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For champion teams, every ground is ‘home’

In cricket, an away win is seen as special because it involves overcoming unfamiliar conditions, often hostile crowds, and neutralising the special knowledge of the environment where the opponents have played most of their lives. Things might be changing for India, though.

Two India captains have both said, in effect, that a win is a win is a win. It does not matter where you win, the important thing is to do so, said Virat Kohli as his team began the run to the No. 1 position. Anil Kumble said something similar. But as the World Test championship got underway, Kohli suggested that teams winning abroad should earn more points.

For a champion there is no home ground, said the seven-time All-England badminton champion Erland Kops. Likewise with champion teams. One of the criticisms levelled against the Indian team when they first climbed to the No. 1 spot in the rankings under Mahendra Singh Dhoni was that they had got there without series wins in Australia, South Africa or Sri Lanka.

Any time, anywhere

The argument was that India had chosen their opponents and home venues judiciously to earn the points. It may have been unfair, but the two best teams of the last four decades or so — the West Indies and Australia — had shown they could win any time anywhere. This was an important element in their anointment as the best team of their time.

Just how much of a difference does playing at home make? Statistical research into soccer, ice hockey, basketball and other sports at the club and international levels concluded that “home advantage” gives a team a more than even chance of winning.

That puts England’s 3-1 series win over South Africa this week in perspective. Apart from bringing to the fore the question of home and away matches and what they mean over a period of time, it also throws light on the decline of the game in the land of Graeme Smith, Allan Donald, Jonty Rhodes and Dale Steyn, to name only a few stalwarts after their readmission into international cricket.

When a strong team falters thus, we console ourselves by saying that such things are cyclical, and everything will get back to ‘normal’ soon enough. Anyway, that’s for another time, as we look at India’s strong away showing in recent years.

India take on New Zealand in a two-Test series next month on their current tour (the spread of matches: 5 T20I, 3 ODI and 2 Tests probably tells us which way the game is headed), and the question is: will they extend their successful run? In the last six years, India have won and lost an equal number of Tests abroad, 14.

Every other team has lost more than they have won abroad, which fits in with theory but is at odds against current practices.

For one, modern travel is not quite as daunting as when the theories were first formulated. There is something to be said about sleeping at home in your own bed, of course. But players have made the adjustments to virtually walk into a game after landing in a faraway country across many time zones. Despite complaining of lack of sleep, India beat New Zealand in the first two T20 Internationals, for example.

Tours are more frequent, which means that players are more familiar with conditions now than they were in the past. Eden Park, where the first two matches were played in New Zealand, is a ground that takes some getting used to.

Used essentially for rugby, it requires visitors, both batsmen and bowlers, to work out the geometry of the angles and straight lines — something that comes naturally to the local players. Champion teams adapt quickly, as India did, figuring out which was the shortest boundary and where to place the swiftest fielders.

Familiarity breeds confidence; but sometimes, as India showed, the reverse could also be true.

Crowd support

The third strike against visiting teams, the local crowds, hold no terrors for India. And they haven’t ever since the diaspora grew in numbers. Dhoni had said sometime ago that wherever India played, it felt like home because of the substantial support they received at the grounds. Often Indian supporters outnumber local fans. This, of course, is a situation unique to India. Indian food is always available; Indian music, Indian films and Indian parties too.

Not so long ago, India habitually lost the first Test of a series and then struggled to play catch-up.

This was put down to insufficient time for acclimatisation. By winning the first Test on their last tour of Australia (where they won a series for the first time), India might have erased memories of the tours of England and South Africa previously where they had lost the first Test.

India have won 47 percent of matches played in India and only 2% in New Zealand. An away win, in this case, is worth more than two home wins.

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