With India leading the limited-overs series against South Africa, the media’s criticism of India’s performance in the Test series has softened.
Distance provides clarity to thoughts and postulates. South Africa won the Test series, but India had late momentum. It was not a rout.
The Indian team was competitive right up to the fifth day of the first test, and the fourth day of the second. It did not lose by an innings. Bowlers took twenty wickets in all the three games. Statistically, the team improved over previous tours.
How many visiting teams have done well on tour? Virat Kohli threw a counter-question when asked why India was not doing well: how many Test matches had South Africa won in India?
South Africa’s record against India in India (5 wins, 8 losses, 3 draws) is better than India’s in South Africa (3 wins, 10 losses, 7 draws). But India has been the winner at home. South Africa’s home record against India is dominating.
Is an away loss new? The answer is a clear no. All teams suffer away, to varying degrees. The BBC’s Marc Higginson reports that, historically, teams have won only between 20 and 30 per cent of away games.
Australia, South Africa and England have won series in India, but faced recent routs. Since 2016, outside the sub-continent, India has only one series victory in the West Indies. It has never won a series in Australia or South Africa.
England has lost 9 of the last 10 test matches in Australia. It has won only one series in Australia since 1986- 1987.
Kohli’s counter-question puts focus on a cricketing problem — teams can’t seem to win away. Why?
Pitch conditions favour home teams. Indians struggle against the pace, bounce and swing of pitches in Australia, South Africa and England. Australia, England and South Africa find India’s spinner-friendly pitches difficult to bat on.
Climatic conditions and the balls used are factors. The English Duke balls favour bowlers more than the Australian Kookaburra balls.
The Wanderers pitch was tailor-made for South Africa’s fast bowlers, though the game was won by the adapting Indians. Ian Chappell said of the pitch on Cricinfo: "The only good that might come out of such an occurrence is if it highlights the anomalies that can arise when pitches are specifically requested and the practice is banned. I live in hope"
Home teams are no longer hospitable to visitors. With shorter tours and weak opposition in few available practice games, visitors’ preparation suffers. In South Africa, the Indians declined playing a tour game against weak opposition in favour of net practice.
BBC’s cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew says: "We have to draw a line under this tit-for-tat, zero-quality preparation that touring teams are given these days, which is totally against the interests of Test cricket.”
Test cricket has become predictable: win at home, lose away. Little wonder the fans are losing interest.
With surprise out of the equation, the Centurion ground was virtually empty at the second South Africa-India Test match. Only in England and Australia do we see spectators in sizeable numbers at Test grounds.
Hockey has dealt with the home-away problem by introducing uniform artificial pitches, which does not provide meaningful home advantage. It is another matter that artificial surfaces favour Europeans.
Tennis has three surfaces — grass, clay and hard court. Claims to greatness rest on winning Grand Slams on all three surfaces. With teams failing to win away, there is no method of assessing cricketing greatness on all surfaces.
In the 1980s, the West Indies can claim greatness. Their fearsome fast bowlers hounded out opposing batsmen, home or away, denting morale and testing technique. Australia can claim similar greatness the decade after.
If cricket has become predictable, who needs match-fixing? Games would seem to be already fixed by the way pitches are prepared.
If a high percentage of away defeats is as old as Test cricket, lack of action to reverse the historical trend causes surprise. Is there need for a regulatory authority?
Defeats by visitors is not the only reason Test cricket is losing viewership. Limited overs cricket has undermined Test cricket.
Despite teams not winning enough away, before the advent of limited-overs cricket and T20, Test cricket held its own because it was the only competitive form of cricket at the highest level.
But today, lost among consumers of instant success, Test cricket faces relegation by pretenders.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador and the vice president of Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society.