Home 'advantage' is robbing much of Test cricket's sheen; the ICC must step in — and quickly

Cricket, with all its glorious uncertainties, is a fascinating game. Devoid of its unpredictability though, the game loses its charm.

It is here that the International Cricket Council (ICC), in all its wisdom, may have to step in to save the five-day game from extinction. Crowds thronging to a few Test centres may be a mirage, for it is the predictability factor that may soon force spectators to switch to the shorter — and more exciting — versions of the game.

In recent times, in the traditional form of the game, we have seen almost every cricket playing nation derive undue benefit from what is known as ‘home conditions’. It is here that a large chunk of the game’s uncertainty has been lost.

'Home advantage', in the original sense of the term, meant climatic conditions, crowd support and to an extent, the nature of the wickets. In the past, administrators, players, the media and fans had prior knowledge of the nature of wickets an itinerant team would encounter say in England or in Australia or in India.

Test matches played on a variety of surfaces make them interesting. But when home sides make it difficult for visiting sides to win, on the basis of wickets that they prepare, cricket is no longer fun. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Test matches played on a variety of surfaces make them interesting. But when home sides make it difficult for visiting sides to win, on the basis of wickets that they prepare, cricket is no longer fun. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Therefore, when India toured England for a Test series, the players were mentally prepared for its climatic vagaries and its seaming wickets. They need not have worried about an extra few millimetres of grass being left on the tracks especially to exploit India’s weakness against the moving ball.

During the last half a decade or so, the term ‘home advantage’ has been interpreted as providing the home team with a ‘handicap’ or a 60-40 advantage even before the Test series commences. And this is blatant. It’s like giving Arsenal a 1-0 advantage against Chelsea, at the Emirates stadium, even before the kick-off.

Look at India’s Test record at home in the last six home series. On wickets that usually turn square on day one, Sri Lanka, Australia, Bangladesh, England, New Zealand and South Africa have all lost here, giving the home team a 14-1 Test record.

South Africa, on the other hand, has a 10-2 Test record in the last seven home series, having lost only to England in 2015-16. Australia, despite being in the process of rebuilding its side during the last couple of years, has an excellent home record of 15-2, losing only to South Africa in 2016-17.

That touring teams have a distinct disadvantage, playing in alien conditions and in front of ‘unfriendly’ crowds, is common knowledge. However, when local conditions are ‘manufactured’ to provide undue advantages to home teams, Test cricket becomes a matter of fait accompli. It is then a cat-and-mouse show where the tourists play for ‘pride’, and what pundits call ‘displaying character’, rather than to win.

In order to know how ‘manufactured’ wickets help home bowlers, let’s take a look at Ravichandran Ashwin’s record in India and abroad. (Please note that this is not to demean this outstanding cricketer). He has played 56 Tests till date, 36 at home and 20 on foreign soil. Claiming 200 of his 306 wickets in India, he has a per-Test record of 6.06 wickets at home and 4.3 wickets in away Tests — a distinct drop.

Ashwin also has a bowling average of 23.04 and a strike rate of 50.08 in home Tests as compared to 31.29 and 59.16 respectively abroad.

A study of Vernon Pilander, the bowler who won the Cape Town match almost single-handedly for South Africa recently, will reveal the same sort of dissimilarities between home and away matches. He has 182 Test scalps, picking 107 of them at home. In home matches, his average is 18.00 and his strike rate is 39.03. In away matches, his average is 26.93 and his strike rate is 60.76.

In his column a few years ago, Geoffrey Boycott wrote of how the covering of wickets in County matches had affected English cricket. With the ball no longer ‘biting’ and turning, as used to happen on uncovered wickets, England had produced very few quality spinners in the last couple of decades. This in turn, according to the great Yorkshireman, had led to English batsmen being weak against quality spin.

“Batsmen in England no longer step out to spinners, preferring to play them from the crease,” he opined. This explains why England has performed dismally in the sub-continent and in Australia in recent times.

India, till a few months ago, based on ‘home’ performances, prided itself on the best batting line up in the world. One disastrous Test at Newlands, in Cape Town, on a bouncy track and its famed batting order is now at sixes and sevens.

It was only a fortnight ago that most Indian experts had said that this team had what it takes to win series abroad. Ravi Shastri, the team’s coach too had waxed eloquent on how the present lot would play positive cricket and aim for a win in South Africa. This, despite the history of Indian batsmen having struggled against bounce and lateral movement!

Could the Indians have prepared themselves better for the South African tour with a camp at Dharamshala instead of wasting time on a series against the beleaguered Sri Lankans? Could the BCCI have ordered each of the Test-playing centres to develop hard, bouncy tracks for practise sessions, keeping in mind India’s away programme during 2017-18?

In today’s day and age, with technology at its beck and call, one can’t believe that India can’t develop quick, bouncy tracks. I have worked on a few tracks in Mumbai, made from yellow mud — known as bulli in South Africa — and the results have been outstanding. It only takes laying a foundation — if the water-table is low — that maintains a high level of moisture underneath so that the surface doesn’t crack easily.

A decade and a half ago, if I recall correctly, BCCI had desired that all state level and international matches be played on ‘true’ surfaces, with a bit of greenery visible. During that time, one friend who had prepared the Wankhede Stadium track for a Test match invited me to see his creation. He was visibly proud of the billiard table look on the track.

A day before the Test match commenced, however, the then India skipper walked in, had one look at the track and went into convulsions. The grass was then shorn off and a flat track provided for the Test match. That’s how BCCI’s long term plans work! Is it surprising then that Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and Philander make Indian batsmen do the ‘bhangra’ on bouncy tracks?

It will be a miracle if India emerges unscathed in the rest of the series. The South Africans have already promised bouncier tracks at Centurion and at Johannesburg. And why shouldn’t they when India gave them ‘akhadas’ when they were here in 2015-16?

The ICC therefore needs to step in and lay down the rules. Besides initiating the home-and-away Test Championship at the earliest, parameters have to be set for preparation of Test wickets. There should neither be ‘akhadas’ nor pitches with tennis ball bounce offered for Test matches; no ‘hisaab’ and no ‘badla’ too!

Variety is the spice of life. Test matches played on a variety of surfaces make them interesting. But when home sides make it difficult for visiting sides to win, on the basis of wickets that they prepare, cricket is no longer fun.

Cricketing skills, rather than nature of wickets, should decide on who the best team in the world of cricket is. Hope BCCI and ICC are listening!

The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. A former fast bowler, he is an ex-coach and administrator, and is now a mental toughness trainer.

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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2018 14:51:03 IST

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