Friday, October 19, 2007

What is this home advantage?

“Tigers at home and lambs abroad” “Indians do not travel well”… I am sure these are statements that we in India are familiar with and our neighbours from the subcontinent in Sri Lanka and Pakistan too would empathise with these statements as they have watched their own home team decimate the opposition at home and succumb meekly in England or Australia, done in by the bounce or by the swing and swerve that these countries presented to their teams when they travelled abroad. Yet what has happened over the last few weeks in the subcontinent has been extremely revealing of the changed dynamics in the game of cricket. Pakistan has just lost a home series to South Africa, England of all countries has beaten Sri Lanka on the pitches of Sri Lanka and Australia have beaten India in India in a one day contest which is still stretching interminably as there seem to be seven games in the series in all. Yet it is not all doom and gloom for the subcontinent as in April this year. It was Sri Lanka who was the losing finalist to Australia in the West Indies [not South Africa or even New Zealand] at the Cricket World cup and last month it was India and Pakistan that met in the 20-20 finals at the Wanderers, not Australia or South Africa as some of us expected.. Let us also not forget the Indian test team led by Rahul Dravid had beaten England in a test series at home after 21 long years. So what is happening? Does home advantage no longer exist? Are teams training better and preparing better for what were earlier alien conditions? Are locational advantages becoming neutralized?

WACA down the years

One of the most dramatic changes in the pitch that one has observed has been the WACA at Perth. Most foreign teams especially from the subcontinent used to dread going there. You could see batsman jumping around like cats on a hot tin roof on the bowler friendly pitch with the tennis ball bounce. Of course once in a while a batsman like Roy Fredericks would take advantage of the bounce and send the ball rocketing to all parts of the field with even greater force aided by the speed at which the ball came on to the bat. But all that has changed over the last few years. Remember Mathew Hayden’s(short) record-breaking 380 was on this now benign pitch and in fact one of the few drawn test matches that Australia have played in was the one against South Africa at this venue a couple of years ago. Of course England managed to lose here as well in their disastrous Ashes tour last year. India will be playing here early next year on the 16th of January 2008 and they must be hoping that the WACA is more like the recent past and not like the eighties and nineties. What about our Indian wickets? Sadly they seem to vary in quality, just a little bit like our Indian team. Last time around at Nagpur where Australia conquered the final frontier the curator presented Glenn McGrath with a green top and presented Harbhajan and co with a raging turner at Mumbai, sadly after the series had been decided in Australia’s favour.

Be prepared

I remember this slogan from my school scouting days and the success of modern teams is built around this preparedness. When Indian wickets tended to be complete dust bowls and raging turners, teams used to dread coming here. In fact some of the greatest Australian cricketers never toured this part of the world citing some excuse or the other and their autographies spoke about either how our hotels had rats running around or the lack of facilities in the country. But whoever toured here then just struggled on these pitches and our spinners ruled the roost. The new ball was happily thrown on the ground often deliberately and people like the Nawab of Pataudi opened the bowling. Even as the batsman took guard he would see Bishan Singh Bedi loosening up at third man! But by the late nineties people who came from abroad started to resist and on occasion actually dominate like Mathew Hayden did. Apparently the SCG practice pitches have replicated most conditions so the Indian dust bowls do not seem to be so alien to the Australians who conquered the final frontier in 2004. England too played much better here. But we are still struggling by and large in Australia and South Africa. Even the recent victory in England has been an exception. Earlier in the days when Indian cricket was not as obscenely rich as it is today, players would play in the Lancashire league and people like Venkat and Dilip Doshi to name just two, played in the English county circuit to get experience in different conditions. Today with all the money and the facilities that we can afford, the biggest task is to prepare for tours like the demanding Australian tour in December 2007 by replicating the bounce in practice pitches here before we tour. I wonder whether we do things like this. Can we ensure that more of our young cricketers train in academies in Australia and England? I think man for man we can compete with any team in the world but we struggle as a team, particularly abroad and more often than not it is because our organizers do not have the knowledge or the vision.

The way forward

Today the process of ranking teams is far more scientific than it has ever been. We have official world champions today unlike the early 2000s. This ranking will obviously happen based on our performances both at home and abroad. I think we need to religiously hold on to our home strengths and consciously prepare for overseas trips. Given the frenetic nature of the game today where most teams are given one warm up game before the tests [we have one game against Victoria before the Boxing Day test match]. Of course our greedy officials have ensured that there is just one week between the final test against Pakistan and the first tour game in Australia. So lets be prepared for the usual talk about how teams do not get time to prepare for overseas tours! We know this schedule and there are no surprises but the biggest surprise will be when we prepare for this tour and deliver abroad the way some of the foreign teams have delivered in the sub continent.
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

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