Following On
Russell Degnan

There was a point in the not-too-distant memory, when enforcing the follow-on was done as a matter of course. In Australia, if not elsewhere, those days have finished. If Headingley 1981 was a freak occurance, never to be repeated, several other tests served notice that enforcing the follow-on was not always desirable.

After looking at Australia's recent record in enforcing, or not enforcing the follow-on, I am prepared to make a much stronger statement: unless there is insufficient time remaining to force a result, enforcing the follow-on is never worthwhile.

"Insufficient time" is an interesting problem. If rain is expected, and in England, one may reasonably always expect it, then enforcement may be necessary no matter what day it is. In other circumstances, it is worth considering what has happened when Australia has or hasn't enforced the follow-on.

As Gideon Haigh showed, the catalyst for a change in thinking came first from Mark Taylor, having spent 152 overs in the Rawalpindi heat only two games into his captaincy, he declined enforcement in the first Ashes test in 1994-95. The former was drawn, but such a result is not common - the loss to India in Calcutta in 2001 was the only other non-victory - and over-coming the 200+ run deficit of a follow-on is near impossible. Yet, despite the problem of having to set a target, non-enforcement has not resulted in a single loss or draw in the eight instances since 1993-94.

The record, therefore, stands like this:
Non enforcement Wins: 8 Draws: 0 Losses: 0
Enforcement Wins: 9 Draws: 1 Losses: 1

Four of the nine victories when enforcing the follow-on were by an innings. The others victories had mostly small chases (the largest being 107), yet the prospect of a chase in the fourth innings looms in over 50 percent of instances. Even if Australia didn't have a long standing propensity to collapse chasing small targets, giving the opposition that chance can be dangerous. While much is said about the value of winning the toss and batting, it is worth remembering that it is the fourth innings, not the second (which is arguably better than the first), that presents the greatest difficulties for batsmen. Not enforcing the follow-on gives you the best of the batting and bowling conditions.

How much better?

Well, the average total for teams following on is 337 off 109 overs. The average for teams batting fourth is 235 off 81 overs. Because pitches vary, it is worth normalising those figures to the opposition's first innings. On average, teams following on score 104 runs more than they did in their first innings, off an extra 31 overs; teams batting fourth, on average, score just 26 runs more, off 2 less overs.

There is a lot of variation in these averages, teams have been rolled cheaply while following on, but more often than not they bat better than previously, and quite often that is much much better - in 7 of those 11 instances, the following on team batted for more than 110 overs, in the other 8, just once.

This puts the lie to the assertion of Mike Selvey and others, that Ponting somehow ceded England an advantage by not making them bat again. While England did well in their second dig, this was an anomalously good performance for a team batting fourth. Nor is it possible to predict how England would have performed had they been asked to follow-on. But one thing is clear from past history. If there are more than 4 1/2 sessions to play, enforcing the follow-on is a mugs game. On average, it results in your bowlers bowling for longer, when they are still tired from the first innings; it means the possibility of a having to chase runs on the final day is more than likely; and, if the large variations in scores made are any indication, allows control of the game to slip away,

There has been an unhealthy focus on psychology in the lead-up to the Ashes, and in the media coverage following the first test. Cricket may be a mentally challenging game, but ultimately, any advantage or otherwise doesn't exist until the scoreboard ticks over. There is a lot of cricket to go yet.

Cricket - Analysis 1st December, 2006 02:00:14   [#] [1 comment]