Monday, 14 October 2013

Away disadvantage more important than home advantage in the UAE

Is the UAE now Pakistan cricket’s home? Of course not, but it is their home venue for international cricket, and has been since the terrorist attacks on the Sri Lankan team prevented cricket in Pakistan. Since then, they’ve played eight matches in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, winning four and drawing four.

Two of those draws were against South Africa, who were held to a 0-0 draw the last time they toured the country. England were beaten 3-0, and Sri Lanka 1-0 in the only other series held in the UAE (bar two in Sharjah back in 2002).

Now South Africa are back, to try to conquer the stifling heat and spinning pitches of the Emirates. In some senses it’s very much like Pakistan, but it doesn’t lend home advantage to Pakistan as much as it extends an away disadvantage to the visitors.

The visitors have to deal with the heat, a bigger factor than in almost anywhere else in the world and South Africa have come up with a plan of using ice packs on their bodies during the breaks to cool the players down. They also have to deal with the sub-continental style pitches.

The first day of the Test match saw Hashim Amla conquering the conditions to ease to a twentieth Test hundred, but other than a fifty from JP Duminy, the rest struggled, as South Africa made it to 245-8 at the end of the day.

The main factor of home advantage that Pakistan miss in the UAE is the crowd. Test matches in Pakistan used to be tough affairs for visitors, with the heat and unfamiliar pitches allying with the crowd noise and intimidating atmosphere. Hassan Cheema points out that by playing in the UAE, Pakistan miss out on the little bits of home pitch advantage that could be crucial, not just the experience playing on that type of pitch but the specific local knowledge of what a certain pitch does.

An interesting stat is that of the eight games played by Pakistan in the UAE, they won three out of three in January and February (versus England), but just one out of five in October and November (versus South Africa and Sri Lanka), now you could put that down to England’s horrific playing of Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, but it could also be argued that the pitches took a lot more spin in the New Year.

While England struggled to make runs, scoring an average of 19.06 per wicket at 2.65 runs an over, South Africa averaged 57.11 and scored at 3.48 runs an over. That suggests there are two types of pitch in the UAE, the sort of dustbowl that England played on, or the flat tracks South Africa got.

It’s too early to tell what type of pitches South Africa have to deal with this time. Whatever happens, there’s not much there for the seamers, although perhaps a little bit of early discomfort with the conditions for South Africa may have contributed to their early loss of three wickets to the left arm stylings of Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan.

The spinners had less luck at first, both bowling a bit too fast. The debutant Zulfiqar Babar didn’t pose much of a threat, and got lucky with his first Test wicket, Duminy sweeping straight into the hands of a deep set square leg. Adnan Akmal would have been mightily relieved with that, his drop of the same batsman off Ajmal a few balls earlier did not prove too costly.

Ajmal probed away all day, but other than the dropped catch and his wicket, didn’t threaten too much. South Africa knew well enough to be circumspect against him though. Once Babar got Duminy, Ajmal sprung into life against du Plessis, who looked uncomfortable against him and in the end fell to Barbar.

Those two wickets spelled a collapse, as on a blameless pitch, South Africa went from 199-4 to 222-8, before Amla and Steyn managed to play out the rest of the day.

The new DRS rule got their first outing today, and already the replacement of reviews at 80 overs had an effect, allowing Pakistan to go for a speculative review at the end of the 69th over, then another slightly less speculative one after at 75 overs knowing that they would get their reviews topped up by the time the new ball was available at eighty overs. 

South Africa are an excellent away team, who haven't lose a series in foreign climes for seven years, but there is always a slight psychological disadvantage in playing away. Would South Africa have lost the early wickets to Irfan and Junaid Khan had they been at home? You'd doubt it. If a  pitch like this one in Abu Dhabi was prepared at Durban, would South Africa have played spin so badly and ended the first day at 245-8? It's unlikely.

It’s hard to say how much home advantage played for Pakistan. There was a little in the pitch for the spinners, but the crucial wickets of de Villiers and Duminy may have owed more to a brain-freeze in the stifling heat. Did the disadvantage of playing away have had a crucial effect? 

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