Sport, by definition, is characterised by contest.
It is the tussle, the conflict, the drama, the swinging fortunes and the fight for the winning position that makes a sporting event a spectacle to relish, recount and remember.
It is not for nothing that David Frith named his account of the 1894-95 Ashes contested between Drewey Stoddart’s Englishmen and Jack Blackham’s Australians “Stoddy’s Mission: The First Great Test series”
What a series that was! Australia enforced follow-on in the first Test, only to end up embarking on a dangerous chase on a wet wicket to lose one of the most incredible matches by a whisker. And then two down in the series, the hosts fought back to make it 2-2. In the final Test at Melbourne they posted 414, but were waylaid by some sustained pace of Tom Richardson and an incredible third wicket partnership in the final innings between Albert Ward and JT Brown. The end result was 3-2 in favour of England.
The series was indeed a great one, precisely because of the close contest between the sides.
Historians drool over the 1960-61 series between Richie Benaud’s Australians and Frank Worrell’s West Indians, the celebrated clash that produced the first ever Tied Test. Once again, it was a titanic tussle between the sides, with the Test matches tottering on a knife’s edge, the series decided during the fifth and final showdown and not before going through some fascinating twists and turns.
If we restrict ourselves to more recent memory, we tend to think of the immortal series of 2000-2001 in India when the Australians were all set to open their bottles of champagne and VVS Laxman turned the tables with that magnificent 281 at the Eden Gardens. And then there was the splendid Ashes of 2005 which brought cricket right back into the front page and the sporting consciousness of the common English fan.
When we think of the keen battles on the pitch within the team game, which makes cricket such a splendid sport, we recall Sachin Tendulkar taking on Dale Steyn in 2010-11 or Brian Lara standing alone against the guile of Muttiah Muralitharan in 2001.
Whichever way we look at it, what remains embossed in our memories are engrossing contests … which makes watching sports such a fascinating pursuit.
It is not limited to cricket.
There is a reason why the Ali-Frazier ‘Thrilla in Manila’ is way more memorable than the 91-second 10-punch Tyson-Spinks championship knockout.
The same reason explains why the Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final of 1980 is still talked about; and in recent times the two Federer classics, against Nadal in Wimbledon 2008 and Roddick in Wimbledon 2009, occupy special places in our hearts. It is close rivalry that creates the allure of showdowns, be it Ali-Frazier, Becker-Edberg … or cricket between India and Australia during the first decade of this century.
When we turn to football, it is the Italy-Brazil ding-dong battle of 1982 or the Argentina-West Germany classic in the 1986 World Cup final which remain etched in our memories, as does the Italy-West Germany Semi Final of 1970.
There is the lure of trivia in Tyson knocking Spinks out in record time or Germany pulverising Brazil 7-1 or Steffi Graf conquering Ronald Garros in 34 minutes with a 6-0, 6-0 scoreline over Natasha Zvereva. But these are one sided affairs, and as far as sporting contests go, they are nothing but damp squibs.
Test cricket and penalty kicks
If one sided contests carried attraction, penalty kicks would have been the focal point of excitement in soccer. It is not so, even though the chances of scoring a goal are incredibly high. It is because the situation is so loaded in favour of one party that the battle lacks the element of contest. Only severely partisan fans would revel in goals scored only through penalty kicks.
Similarly, during the current decade, Test cricket in India has been in danger of being shorn of the contest factor. The matches have become increasingly one sided to the point of resembling penalty kicks taken by the home side.
This is no idle superficial analogy. The numbers back up the statement to a full.
Before the Pune Test, India had played 28 Tests at home in this decade. They had won a whopping 22 of them, drawing 4 and losing 2.
The Win/Loss ratio stood at 11.00, while they won 79% of their games.
Since cricket is complicated by a third result, the draw, we have to modify our measurements a bit. If we award one point for a draw, 2 for win and 0 for a loss in the conventional manner, the Indian score at home is 48 out of a maximum of 56, which translates to as a success rate 85.71%.
Let us take a look at the rate of conversion of penalty kicks.
In the English Premier League of 2016-17, 67 of 81 penalties have been converted. That gives a Conversion/Miss ratio of 4.8 and a conversion rate of 82.71%. (Figures correct up to 27th February, 2017)
If we take a greater sample and consider the period from 1992-93 to 2016-17, we find 1,612 of 1,911 penalties converted in the EPL. That produces a Conversion/Miss ratio of 5.39 and a conversion rate of 84.35%.
If we look at 79% wins and 85.71% success rate at home, the conversion rates of 82.71% and 84.35% are very, very comparable. Indians playing at home is rather disconcertingly like a penalty kick being taken in the EPL!
And once we realise this incredible pattern, we tend to understand why even one loss at home after several years is placed under the microscope and scrutinised to such ridiculous levels in the country.
It is simply that winning at home is as easy as — or even easier that — scoring from penalty kicks. A loss is therefore almost equivalent to shooting outside the goal post, an unpardonable transgression.
It is indeed true that home advantage has had a very substantial say in recent decades for all the sides. Yet, the numbers for India is way ahead than the others.
For example, India had famously dominated teams visiting the shores to play on treacherous spinning tracks in the 1990s. But the win/loss ratio in 1990s for India was still a reasonable 2.43. In the first decade of this century, it went up to 3.43. And then it had shot up to 11.00 from 2011 to 2017, and now stands at 7.33 after the defeat in the first Test.
At the same time, the comparative figures for the other major teams remain way more reasonable in comparison.
|Team||Win/Loss ratio at home|
|Pakistan (considering UAE to be home)||
I am not going into the reason for this lopsided success rate at home.
It may very well be that India has developed a team that is well-nigh unbeatable in familiar conditions. It may also be the case of preparing wickets and managing the playing conditions to load the game more and more favourable for the hosts. Every Test playing nation does this and India is no exception, but perhaps they have gone overboard in pursuing this path.
The truth, as in most cases, is probably a combination of all these factors. That is not the concern of this article.
What these figures and the associated analysis do demonstrate is that home Tests for India have become so one sided that they are eminently comparable to that epitome of one-sided sporting challenge — the penalty kick.
With the nation teeming with dedicated followers of the game, with a proportionally large contingent of severely partisan fans, such one-sided battles have not really done much to dampen interest in the game appreciably.
But for the sake of the noble game and the essence of ‘contest’ that makes cricket such a delightful sport to watch, a few results against India are perhaps essential to restore the balance.
The Australian win is therefore good news. And if the win kickstarts a sequence of closely fought matches and series with fewer whitewashes, it will probably benefit the general fan a lot more than several favourable 4-0 outcomes.