When a great side like the current Indian one loses away, there is always a tendency for people to say 'well they are not that great after all' but winning away in Test cricket is remarkably difficult, and any time a team does it, it should be celebrated as a genuine achievement.
Home advantage is a known phenomenon in most sports. It is a popular topic in both statistics and psychology, trying to understand what causes it, and how big it is.
Various studies have looked at the causes and impacts of it in various sports, with varying degrees of success. Some sports see an advantage in officiating — one study showed that in the NBA teams get 15 percent more borderline calls go to the home team than the away team. Other advantages can be from travel, crowd support and familiarity with the conditions.
Different sports see different levels of home advantage. Australians have won surfing events in Australia twice as frequently as they have won them in Hawaii. English football teams are 40 percent more likely to win home matches than away matches. There was over 100 years of competition in the America's Cup yacht races without the home team losing one regatta. Major League Baseball teams win about 8 percent more often at home than on the road. International rugby sides win about 15 percent more often at home than away.
But, with the possible exception of sailing, the sport with the greatest difference between home and away performances is cricket. In the past 10 years, the home teams have won just under twice as many Tests as they have lost (212 wins and 111 losses out of 399 matches) Home ground advantage is massive in cricket.
The significance of that advantage is increasing too. The home team's advantage over the away team has roughly doubled in the past 25 years. Away wins are becoming rarer. So far in the World Test Championship there have only been two sides win a series away from home out of ten completed series. The next series to finish (Pakistan hosting Bangladesh, is also not going to result in an away team win, as Pakistan are ahead with one match to play). On average, so far, the home team has won 84 points per series, while the away team has won 33 points per series. Winning away is difficult.
There are a few reasons for this. Cricket is more reliant on the local conditions than almost any sport. Because the ball is bowled into the pitch, the soil and grass both have an impact on how the ball flies. Likewise the atmospheric conditions such as heat, humidity, UV radiation, cloud cover, wind speed, direction and consistency all have an impact. The pace and smoothness of the outfield is also a factor. To go with that, the grounds are not all the same size and shape, and the different light that is available in different places also can make a difference.
There are some theories about how teams can prepare for a tour better. Traditionally teams played a lot of warm up matches to get ready for Tests. This initially came about due to the difficulty of travel. If a team was going to go on a boat from (for example) Australia to England, the cost of the travel needed to be covered somehow. To do that, a tour was organised, where they played a number of matches, culminating in the Test matches. The New Zealand teams that toured England in 1937 and 1949 both played 32 first class matches on their tour. To put that in context, Kyle Jamieson made his first class debut 6 years ago, and has only played 27 first class matches, Prithvi Shaw has been playing since 2017 and has only played 22 first class matches.
The efficacy of warm up matches, however, has been increasingly questioned. There is no positive relationship between the number of warm up matches a team has and their success in the first Test. There is absolutely no evidence to back up the theory that warm up matches help Test performances away from home. Part of this is due to an unwillingness of home boards to provide similar pitches to the visiting team to what they will experience in the Test matches. Teams touring Australia have found pitches where the ball struggles to get above knee high, before them playing a Test on the 'Gabba, where the keeper often has to jump to take regulation deliveries. Similarly teams touring India have found green pitches for the warm up matches, before finding a very different hue in their first Test. There is no board who have been innocent of that sort of shenanigans (with the possible exception of Ireland, who haven't hosted many warm up matches).
Virat Kohli has stated a preference for extended training sessions before tours, and this seems to be a better model, but it is still not a perfect option. Training can never replicate match conditions.
Another theory is that young players should play at home more, then once they are experienced they can start to play more away. The idea being that older players are more likely to be able to adapt their games for the different conditions. However, older players actually have a slightly larger difference between their averages at home and away than younger players. It seems that age does not diminish the difference.
Another theory is that having players playing as overseas professionals in local competitions helps them perform in that country. The idea being that having played in those conditions makes them more able to play well there at Test level. There is some merit to this theoretically. New Zealand had a team in the Australian domestic competition during the 1970s and generally performed well in Australia in the 1980s. The players with the best away averages in England mostly played county cricket as overseas professionals. The 2009 Indian team that won in New Zealand had a few players who had played domestic cricket in New Zealand.
However, when individual players are looked at, their performances in Tests often led to them playing as overseas professionals, rather than the other way round. They were generally great players, and it is hard to see any difference between their performances in the countries where they had played domestic cricket and the ones where they had not.
Ultimately playing overseas is difficult, and even the greatest sides have found things much harder away from home than in more familiar surroundings. When a great side like the current Indian one loses away, there is always a tendency for people to say "well they are not that great after all" but winning away is remarkably difficult, and any time a team does it, it should be celebrated as a genuine achievement.
The greater the home advantage, the greater the satisfaction from every away victory. And as winning away is becoming more and more difficult, the satisfaction of doing it will also become greater.
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