With cricket's latest 'Ashes' series having been decided more than a fortnight ago, much of the remaining interest in the final Test, just underway, centres purely on whether Australia can complete a 5-0 Ashes whitewash for only the third time in history (following 1920/21 and 2006/07). Most ‘key performance indicators’ for Sydney are pointing in that direction – the newly-rediscovered ferocity of the Australian pace attack, not to mention the unexpected feebleness of England’s batting top-order (and middle-order, for that matter). England have also selected three debutants.
Moreover, there is an additional factor that, given recent history, points fairly and squarely in Australia’s favour – merely that they are the home side. The calendar year of 2013 was a stellar one for home teams in Tests. Specifically, of the 44 Tests played last year, a remarkable 30 were won by the home team, 10 were drawn and only 3 won by the away team (Pakistan looks likely to make that 31 against Sri Lanka in the Test that started on New Year’s Eve).
The surprising element of this occurrence, according to some pundits, was that it came after a period, from 2010-2012, in which away teams performed quite admirably against the tide of home-ground advantage. At least on the basis of raw numbers – in these years, a combined 124 Tests resulted in 48 home wins, with the number away wins almost at parity (43). This apparent ‘trend’ towards away teams did not go unnoticed by sports journalists and other non-academic writers. For example, Gideon Haigh remarked to this effect (“The quiet revolution: home ground advantage begins to fade away”, The Australian, 20/12/2012).
However, as economists know all too well, looking at just the raw figures is too parsimonious an analysis for making claims that the nature of home-ground advantage – a phenomenon so well researched, understood and entrenched in sporting culture – has diminished so fundamentally and suddenly. What needs to be understood about the sample of Tests in those years were that they were correlated with factors that skew the chances of victory in favour of the home team to begin with, most obviously on the basis of relative strength of both teams.
For example, easily the best team of 2012, South Africa, played 10 Tests that year. All but one of them were played away from home, with an unbeaten record (4 wins, 5 draws) befitting a World number one. This is a nice example of what in economics (and some other scientific disciplines) is called a ‘selection bias’ – such biases have to be accounted for, since it is not difficult to imagine how the figures would have more-highly favoured home teams at an aggregate level if the Proteas had instead been scheduled to play 9 Tests at home. Another example (this time for 2011) is that minnows Bangladesh and Zimbabwe played a combined total of 8 Tests, 7 of which were on home soil, again skewing the overall record in favour of away teams. With such a small sample of teams and Tests, these selection biases are important and should not be ignored.
Likewise, the stunning reversal back towards home teams in 2013 has to be taken with caution – (the again rampant) South Africa played 7 of its 9 Tests at home, winning 6 and drawing the other. Second-ranked India also played the majority (6 of 8) of its Tests at home, completing a perfect record, not to mention third-ranked England’s impressive Northern summer record (5 wins, 2 draws), prior to their almost inexplicable slide in the current series.
Most Australian cricket supporters will hope that the aberration of 2013 does not continue past this week – their next series is away to South Africa. Otherwise, that tour could prove to be a sobering experience following the current euphoria. Nevertheless, the influence of home-ground advantage in Test cricket does not appear to be under any immediate threat. To this end, if one was the betting type, I would not be shy in punting on a home victory at the SCG.