‘Come home, we’ll show you’

The South African team has the best ‘away’ record in the last decade.-GETTY IMAGES

Home advantage is a real thing, and cannot be wished away. Nor should it be, writes Suresh Menon.

In Chennai in 1988, leg spinner Narendra Hirwani claimed 16 wickets on an underprepared wicket as India drew a series against the West Indies. After the match, a fuming Viv Richards said, “Come home and we’ll show you.” That can be taken as the motto of cricket captains today, as increasingly teams suffer from ‘awayitis’, the inability to match home performances when they play away.

England, before the Ashes series, kept asking for seaming tracks, and when they got them, annihilated Australia. No one criticized England for making the demand. When Mahendra Singh Dhoni asked the curator at Eden Gardens to prepare a turning track, he was pilloried. There is nothing morally wrong about preparing tracks to suit your strengths; uniformity is the enemy of competitive cricket. If the tracks around the world were identical, we’d get cookie cutter cricketers. Variety and nuance would drop out of the game to be replaced by monotony and tedium.

Great batsmen and bowlers are great in all conditions. For a champion, said the former All England badminton winner Erland Kops, there is no home ground. Likewise with champion teams.

Viv Richards said that the West Indies would get even when India toured the Caribbean after capitulating to Narendra Hirwani in the Chepauk Test of 1988.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Yet, home advantage is a real thing, and cannot be wished away. Nor should it be. Top teams — in theory — are those which perform whatever the conditions. Some of the sheen of India’s rise to No. 1 in the Test rankings was taken away by the fact that the team did not have series victories in Sri Lanka or South Africa. The uncharitable even suggested that India cleverly followed the path of least resistance to preserve their record.

The West Indies teams of the 1970s and 80s were outstanding; only the Australians of the next generation matched them in virtually removing the match conditions from the equation. These teams were as powerful away as they were at home.

In recent years, ‘awayitis’ has afflicted all teams barring one. Since January 2010, South Africa alone have won more matches than they have lost outside the comfort of home. In the last decade, South Africa and Australia have the best away records.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni was once pilloried when he asked for a turning tract at the Eden Gardens.-

India were thrashed in England and lost to Australia 0-4 in 2011. When the latter visited India soon after, Harbhajan Singh predicted the home side would win all the Tests. And that’s what happened. Writing in the Wisden India Almanack, the Australian Peter Lalor said, “(Australia) were ambushed by a series of wickets that began to deteriorate the moment the coin landed at the toss.”

India have given the impression of a team that is not particularly fussed about its record abroad, smug in the knowledge that a home series win is just round the corner, and all failings abroad will be quickly forgiven and forgotten.

For traditional rivals England and Australia, winning the Ashes series at home was seldom consolation for a thrashing abroad. England lost the last series in Australia 0-5, and no one gave them a chance before the current series began. Australia’s win was taken for granted. Only the margin needed to be decided.

Yet, after four Tests of a series that has been a miserable advertisement for Test cricket, with Tests ending in three days, England have won with a match to go. Did Australia’s lone win merely confirm the suspicion that they are flat-track bullies? How much did skipper Michael Clarke’s poor form add to Australia’s woes? Was it too much to expect Mitchell Johnson to retain the fire and accuracy over so many series played close together? Was it merely the final throes of an ageing team?

Many factors affected Australia’s performance, but quite the most important was the technical inadequacy of the leading batsmen. No one seemed to know where his off stump was, and against bowlers who seamed and swung, that was suicidal.

Perhaps there was a psychological reason too, which added to the technical. And this is a hangover of T20. Batsmen are expected to dominate, to create new shots, to show the bowler very early who is boss. This works well in the shorter formats where early ascendancy is important. But Test cricket is a game of patience and cunning, of long periods where no runs are made but the bowling attack is blunted, of seeing a difficult bowler or period through before taking runs off the lesser ones or the tiring bowlers. There is a rhythm you must respect, a need for ignoring calls (from the crowd) for quick scoring and risk-taking.

When Australia were doing well, they had one or two crusty, ‘ugly’ batsmen who could grind the bowling to a standstill, make a fifty over four hours and cause the bowler to try too hard and thus slip up. Men like Allan Border and Steve Waugh.

Well as James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Steve Finn, Ben Stokes bowled, they were allowed to do so by a batting outfit whose technical deficiencies were matched only by their ill-timed attempts to dominate. Winning ugly (to use a phrase favoured by the tennis coach Brad Gilbert), is an important aspect of sport.

Predictably, the once-worshipped ‘Australian’ system is now being called into question. Is it really the finest domestic structure in existence? What are the academies doing? Has the conveyor belt slowed down or come to a standstill? Shouldn’t more Australians play county cricket?

All this is very amusing. These were the same questions asked when India lost abroad miserably in the last four years. When in doubt, reach for the cliché.

On the morning of the final day, after the Ashes had been won and lost, I had a telephone call from Bishan Bedi. He had found Australia’s capitulation very upsetting. “This is a team that taught others how to play tough cricket,” he said, “And now look how soft they have become.” Watching Australia or the West Indies being thrashed in cricket is like watching Brazil being hammered in soccer. There is a shift in the cosmic correctness.

Ricky Ponting has spoken about half the team having played their last Test. Clarke has already said he is retiring at the end of the final Test at the Oval. Steve Smith, struggling himself, except for the double at Lord’s, will now be in charge of rebuilding.

For the moment, all Australia can tell England is “Come home, we’ll show you.” It is at once cricket’s threat and its consolation.