One way to demoralise and destroy an opposition would be to enforce the follow-on. The psychological scars caused by it would be so emphatic that it could leave the team disheartened for the rest of the series.
On extremely rare occasions, like India did gloriously against Australia at the Eden Gardens in 2001, the team asked to bat again could turn the tables and come out as the winner. But chances of this happening are so remote that the risk is worth taking if it means deflating the rivals’ confidence for the rest of the series.
Yet modern teams are reluctant to enforce the follow-on, as India proved at Galle on Friday. This despite a 309-run first innings lead against a Sri Lankan team reduced to 10 batsmen.
Yes, teams continue to enforce the follow-on. But since the turn of the century they are averse to inflicting the ignominy. They think twice, thrice and then, many a time, opt to bat again. In fact, the only deterrent to not batting again seems to be the weather.
One of the reasons for not goading the bowlers to immediately have another go at the batsmen can be traced to the absence of a rest day in modern Tests. Earlier, when Test cricket had a rest day after three days of hard toil, enforcing the follow on was almost inevitable. But not any longer.
Of course these days, often the decision is taken out of the captain’s hands. Like so many other things in modern-day life, predictive analysis and modelling or statistical modelling is formulated and outcomes are predicted.
Sure, there might not always be sufficient time to draw on statistical modelling before a decision is made. However, the captain still looks for guidance and inputs from a number of backroom boys before deciding on a follow-on.
One factor to be taken into consideration is that unlike yesteryears most modern-day Tests do throw up a result, unless the weather interferes or the pitch becomes so flat that a positive decision is impossible to achieve. Thus, captains know that a follow-on is not the only route to a result, though the idea of humiliating and demoralising an opponent is always tempting.
But teams keep the big picture in mind lest they win the battle but lose the war.
This is particularly true for a team like India which plays non-stop cricket right through the year. While the Sri Lanka Test series is important in the overall scheme of things, the bigger battle is going to be the one in South Africa later this year. India need to keep their powder dry for that big battle.
India’s hopes for that series would be riding on its pacemen, led by Mohammed Shami. At his best, he is India’s number one fast bowler. He was kept out of the game for over a year through a knee injury and is only now returning to top-class cricket.
Shami might have played the odd ODI but is only now feeling his way back into Tests. Pushing him, Umesh Yadav and the other bowlers so early in the tour might not exactly be sagacious. Sri Lanka is a hot country and it would be tough on the bowlers if their workload were heavy this early in the season.
There are Tests, ODIs and T20 matches to be played on this long tour and the last thing that the Indian team would want is a key player to break down.
Thus the decision to not enforce the follow-on is to not just give the bowlers sufficient time to rest and recoup for this Test but also stay in the mix for other matches and subsequently for the grueling tour of South Africa (four Tests, five ODIs, two T20Is) in December.
In this connection it is good that the Indian team has a number of fast bowlers whom they could rotate: Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and others. At no time in the history of Indian cricket has there been such an excellent crop of fast bowlers. Maintaining them at peak fitness and form over a long period of time would be the challenge for selectors and team management.
Not enforcing the follow-on is part of the strategy to ensure that their workload is not excessive and that they do not break down at the most inopportune moment.
Consequently, while winning the Galle Test is extremely important and could well be accomplished over the next couple of days, the Indian team would like its ace bowlers to stay in the fray for tougher battles ahead.
Meanwhile cricket administrators would do well to re-look at the current system of scheduling back-to-back-to-back-to-back Tests. The old pattern of slipping in tour matches in between Tests has to be brought back. If not for rest and recuperation, at least for commercial reasons as eye-balls are drawn to the small screen only when top players are fit and around. Pushing them to engage in back-to-back Tests could end up being counter-productive.