn something about the country," Buchanan says. "It was a part of their education. Cricketers got involved in charities, to get a feel of the underprivileged sections. We lost the series that time but all this played a part in our triumph in 2004 [when they won a series in India after 35 years]."

The one country where these changing patterns do not seem to apply - in Tests at least - is Australia, who are unbeaten at home since 1992-93. "Australia's dominance at home shows that travel still has its challenges," Buchanan says, "but teams travelling to Australia seem to make it a bigger issue than otherwise. I think teams visiting here don't spend enough time adjusting to the country, taking in the competitive culture that's part of the set-up."

The two teams who visit Australia this summer, Sri Lanka and India, would want to take note. A win for either would complete a cycle which Australia themselves began 13 years ago.