Home. It conjures visions of a place of familiarity and comfort, a place where you can be yourself, a place that affords you the best opportunity of expressing yourself, secure in the knowledge that there are few surprises in store.
Particularly in team sport, 'home' is a crucial component of a team's success. As a unit, every team gathers force and momentum and confidence when they are cheered on by a packed house. Several players and coaches have often referred to the home crowd as the unofficial 12th man, particularly in international and club football where the 'away goals' rule is a further testament to the challenges of playing in front of occasionally hostile away crowds.
One of the great charms of international sport in general, and cricket in particular, is the extremes that exist between playing at home and playing away. In cricket, the crowd is one massive factor; then, there are the conditions - both in terms of the weather and in terms of the nature of pitches, which vary considerably from one country to another.
There is a certain satisfaction that comes from performing away from the familiar environs of home that has always appealed to a cricketer. A Rahul Dravid, for instance, takes tremendous pride that his record away from home is better than his record in India, and who is to say he is not justified. After all, Dravid played all his early cricket in India, on flat or spin-friendly pitches against very good practitioners of the turning ball, but had limited exposure to the kind of pace, movement or spiced up surfaces he was to encounter in his international career, particularly in Australia and South Africa.
But while it is commendable that a cricketer places greater emphasis on performing well overseas, should impressive displays on home soil be devalued? Just because you are familiar with the variables and have a better understanding of what to expect when playing in your own backyard, so to say, are these efforts any lesser? Is knowledge of the conditions and the pitches a guarantee for success? Me thinks not. If that were the case, no cricketer worth his salt would ever fail at home, would he now?
Unwittingly, Cheteshwar Pujara triggered this home vs away debate, not long after he brought up his second double century in only his 11th Test, in Hyderabad earlier this week. Pujara has played nine of his 11 Tests in India - the other two came very early in his career in South Africa in 2010-11 when he made only 31 runs in three innings. His record in India is fairly overwhelming. In those nine Tests, he has amassed 986 runs at a staggering 82.16, including four hundreds.
A little after making 204 in Hyderabad, Pujara told the BCCI's official website, "I'm batting well and scoring runs in Indian conditions. What I want to prove is that I can score Test runs overseas as well. I will judge myself on the basis of how I perform in the tough foreign conditions." But Pujara is also an intelligent young man, and he realises that Test runs are Test runs, no matter where they are made. "But yes, whenever I score runs for India, I feel proud about it. Scoring a hundred is a different feeling as a batsman at whatever level you play."
Mahendra Singh Dhoni has always had a refreshing take on things. You might not always agree with him, and especially when he speaks of life jackets and long abandoned rowboats to buttress his argument against the DRS, but he commands attention when he offers a contrarian view, which with Dhoni, is more the norm than the exception. "I think he watches too much of media channels because that's what really happens (on the channel discussions)," was how he reacted to Pujara's 'have to perform overseas' comment. "I have always said you need to be in the present.
"Of course, he has set his own standards but what is important is to enjoy what you have done. There is no point in saying you have done well in India, go out and do it and we will judge you as a batsman. Why can't we just leave him with the kind of batting he did in this particular Test match ... We all love to comment that way but it's also important to enjoy the moment. You have done well, so enjoy the moment. That will be my suggestion to him. He will score runs (overseas), that's a different story."
Particularly in India, there is this overwhelming tendency to dismiss performances at home. Yes, when the disparity between home and away records is huge, questions do need to be asked. But why is it that when Australia come to India and wipe the floor, it is because the pitches are heavily loaded in favour of the Indian spinners, but when India go to Australia and get beaten, it's because the Indian batsmen aren't good enough in alien conditions? Why is that line of thinking not applied to Australia's batsmen, who have appeared clueless in India against the spinners? Why are their technical inadequacies being glossed over? Why are the pitches being cited as the primary reason for India's 2-0 advantage, when both Michael Clarke and Mickey Arthur have repeatedly said that neither Chennai nor Hyderabad threw up a diabolical surface?
Yes, you are expected to win at home, and yes, it's only when you conquer unfamiliar conditions that you go on to become a true champion, the No. 1 in every sense of the term. To perform overseas requires not just tremendous skill but also great character and mental resolve, but that doesn't mean success on home patch comes on a platter. The pressures of having to meet the expectations of vast numbers, over a billion in India's case, is something us lesser mortals whose closest tryst with international sport is from the cosy confines of a press box can never comprehend.
Which is why I feel R Ashwin needs to be celebrated as much as Vernon Philander is. Ashwin has taken 81 wickets from 14 Tests - that's almost six wickets a Test, and that despite having four ordinary home Tests against England. 72 of those have come in India; three Tests in Australia have brought him nine wickets in a series where India's bowlers were battered into submission, by Clarke in particular. Tiger at home, for sure, but three Tests abroad in the nascent stages of his career is hardly the stick to beat him with.
Philander, by contrast, has 89 wickets from 16 Tests - eight home Tests have brought him 52 wickets, away a further 37. On the face of it, Philander's 'away' record isn't bad at all. But when you consider that his 'away' Tests have all been in England, New Zealand and Australia, you realise that he could have as well been bowling at home. He hasn't been tested yet in the subcontinent or in subcontinent-type conditions in the Caribbean, so for all practical purposes he has played all of his Tests in favourable conditions. By any yardstick, 89 wickets from 16 Tests is phenomenal; so is 81 from 14. Let's not lose sight of that.