How important is home advantage December 30, 2006

Cricket's citadels

Alastair Smart
Alastair Smart investigates what home advantage means

Does home advantage really matter? And which grounds are the toughest for an away team to storm? Alastair Smart investigates

West Indies were unbeaten at Kensington Oval for 27 years © Getty Images
Be he a king or a peasant, he is happiest who finds peace at home - so wrote Goethe, or was it Marcus Trescothick? Trescothick's withdrawal from the Ashes with a stress-related illness highlighted that playing Tests away from home involves taking on more than just the opposition.

Insufferable heat, 'stomach trouble', living out of a suitcase, lengthy separation from loved ones, getting hit over the head with a fast bowler's sweaty balled-up sock - these are a touring cricketer's nightmares. The home side, by contrast, are almost undisrupted from their ordinary lives and able to concentrate freely on their cricket.

Unsurprisingly, every international side is stronger at home than away. Over the last decade Australia have won 16 of their 18 home series (89%) yet just 13 of 19 away (68%); likewise New Zealand, who have won eight of their 17 home series (47%) yet just five of 18 away (28%).

However, to dwell solely on off-field matters as an explanation is wrong-headed. Even the clamorous support of a partisan home crowd - something synonymous with West Indian dominance in the 1980s, in the form of whistles, drums and calypso - isn't a decent explanation. "Cricket's not like football, where 40,000 enclosed fans scream on the home team for the entire 90 minutes and are a main factor in the result", says the former England manager and captain Ray Illingworth. "Test cricket is played over five whole days, and the noise of the crowd is nowhere near as intimidating. It shouldn't affect top players."

So, what are the key advantages for home players? Firstly, they're accustomed to the pitches and conditions. And for Mick Newell, coach of 2005 county champions Nottinghamshire, this is infinitely more important in Test cricket than in domestic. "There's something close to a uniformity of pitch (and weather) in domestic cricket, so playing away isn't a huge disadvantage. But playing away in a Test match certainly is. The pitches and conditions can be completely alien. They're just impossible to replicate in practice over here, so it's very difficult to prepare properly. This problem is exacerbated by the shorter tours of the modern era and the fewer warm-up games - on England's tour of India this year they played just two warm-up games before the first Test, compared with six on the 1976-77 tour there."

For Newell, toiling in 90°F to keep Murali at bay on a Kandy turner is so far removed from any challenge in the County Championship that it's almost another sport. Which may explain the hyperbolic talk of Australia "conquering the final frontier" with their 2004-05 series victory in India, a phrase unthinkable in domestic cricket.

The figures bear out Newell's point: winning away in Tests is far harder than in county games. In 2005 there were 45 home wins in the Championship and 45 away wins, compared with 25 home wins and 12 away wins in Tests

The figures bear out Newell's point: winning away in Tests is far harder than in county games. In 2005 there were 45 home wins in the Championship and 45 away wins, compared with 25 home wins and 12 away wins in Tests. The results from 2004 paint a similar picture.

So where are the fortresses of Test cricket? With home advantage proven to be so important, some must exist. If we consider only venues that have hosted at least 10 Tests and judge by three different criteria (longest winning streak; longest unbeaten run; and, to make sure we're up to date, highest ratio of home wins in the last 25 years), three grounds might legitimately be called cricket's greatest stronghold - the Kensington Oval, Barbados, National Stadium, Karachi, and South Africa's Centurion.

West Indies won 12 straight matches in Barbados from 1978 to 1993; Pakistan went 34 matches unbeaten at Karachi from 1955 to 2000; and South Africa have won a massive 73% of their games at Centurion since 1981. Even the solitary home defeats at Karachi and Centurion came in highly peculiar circumstances. Both were at the hands of England in 1999-2000 - thanks to dodgy light and a dodgy Hansie Cronje respectively.

