Ringside view: Why home advantage is no more a big factor in cricket

December 09, 2018 4:57 AM

A common factor in the recent successes abroad is captaincy and leadership from the front

New Zealand’s players celebrate with the trophy after they beat Pakistan in the Test series in Abu Dhabi, UAE (PTI)

By Tushar Bhaduri

The wheels have begun to turn, and it’s been long overdue. Conditions have been supreme in Test cricket for such a long time that an Asian side winning overseas, and a non-Asian side winning here, was a long shot, despite the relative strengths of the two teams.

South Africa was the only team that travelled well for a decade (2006-2016), not losing a Test series on the road during that time, but they have lost in India and Sri Lanka in recent years. The term ‘poor tourists’ applied to every team out there. But England and New Zealand have shown that Asia and the slow, low, spin-friendly conditions prevalent here are not such a great mystery, after all.

Joe Root took a squad to Sri Lanka, most of whom were making their first appearance at the senior level in the island nation, but came back with a 3-0 whitewash. On Friday, New Zealand upset the odds and the record books by beating Pakistan in their ‘home away from home’ in the United Arab Emirates. It is significant that both the visiting teams were underdogs going into these series, having come up short on those shores on numerous previous occasions. For England, it was the first victory in Sri Lanka since 2001, while New Zealand won an away series against Pakistan after 49 years.

These are the only instances in 2018 of overseas teams coming to Asia and returning triumphant. And in some way, it would give India heart as they attempt to win their first Test series in Australia.

If there is a common factor in these away successes, it is captaincy and leadership from the front. Joe Root and Kane Williamson are still young men and in charge of flawed sides with iffy batting line-ups.

But they kept their teams in games with astute captaincy, and often personal example, and grabbed the opportunities when they arrived. They also inspired other batsmen to follow in their footsteps.

The second innings hundred by Williamson in the series decider in Abu Dhabi was a masterclass in concentration, technical proficiency and physical endurance. He also guided Henry Nicholls in a double century stand as they forced Pakistan to go on the defensive, before imploding on the final day. It was also the making of Nicholls in many ways, the left-hander scoring his third Test century, but his first outside New Zealand.

England also found new heroes such as wicketkeeper Ben Foakes and opener Keaton Jennings in Sri Lanka, and when there was the prospect of sealing the series, Root himself put the match beyond the hosts with a sublime ton in the second innings at Pallekele.

A key factor in the recent success of tourists to Asia is the relatively weak batting of Sri Lanka and Pakistan, especially against spin. The likes of Moeen Ali, Jack Leach, Adil Rashid, Aizaj Patel and William Sommerville are hardly household names, but the inept batting of the hosts turned them
into matchwinners.

As things turned out, the spinners had to put the ball in the right areas for a little while, apply pressure and curb the big shot for the batsmen to do something silly.

The ability of most contemporary batsmen to grind a long innings against tight bowling is not what it was in previous eras, even in familiar conditions. While earlier teams visiting Sri Lanka or the UAE had to contend with the class of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have no batsmen of remotely that calibre. Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Root, Williamson and the currently-suspended Steve Smith are the only contemporary batsmen who can be relied upon to rise above the conditions and score a match-turning century in testing conditions, and the two Indians will have to follow recent examples if they are to taste success Down Under.

Indian players and the team management like to believe that the current outfit is the best equipped to win a Test series in Australia, but a large portion of the prevailing confidence can be attributed to the prevailing turmoil and uncertainty in Aussie cricket.

The unavailability of their two best batsmen has exposed the shortage of class. The best among the rest seem to struggle against both pace and spin, and for once India has most bases covered, at least in the bowling department.

The recent triumphs of England and New Zealand have shown that if a touring side has all-round superiority against the hosts and is led well, alien conditions can be overcome. Most of the Indian batsmen have played more Tests in Australia than the likes of Marcus Harris, Aaron Finch and Travis Head — all of whom where playing their first on home turf.

This obviously takes a lot of home advantage out of the equation.

As with most things in life, cricket operates in cycles. While conditions were the biggest factor going into a series till recently, may be now the better team will adjust and rise above the conditions. After all, that’s what good sides do.

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