The magic of home advantageMonday, November 22, 2021
DURING the qualifying rounds of the 1998 World Cup, Jamaica's football team, The Reggae Boyz, went unbeaten at home. Jamaica's Independence Park, dubbed The Office, became a fortress which no invading force was able to breach. Traditionally, superior teams like Mexico, USA, and Costa Rica were not only unable to win at The Office, but were unable to score even a single goal.
Mexico beat them twice at The Azteca, on one occasion pummeling them 6-0. At home, however, their defence was impenetrable, their offence speedy and incisive. At home, The Reggae Boyz refused to be defeated.
Those of us who follow sports largely accept the validity of home advantage. Teams perform better when they play at home — that is undisputable. Football teams score more goals and concede fewer when they play at home. The same is true of other sports like basketball, netball, and hockey. Cricket teams make more runs and concede fewer at home, as do baseball teams. It has even been shown that Olympic athletes win more medals when the games are held in their home country.
Cricket probably differs from other sports in that the conditions in which it is played are more varied and have more of an impact than they do in most sports. The ball bounces more in Australia and South Africa, seams more in England and New Zealand, and turns more in the subcontinent. Naturally, players become adept at exploiting the conditions in which they were brought up. And so, there is little surprise — though this is perhaps an oversimplification — that India are traditionally known for their spinners (despite their recent pace-bowling bounty), Australia for their pacers, and England for their medium-paced seamers.
Nowadays, with players regularly visiting other countries to play Twenty20 franchise cricket on A tours or to play in first-class competitions, familiarity with the gamut of playing conditions is widespread. And so, if home conditions played a big role in home wins in years gone by its effects should be now reduced.
But teams are thriving at home more than ever. In fact, according to Subramaniam Rajesh in a Cricinfo article titled 'Bad tourists from 2015': “Over the last ten years, teams have lost more than twice as many matches as they have won when playing overseas, a record which is much worse than in earlier years.”
It has been long assumed that crowd support at home matches had much to do with the phenomenon of home advantage. Indeed, it has been established that crowd noise has an effect on the officiating of games because referees and umpires unconsciously favour the home team.
But the effect of crowd size and crowd noise are not as significant as we may think. Studies have shown, for example, that home advantage remains firmly intact for football games contested before totally empty stands. Additionally, for same-stadium derbies (matches between teams using the same stadium for home games) there is no discernable home advantage, even though the side hosting the encounter usually has significantly more support in the stands.
Therefore, if it's not the size of the crowds nor familiarity with home conditions, what accounts for home advantage? Why are teams more likely to win when playing at home?
It turns out that home advantage might be largely due to players striving harder — unconsciously mind you — to defend their home turf. Studies suggest that players see home encounters as more important than those away from home, and compete accordingly. They are more aggressive at home, more focused, and therefore more likely to win. Think of someone invading your home. Do you think you'd fight even harder to protect your space than you would otherwise?
Research done by Matthew Fuxjager while completing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin, and as reported by L Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers in their book, This Is Your Brain On Sports, indicate that territorial mice fight harder at home. Fuxjager measured heightened levels of testosterone in mice fighting in their own cages, and found that they were more likely to win than if they fought in other cages: “For the mice, a home fight is a more important fight. They want to protect their home turf. They want to protect their resources. They want to protect their mate and their offspring. They're more motivated, and there's a different physiological effect that comes with that.”
Sportsmen are not protecting mates or offspring, of course, but could there be something primal about their tendency to compete harder at home? Could it be that India's mostly stellar home record has more to do with their mindset while playing at home rather than any advantage gained by playing in subcontinent conditions that favour spin? Could seam and swing have little to do with England's enviable home record?
The team travelling to confront another is seen as an invading force that must be repelled. The Reggae Boyz seemed to run faster at The Office during the 1998 qualifiers and tackled harder. There were trespassers at the gates trying to deprive them of their first World Cup berth. They weren't having it and refused to lose, much like the Viet Cong refused to be defeated by the invading American forces during the Vietnam War. Even though the US forces were considered superior they were still no match for the motivated home warriors fighting to protect their own turf and the lives of their loved ones.
Teams fight harder at home because they're defending their territory from foreign aggressors. Home conditions and home crowds provide some benefits, but the real reason teams win more often when playing at home probably has more to do with testosterone than anything else.