Short Stat: Adelaide and batting first
Russell Degnan

Don't. There are exceptions, but the oft-told story of Richie Benaud's that as a captain he was told to "bat; if in doubt, think about it, then bat anyway" hasn't been true for 20 years.

S Rajesh noted as much a couple of weeks ago, but his analysis was based on the results obtained which has issues (amongst them, that Australia automatically bats) while other sides are a little more discerning. We can run a slightly more sophisticated analysis by comparing the expected margin (based on my ratings) against the actual margin and seeing whether the batting or fielding team beats expectations in each match. In short: for the last 20-odd years they have not.

In the 1930s - with uncovered pitches - the advantage in winning the toss and using the (most likely) best conditions was clear: it added as much as 40 runs per game. But that benefit has steadily eroded, and batting first is now a negative proposition, while fielding sides are regularly beating their expected margin. Interestingly, this is happening in both drawn (margin of 0) and result games:

A drawn games means the better side missed its expected victory. And for the better side, fielding first offers the advantage of time. By bowling there is no wasted runs from the need to set a target - such as last season when Australia still needed two wickets at close of play and had 172 runs, but also in 2003 and 2006 when the batting side had a first innings in excess of 500 and still went on to lose courtesy of a poor third innings. Even with the margin as large as it was, given the rain on the last day, England probably wouldn't have managed to beat Australia in Adelaide in 2010, because their bowlers would have been tired (had they enforced the follow-on), or they'd have run out of time.

Similarly, despite having to bat last on a potentially wearing pitch, if the match is heading for late on the fifth day, the need to buffer a margin by 100 or so runs when declaring helps the weaker side avoid a loss. Of the three recent bat-first-and-win games at Adelaide, all three went into the fifth day, despite the losers scoring less than 520 runs in total in the match. Australia and England both batted and lost in that period with more than 680 runs.

In general, a side that wins beats its expected margin, because the expected margin takes into account draws. In games with a result then, you'd expect any advantage from the pitch to accrue to the batting side, because they get the best conditions, and managed to exploit them. But in recent years we've not seen that; the new pitch has offered movement to the bowlers, and the old pitches haven't broken up significantly enough to negate that. There isn't a huge difference (and quite a bit of randomness), but taking into account the time benefits the bat-first approach is no longer valid, and actually unhelpful.

So unhelpful, in fact, that the expected margin for the toss winner was negative in the 1990s and first part of the 2010s, as well as negative for those batting first in the 2000s. By less than a dozen runs, but negative is negative. Any side with ambitions to win in Adelaide should bowl first; new pitch caveats aside, there is little to fear on the fifth day.

Update on Adelaide:

Australia chose to bat; but that is not a surprise. For reference, this graph depicts the number of total runs in the match for teams batting first and second since 1990; wins at the top, losses at the bottom, and draws in the middle.

For teams batting second, more than ~560 almost guarantees at least a draw, although it is possible to win with less (because obviously the opposition can be bowled out for less). Batting first, there has only been one victory with less than 590 (by a single run no less), and three losses with more than 600. The runs required to force a result in Adelaide are substantial.

Moreover, there is always pressure on the side batting first to keep batting well, because all results remain possible, even with very high totals. Whereas, the side batting second can, if they bat well enough, guarantee at least a draw and press for a victory.

Finally, the innings by innings runs per wicket for the top order: 1st: 48.5 2nd: 49.5 3rd: 31.5 4th: 28.9. That calculates to a total value in the top-order of batting first of 11.2 runs (miniscule in context). The Adelaide pitch clearly becomes harder to bat on, almost twice as hard: but it does so too late to gain advantage in the second innings, and too early to prevent a catastrophic third innings resulting in defeat. In Adelaide, it is the third innings that counts, and you are better off bowling when it does.

Cricket - Analysis 4th December, 2013 14:01:14   [#]