The Last Shall Be First

 

It has been the choice of generations of captains: if you win the toss, bat first. But does it work? Charles Davis looks at the evidence.

 

Conventional wisdom is a valuable tool in cricket, as it is in wider spheres, but when circumstances change, conventional wisdom can be slow to catch on. In a fascinating example if this, the orthodoxy that captains should bat first is - or should be - under challenge.

 

Captains have preferred to bat first since time immemorial. An Australian captain put it succinctly:

 

“When you win the toss, usually you bat. At other times, you think about sending the opponents in to bat, and then you choose to bat first.”

 

Traditionally, this has been supported by the fact that teams batting first have won more often than they lose. Yet, slowly but surely, this pattern has changed – profoundly. The change has crept up so gradually that few commentators have given it any notice. The surprising fact is that, these days, Test cricket favours the team batting second. The historical trend of Table 1 illustrates this clearly.

 

 

Win Batting First

Win Batting Second

pre-1945

59.1%

40.9%

1945-69

54.0%

46.0%

1970-84

52.3%

47.7%

1985-94

51.2%

48.8%

1995-99

43.6%

56.4%

2000-05

41.5%

58.5%

 

 

The traditional advantage of batting first, which once gave rise to a 59:41 win:loss ratio, has virtually been reversed in the last ten years. For the last 400 Test matches, teams batting second have clearly been in the ascendancy. Why should this be?

 

It is probably more puzzling that things were once so different. It would appear that in the days of uncovered pitches, and perhaps for some time thereafter, pitches wore out as matches wore on, and batting was usually easiest on the first day. Before 1945, teams batting first led, on average, by about 30 runs on first innings; since 2000 it has been quite even. The winding back of the old advantage has exposed a countervailing advantage to teams batting second that is intrinsic to the game. Put simply, teams batting first must take greater risks to win than teams batting second.

 

This is illustrated by a simple statistic. Tests won by teams batting first are, on average, 10% longer than those won by teams batting second (340 overs to 306, since 2000). This is because teams batting first must usually score an excess of runs to secure victory, which takes time. When time constraints come into play, most captains will delay second-innings declarations until the probability of defeat is minimal. Such declarations involve the irretrievable sacrificing of cricketing “resources”, and no captain wants to do that and lose. The delay gives the team batting last an escape hatch, bringing the sanctuary of a draw more within reach.

 

This is borne out by the fact that drawn Tests tend to favour the team batting first. In draws since 2000, they have led on first innings 32 times, vs 19 times for the second team (in matches where both first innings were concluded).

 

Another problem for teams batting first arises in follow-on situations. Enforcing the follow-on can stretch bowling resources to breaking point, and resulting injuries can affect performances in subsequent Tests. Since 1994, teams enforcing the follow-on have been forced to settle for draws in 20% of matches, and have even lost on one memorable occasion, while those choosing not to enforce go on to win over 90% of the time. In light of these figures, it is not surprising that not enforcing the follow-on, once rare, has become more popular in recent years.

 

 

How Useful is Winning The Toss?

All this suggests that captains winning the toss should, more often than not, choose to bowl. Is this happening? Well, there is a trend in that direction. In the old days, toss-winning captains batted first about 90% of the time. In the last five years it has been about 60%, an all-time low. However, the old-timers at least could prove that batting first was advantageous (in the long run), but today this choice actually runs against the statistical grain.

 

A captain sensitive to criticism will certainly know what to expect if he puts the opposition in and they score 500. But how often do you hear criticism of a captain who chooses to bat, if his opponents score 500 on the second and third days?

 

The fact that captains still frequently take the disadvantageous option probably explains why winning the toss confers almost no overall advantage (a 51:49 winning ratio in recent years, compared to 57:43 before 1945), even though those captains choosing to bowl have a very strong winning record. The current figures actually represent an improvement over the 1995-1999 period, when teams winning the toss actually lost more matches than they won (46% to 54%). An increase in the frequency of choosing to bowl is probably responsible for the improved outcomes since 1999.

 

A final statistic should reinforce the point: since 2000, teams sending the opponents in have won 45 and lost 28 Tests (22 draws), while teams choosing to bat have won 51 and lost 63 Tests (38 draws). The latter stats even out if nonsense Tests involving Bangladesh or Zimbabwe are ignored, but either way, it is clear that there is no overall advantage in choosing to bat first.

 

 

If the conventional wisdom does change, and more captains choose to bowl, the advantage in batting second may well increase. Will we see the day when people start to question the Laws of Cricket, arguing that they unfairly favour one side over the other?