The recent win of England over Sri Lanka and New Zealand squaring the series against Pakistan are splendid results for Test cricket because of the shift from the massive home advantage the modern teams enjoy. Here is a look at how incredibly skewed the results have become in favour of the home team in recent times.
Home advantage. This aspect of the game has become rather incredibly, and undesireably, important in recent times.
In the late 90s we came to know that the cricketers of the subcontinent were poor travellers. They went to the difficult shores of England, Australia and South Africa, and ended up being trounced.
But, during the last decade of the last century something else took place. Several developments, actually.
The subcontinental sides became more formidable. Soon India was so impregnable at home that even Steve Waugh’s famous Australians branded the land the ‘final frontier.’ Sri Lanka turned into a major cricketing power. And with the balls of Muttiah Muralitharan spitting like a cobra on pitching on home turf, they quickly became a tough tough land to tour.
Soon, the ‘poor travellers’ tag started being attached to every team. The English succumbed, the New Zealanders were never taken seriously in the best of their days, and slowly the proud cricketing nation of Australia found that they could be subjected to all the humiliation they were so good at dishing out if the surfaces and conditions became unfamiliar. The gutsy South Africans managed to continue their spirited journeys to every country, before they also fell, swept by the tide of the times.
This coincided with the second big development of the time, and was largely influenced by it. The technology of preparing pitches advanced by leaps and bounds. Less was left to chance, and more could be controlled by meticulous attention and application of the recent advancements. Hence, the groundsmen could now load the pitches more and more in favour of the home side.
And finally, there was the other, rather unfortunate, a by-product of modern times and a profusion of private T20 leagues. The cricket calendar was squeezed to the limit, and the international tours became whirlwind affairs. The cricketers got down to business right away, hardly playing a side match or two before getting down to the serious stuff. Acclimatisation, adaptation and all that was deemed essential preparation on foreign soil, were reduced to hasty check-boxes to be ticked in passing. Hence, results were skewed more and more in favour of the home sides.
On top of all these stood the online cricket databases, which did not allow cricketers to hide any more. Fans knew how each team performed. Even cheerleading or media could not build up erroneous perceptions to the degree they used to.
This was a problem. Because most of the charm in cricket lies in the battles between teams, between the bat and the ball, the closeness of the contests. If the balance is too heavily skewed in favour of the home side from the beginning of a Test series, then the event loses attraction as a sport. Unlike the other formats of cricket which often find a place in neutral territories, Test cricket is always played in the home ground of one of the opponents. The exceptions have been too few to be listed without needless diversion.
Hence, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the recent reversal England affected in Sri Lanka, or the triumph of New Zealand against Pakistan. The ongoing series between India and Australia has also kept fans glued to the action, because it has been close.
How bad has the problem become?
We have heard that it is a big big issue. So much so that there have been proposals as well as some piloting measures of doing away with the toss. Give the visiting side the option of choosing between batting and fielding: this has been the call.
Let us look at the numbers to gauge how big the problem is.
We have performed a decade-wise analysis of how home advantage has had a say in Test matches.
We have considered three decades in particular: 1990s, 2000s and 2010s.
We have considered seven major teams: Australia, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka. The analysis shows all the matches these teams have played against each other.
This is because we need to consider sides that have remained major forces all through these three periods. There are bound to be ups and downs, but extreme cases do tend to result in misleading inferences. We have thus filtered out West Indies because they have fluctuated a lot in the last few years, and from being the strongest in the world in the early 1990s they have become as good as a minnow for the last decade or so. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have had some good moments, but have not really graduated to consistency and a degree of performance away from home that is useful for analysis. Ireland and Afghanistan are left out for reasons that are pretty obvious.
Another clarification: We have not performed the usual Win/Loss ratio analysis, which conveniently ignores draws. Draws are important in analysing Test matches and saving Test matches does have its value. Hence we have gone the old way of awarding 2 points to the winner in case of a result and 1 apiece to each team in case of a draw.
Thus if a side plays 10 Tests at home, wins 5 loses 2 and draws 3, they will have 13 points of a possible 20 or 65%. The opposition has 7 points from a possible 20, hence 35%.
The home advantage the home team have historically enjoyed in this 10-Test data-set will be 65:35.
Using this method, we find that in the 1970s and the 1980s (where we have taken every team into consideration), home advantage was way less pronounced.
Based on the results, the home teams enjoyed a 56:44 advantage in the 1970s, and it remained almost exactly the same in the 1980s. That is perhaps expected and acceptable. Home teams do play in familiar conditions and a bit of advantage can be bargained for.
In the 1990s, there was a slight shift (considering the 7 team cohort). The advantage became 58.41:41.59. Especially Australia (78:22) and India (71:29) became very difficult to beat at home.
Through the 2000s again the home-advantage remained similar. 58.36:41.64. Australia were unbeatable at home for most of the period, (79:21) but things were more balanced around the world. The Indians also enjoyed a healthy but less than an incredible 60-40 home advantage.
However, the 2010s have seen an incredible swing in favour of the home team. The overall figures are 65.18:34.82 in favour of the hosts.
And in some of the lands the advantage is too massive.
Australia have a 74:26 dominance, while India hold a mammoth 78:22 edge. Even England have quickly moved through the 50s and now enjoy a 68:32 hold over the situation, same as South Africa. (remember, we are not even considering matches played at home against opposition other than these seven rather strong cricketing nations)
|Test Matches in host countries 2010 onwards (*)||Overall|
(*) Only Tests between these listed countries have been considered.
Does doing away with the toss help?
Interestingly, the toss does not seem to affect the results in Australia, England and India. In India, in fact, the opposition winning the toss seems to load the results more heavily in favour of the hosts.
It is in South Africa, New Zealand, UAE (Pakistan) and Sri Lanka that the toss plays a rather significant role. So, to do away with the toss may not be a global solution at all.
|Host Country (*) 2010 onwards||Home advantage
(*) Only Tests between these listed countries have been considered.
In fact, if we consider only the overall data, doing away with the toss seems a reasonable option to restore balance. When visiting sides have won the toss, the home advantage has gone down to 58:42 … bordering on the 1990s and 2000s. However, it is not a panacea.
The data, on the other hand, does tell us that the results are worrying. The recent trend of reversals, New Zealand in UAE and England in Sri Lanka, may be significant due to some steps ICC has taken. Or they may be a sequence of freak outliers. But, in any case, they do provide a glimmer of hope.
However, doing away with the toss is not a blanket solution.
The administrators can think of neutral groundsmen. They can devise of other ways of restoring balance, such as allowing substitution after toss for the visiting side etc.
But as of now, the results are lopsided enough for Test cricket to lose its charm as a contest.