How much home ground advantage is too much?
Test cricket is in an interesting place.
In many ways, it is as competitive as it has ever been. In the past two years, four separate teams have held the number one ranking; South Africa, India, Australia and Pakistan. Pakistan were atop the table just 15 months ago - they are now seventh. India have held the esteemed position for over a year, but often by a minor margin. There is no doubt that there is a great deal of competitiveness among the top Test playing nations, and has been for some time now.
But does that mean all is well? Competitiveness and equality is, for most sports, a desirable outcome. It leads to greater interest, more entertaining matches, and a generally better overall product. Test cricket appears to be a relatively competitive arena at the moment, but in reality, things could be better. The overall results may look close, with any of the top seven teams able to beat any other on their day, but a closer analysis reveals there is one major advantage; playing at home.
The concept of a home ground advantage is ubiquitous across sports, and cricket is no different. The benefit, though, is more evident in our sport due to the nature of the fixtures. Where in national leagues teams roughly alternate between home and away games, cricket is an international sport, and as such it is required that entire series’ are played in the same team’s home country.
This is not a problem, and it is perfectly logical that the home team would gain an advantage, but in recent years this advantage has been far too significant. Let’s take a look at the evidence.
The best Test cricket team in the world, right? Overall they probably are, but let’s take a look at their recent results at home compared to away. At home in the past five years, they have an unbelievable record, winning 20 games, drawing five, and losing just one. In the same period, they have play 25 games away from home, winning just eight, drawing eight, and losing 11.
It’s also worth noting that excluding games in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, in which conditions bear some similarity, they are 5-1-1; leaving them with a record of just three wins, seven draws and ten losses outside of this region. Clearly a terrific cricket team - at least at home. Away from conditions to which they are accustomed, they are mediocre. But they are not alone.
For a year and a half between mid-2014 and the start of 2016, this was the top ranked Test team in the world. They are no longer there, but they haven’t ventured far, sitting in second position behind India. For years this has been a team with a fantastic pace bowling lineup, some terrific batsmen, and a few holes. Again, though, the overwhelming theme surrounding their results has been related to location.
In South Africa in the past five years, they have won 19 out of 27 matches - of the other eight, they have drawn four and lost four. These are clearly relatively dominant numbers. Compared to their opponents, South Africa have been solid away from home, but still they have split their 18 games just 6-5-7. In other words, in the past five years they have won over 70% of games at home, and have just a 33% win rate on the road.
Australia are currently ranked third in the ICC Test rankings. They are a long way from the dominant force they were in the 2000’s, but still a solid cricket side - particularly at home. In the past five years at home, they have played 32 games. Of these, they have won 23, drawn seven, and lost just two. Again, incredible numbers, and an indication of just how difficult to beat this side is at home. This is despite the fact that the team has been going through numerous changes throughout this period of time, and has failed to settle on a consistent starting lineup - something which is revealed much more in their record away from home.
In this same period of time, they have played 30 games outside of Australia. They have split these 10-3-17. For five years, this team has been almost impossible to beat at home, and yet lost more than half of their games outside of the country.
The Kiwis have done a great job of improving their cricket program in the country, and it has paid dividends as they have worked their way up to fourth place in the Test rankings. Unsurprisingly, this has been largely on the back of impressive home performances. In the past five years they have won 13, drawn seven and lost just three games at home. Unsurprisingly, this record swings around away from home, where they are 6-5-14 in this time.
England are languishing in what is a very low fifth place in the world rankings by their standard, but they, like all teams, can lay claim to being dominant at home and poor on the road. In 35 matches across the past five years in England, they have won 21, drawn five, and lost nine. On the road you can pretty much flip this record on its head; they are 6-9-18 in 33 games.
The overall picture
There are seven teams in Test cricket who are significantly ahead of the rest; the five mentioned above, plus Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Without going into detail about the latter two, the trend is much the same. So here is where we stand. Below are the home and away records of the dominant seven teams in Test cricket over the past five years.
Home: 118-33-35, win rate of 63.5%
Away: 49-37-96, win rate of 26.9%
A home ground advantage is one thing, but this is a little ridiculous. Only rarely do teams win on the road, and if they do it’s generally for one of two reasons; either they’re a far, far better team than their opponent, or they aren’t playing far from home. India can’t win a game away from the subcontinent, Australia and England trade Ashes result depending on who is playing at home, while the Kiwis and South Africa more than halve their win rate outside of their own country.
Some of this is inevitable. Teams are used to conditions in their own country, don’t have to travel, and have the crowd behind them. This happens in every sport, and isn’t an issue.
What is an issue is when teams get to dictate the kind of pitch they play on. Ten years ago, openly admitting to asking a curator for certain conditions would almost be viewed as akin to match fixing; today, captains discuss it with the media as though it is their right (see Faf Du Plessis discussing the South Africa vs India series, or this Cricinfo piece about the Indian team management). Why this has changed is anyone's guess, and it certainly isn't to the benefit of cricket.
Aside from this, the best teams simply need to get better at playing in conditions to which they are not accustomed. Of course it makes sense that teams play better in their home conditions; it’s what they’ve grown up with, what they practice on, and what they play most on. But in world cricket at the moment there seems to be a willingness to be a dominant team at home and a mediocre team on the road, which doesn’t make for great cricket.
Two things need to happen. Firstly, the pitch needs to be prepared completely independently of the home teams wishes. This doesn’t mean Indian pitches will become fast and bouncy, or that Australian wickets will become slow, cracking turners, as the conditions aren’t conducive to that. But allowing a team which already has an advantage to further that does not create good cricket. Secondly, teams need to focus more on practicing in conditions to which they aren’t accustomed - simple, and there's no doubt they do implement this kind of practice, but clearly there needs to be a greater focus on it.
As it is, Test cricket has five teams which are realistically bunched relatively tightly at the top of the world rankings, and another two who aren’t far behind. This is great for cricket, but what is not is a series being a foregone conclusion due almost solely due to the location in which it is played. It is, at least, good news for punters, who can confidently say one thing; never bet against the home team!