There’s an old saying in cricket that has been attributed to Don Bradman, Victor Richardson and WG Grace which goes “if you win the toss, 9 times out of ten, you should bat first, and the tenth time you should think about bowling, and then decide to bat anyway.” When applied to One Day Internationals (ODIs) it is a terrible saying. The team that bats second normally has an advantage.
In the 10 years before this World Cup, teams that have won the toss and chosen to bat have lost the match almost twenty percent more often than they’ve won. Interestingly, teams that have won the toss and chosen to bowl have only won 2% more often than they’ve lost. The best chance of success has traditionally been to lose the toss and be asked to bowl.
In part, this suggests that winning the toss is not nearly as big an advantage as people think that it is. As a general rule, reading pitches is an art that is about as much guesswork as it is a science. There are some general rules, but they are only so helpful when predicting how a pitch will behave.
But it also shows that generally teams that bat second have the advantage. This is easy to explain too. When batting first, it is difficult to know what a good score on a particular pitch is, and as a result teams can attack too much, and lose wickets, or play too conservatively and not get as high a score as would have been possible. When chasing, teams know what pace they need to go at, and can manage the risks appropriately.
Over the two years leading up to the World Cup, teams batting second had out performed teams batting first in every place where a reasonable number of matches have been hosted except for the West Indies and Sri Lanka. Everywhere else, the best decision (statistically anyway) has been to bowl first.
But this World Cup something different has happened. Teams batting first have won more often. Not just a little bit more often, but roughly 90% more often. As a result the decision that teams started making at the toss started to change. In 17 of the first 20 completed matches (85%) the team that won the toss chose to bowl first. And in 11 of the last 15 matches (73.3%) the team that won the toss chose to bat.
Only New Zealand won more than two matches when bowling first (New Zealand won 4 from 6 when bowling first) and only New Zealand and India won more than they lost when chasing. (India were successful in 2 out of 3 chases). On the converse, only Afghanistan (0 from 4) lost more than two matches batting first.
This sort of statistical analysis can be a bit dangerous, however, as there could be a situation where the best teams tended to be the ones that batted first, and them winning was due to them being the best team, rather than any advantage that they got from batting first. It is possible to use statistical techniques to control for the quality of teams playing also. Doing that it actually comes out with an even more dramatic outcome. If two teams of exactly equal ability were playing each other, we would expect the team that bats first to win 73% of the time. It’s also possible to assess how likely such a big difference would be observed if the teams batting first and second was randomly allocated. In this case that is about 1%. It’s almost certainly a factor.
However, that leads to two more interesting questions. Firstly, why has that been the case, and secondly, will it continue to be the case as the tournament heads into the reduced knockout phase?
The first question has three different answers. The pitches are different to what was expected, they have tended to get harder to bat on as the matches have progressed, and thirdly the pressure of being in a big match does funny things to a chasing team.
While the theory is that it is difficult for batsmen who are on an unfamiliar pitch, it is equally (and often more) difficult for bowlers. When a pitch behaves differently than what it is expected to do, the bowlers end up bowling the wrong lengths. It often takes a long time for the bowlers to discover the correct length to bowl on a pitch, and in that time, the window to get the best batsmen out has gotten smaller. Most batsmen are at their most vulnerable when they are getting started. After they have been there for a while they are much less likely to be dismissed. Virat Kohli, for example, gets out within the first 10 balls in about 20% of his innings. However, after he’s been at the crease for more than 25 balls, that drops to close to 10%. It is twice as hard to get him out. The graph below shows this change for four selected players, all of them have a clearly higher survival rate after 35 balls than they do after five. The consequence of not bowling the correct lengths to a batsman early on can be significant.
If a pitch is behaving differently to how it is expected to, it will make a bigger difference for the opening bowlers than for anyone else, as they often come to the crease as the batsmen are fresh. It is normally more important that they hit the right lengths early on than the spinners later on.
Jonny Bairstow was widely criticised earlier in the World Cup for saying that the pitches in the Cup were not typical for English pitches at this time of the year. But his point was absolutely valid. The pitches have been different. They have generally been more conducive to pace bowling than normal, while the spinners have found it difficult to take wickets, but have also been harder than normal to score of.
The two graphs below show the break down of performances in this World Cup against other matches in England in the previous four years. Rather than using the traditional statistics that require bowlers to have taken a wicket to avoid infinite results, I have used wickets per 50 runs and balls per 50 runs. For both of these statistics, the higher the number the better it is for the bowlers.
We can see that fast bowlers have found it better than expected both in terms of wickets and runs, while the spinners graph is shifted to the right for the “Balls per 50 runs” measure, but have gone roughly as expected in the “wickets per 50 runs”.
That difference in the pitches and time taken to figure out the right lengths is particularly evident in the difference in the opening bowlers’ stats. When bowling first, (traditionally the best time to bowl in England) the opening bowlers have averaged a collective 31.66 at an economy rate of 5.81 runs per over. However, after getting to see what the other team’s bowlers did, the opening bowlers in the second innings were able to get onto the right lengths more quickly and as a result averaged a collective 24.55 at an economy rate of 5.00. Early wickets win matches, and those early wickets have generally come in the second innings.
Another factor that also adds to the advantage of batting first is the World Cup pressure. A few years ago I was asked to do some analysis for a team around batting or bowling first in T20 matches. The results were surprising. In general play, the teams that chased won a large proportion of the matches. But in matches with extra pressure (semi-finals, finals or other must-win matches) the team that batted first won close to 90% of the time.
The psychological pressure of runs on the board is hard to quantify, but it certainly is a factor. Kohli commented about it before the tournament, saying that he felt that there wouldn’t be many big scores chased down at the World Cup, due to the extra pressure, and it seems that he was right.
As to the question of if this trend is one that can be expected to continue, that’s a more difficult question. The pitches at Edgbaston, Old Trafford and Lord’s are all going to be new pitches. A lot of the matches at this World Cup have been played on used pitches that have behaved like Day 4 Test pitches. These are more likely to be similar to Day 2 Test pitches. Day 2 pitches in England tend to have a little bit of life early on, then flatten out to be very good for batting after about 30 overs.
Historically the recipe for chasing in semi-finals has been to take early wickets. In 2007, when Australia won batting second against South Africa, they had the Proteas at 27/5 after 10 overs. Wasim Akram and Shoaib Ahktar picked up early wickets against New Zealand in 1999, while Joel Garner and Michael Holding did the same against Pakistan in 1983. There have only been a couple of run chases that have been successful without early wickets limiting the total.
For India and New Zealand, the match will be at Old Trafford, the venue that has seen the most wickets for pace bowlers early in the day in this World Cup. When there’s been cloud cover, the ball has tended to swing, with Sheldon Cottrell’s extraordinary opening over against New Zealand the most dramatic example of that.
Throughout this tournament, teams have been more successful when batting first. One major reason that teams have struggled to chase is that their bowlers have not known where to bowl, because the pitches have not done what they have been expected to do. That should not be a problem for New Zealand or India. The semi-final pitch is likely to behave more similarly to what would be normally expected, and for both teams the bowling plans are likely to rely as much on swing as seam movement early on anyway. The only two teams that have shown that they can win batting second, are the two teams playing in this match.
Conventional wisdom suggests batting first. Statistical analysis suggests it is better to bat first. But conventional wisdom and statistical analysis only tell us what is mostly right. They can’t say with certainty. If there is cloud overhead and the pitch looks lively, bowling first might actually still be the best option.