Talking Sport: Harsha Bhogle
As world crickets newest laboratory,the IPL,keeps throwing up observations it is up to those who play and who administer,and occasionally to those who watch,to come up with rational explanations. Bowlers,for example,are making a determined comeback largely because this years IPL has seen,by some distance,the best pitches so far. Or Indian fielders in their early twenties are looking significantly better than those in their late twenties which is an indicator of the necessary importance being allotted to it in formative years. But there is one trend that has me searching for the right reason and might be worth a debate.
As I write this,44 games have been played and 32 of those have been won by the home side (as opposed to 32 home wins in all of IPL 2012). I find that staggering for many reasons. Traditionally,cricket and tennis,because they are surface-centric games have allowed for home advantage and in five day,occasionally in one-day,cricket it is a huge factor. But in tournaments like the IPL,it shouldnt be that way because the conditions dont change much over 40 overs (in any case,the differences across cities arent as pronounced as say,Kanpur is from Perth) but even more so because each team has to have seven domestic players. And these seven arent even rigorously segregated based on where players learnt their cricket. So the Sunrisers Hyderabad,who have done brilliantly at home have Shikhar Dhawan,Karan Sharma,Amit Mishra and Ishant Sharma from around Delhi while the Mumbai Indians who they beat easily in Hyderabad,have Pragyan Ojha and Ambati Rayudu who learnt their cricket in Hyderabad,as key players.
Travel could be a factor,when teams play away they often have a rigorous play,pack and move kind of schedule. Occasionally,like one fears with the Kolkata Knight Riders,they may have constructed a team for one set of conditions (low,slow in Kolkata) and find they dont have the right people on a hard,bouncy surface. But it still isnt enough to show a 73% home-win situation. In fact that Sunrisers Hyderabad vs Mumbai Indians game was an interesting one to look at. If that surface was indeed made for slow bowlers,Pragyan Ojha and Harbhajan Singh should have outbowled the opposition,Dinesh Karthik,Rohit Sharma and Ambati Rayudu should have outbatted them. It didnt happen!
I wonder if there are parallels to be drawn from football where too,home sides like to create a fortress. The surface isnt a factor there,the weather might be but that could be more significant if you are playing in the Russian winter for example,or playing at high altitude could be if you are playing in Bolivia or Mexico. And in any case if Chelsea are a few tube stations away from playing at Arsenal the conditions shouldnt be a factor at all. The fans make the difference in football dont they,creating a climate of hostility but even more so,scientists are talking of enhanced testosterone levels when playing at home (apparently the postures of winning which come from confidence boost testosterone!). Also,it seems winning at home boosts the androgen receptors in the motivation parts of the brain even more than winning away (BBC News Magazine: June 19,2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18496396).
Maybe,just maybe,the IPL in its sixth year is evolving as a league,creating strong city loyalties (certainly Virat Kohli will have a point of view there!) and playing on the minds of teams playing away. It is also likely therefore that we may have to look at football and basketball rather than at traditional cricket to explain certain phenomena in T20 leagues. Football,for example,is telling us that the quality of owner management (brought to the fore by the Blackburn Rovers episode and maybe,in another context,by what happened with Leeds United) could be as big a factor as the innate ability of the players themselves. And therefore,going ahead,this is something that IPL franchises,and specifically their owners,will have to be careful about. Certainly if player skill was the only determining factor,it cannot explain why the Pune Warriors have floundered while the Sunrisers Hyderabad or the Rajasthan Royals have,in a relative sense,flourished.
Maybe a clearer picture will emerge by the end of May and in the next few years the hypothesis that franchise driven T20 cricket will be closer in its DNA to football and basketball than to traditional cricket will be tested further. But these are exciting times and that is why I often refer to the IPL as a laboratory. But like with those that work in labs we too must look at these observations with an open mind. Just as a closed mind would have denied us much of the knowledge that has come our way from science,so too will the obsession with the past prevent us from enjoying the future.