South Africa's success at Centurion is perhaps the least predictable, notwithstanding the relatively few matches played there (11 in the last 25 years, compared with 30-plus at Lord's and Wellington). They don't have a reputation as a particularly formidable home side, but, says their former coach Ray Jennings, Centurion is unique: "It's no ordinary Test ground. The wicket changes character hugely over the five days, and because of the uneven bounce, the pitch can become unplayable by day four.

Batsmen can't tell if a ball will spit up or hit him around the ankles. "That obviously plays on their minds, especially if they've not played at Centurion much before. That's a clear advantage South Africa have there. As is having quick bowlers like Pollock, Donald and Ntini who are very good at exploiting uneven bounce."

If South Africa's success at Centurion is exceptional, unexpected and owing to the uniqueness of the pitch, West Indies' success in Barbados was anything but. But what was so special about Barbados? In the 1980s West Indies were successful at every venue in the Caribbean, so what was it about the Kensington Oval that turned them from world-beaters into world-crushers?

For one of their many fast-bowling greats, Michael Holding, it was the geography, and - more specifically - a pitch most suited to their strengths: "Barbados is a coral island, so the soil is hard. And a hard soil means a hard wicket. As a result, the Kensington wicket offered more pace and bounce than any other in the Caribbean, which obviously helped a powerful fast-bowling attack like ours. It was also a true pitch, with consistent bounce and the ball coming on to the bat nicely - which meant our batsmen, natural stroke-makers, had the confidence to play their shots. Our bowlers and batsmen both enjoyed Barbados."

It's as if Kensington was the ultimate Caribbean pitch. All the Caribbean pitches offered pace and bounce and played quite true - but Barbados did so even more than the others. As such, the West Indian players, bred to become fast-bowlers and stroke-makers in order to best exploit their conditions, found Barbados the most suitable pitch to display their talents.

It's tempting to explain Pakistan's success in Karachi in similar terms. The pitch offers the usual subcontinental assistance to spinners, as well as (more importantly) the sea-breeze and high humidity levels that make it conducive to the Pakistani arts of reverse and conventional swing. A home venue will usually help the hosts because it is suited to the games of their players, and challenging for an opposition struggling to acclimatise. The extreme geography and pitches of Karachi and Barbados (respectively, the 'most' Pakistani and West Indian of venues) accentuates this disparity. Especially in the case of Karachi, which very often hosts the opening Test of a series, when the opposition are least prepared.

When the rain has stopped at Centurion Park, South Africa have won 73% of their matches © Getty Images
With conditions already to a home side's advantage, a little help from their groundsman can tip the balance further. This may not occur to any great extent in the modern game, as a win inside three days means the home board losing two days' gate and TV revenue. Indeed the Edgbaston groundsman Steve Rouse insists: "The ECB has never asked for a specific type of pitch. It's left to me." However, a groundsman will never deliberately set out to prepare a pitch detrimental to the home side's chances of winning. His input is likely to be, at the very least, neutral or slightly biased in the hosts' favour.

But will home advantage always be so important? A number of factors suggest not. In March 2006 the ICC introduced a formal pitchmonitoring procedure - with the threat of sanctions against a board that produces a quirky wicket. This move towards standardization may well reduce the importance of playing at home. So may the everincreasing amount of international cricket. The ICC's Future Tours Programme ensures that the Test sides play each other home and away at least once every six years. It is the most relentless schedule ever - England played two Test series in India in the last five years (2001-02, 2005-06) but only one in the whole of the 1950s (1951-52). The downside of the schedule is the lack of warm-up time for touring sides before the start of a series, as England found to their cost at Brisbane.

Today's players have unprecedented exposure to conditions around the world. And the majority now begin their exposure long before they play a Test with 'A' tours, or counties undertaking pre-season trips.

Youth tours barely existed 30 years ago, yet within the last two years England Under-19 have toured India and Bangladesh and played a World Cup in Sri Lanka. As such, the next generations of Test players should be less bamboozled by the mystery of away venues. This may render home advantage rather less important in Test cricket. Maybe even at Karachi.

This article was first published in the January issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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