If you win the toss, go to bat first. Or not. Why it didn’t work this time in India according to the proverb

“When you win the toss, bat. If you are in doubt, think about it, then bat. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague, then bat.”

It is said that WG Grace said it, and the great man undoubtedly did what he advised. As England’s captain, he won four tosses and batted first on each occasion.

Batting first has virtually always been a no-brainer in Indian conditions. Fast bowlers typically don’t get much assistance early on, and whether pitches start off flat or spinner-friendly, they only get harder to bat on as Test matches go on. In Test cricket, victorious teams in India have batted first 263 times, and have bowled first 22 times.

Batting first has undoubtedly provided teams an advantage in all of these Test matches, although a slight one. In the 285 Test matches played in India, teams batting first have won 90 and lost 80.

The situation has changed since the turn of the century, with teams batting first winning 36 and losing 46 Tests. What took place?

In their excellent book hitting Against The Spin: How Cricket Actually Works, Ben Jones and Nathan Leamon noted a pattern that might be related to what’s happening. In the book, Jones and Leamon make the case that teams should bat first on flat pitches since these pitches typically start to degrade at the conclusion of day three, by which time both teams have typically batted once.

From this point on, the premise in the book is that teams batting second find it simpler than teams batting first to win after taking a lead in the first inning. The team batting second simply needs to chase the target that has been set until a follow-on is included, but the team batting first frequently needs to determine when and how much of a lead to declare with.

“And the evidence seems to support this supposition,” the book says. “In [the first 93 Tests played in India in this century], when the team batting first got a lead, they went on to win 50 per cent of those matches. The team batting second, however, converted 70 per cent of their leads to victories. Although there were marginally fewer first innings leads for the team batting second, there were overall more wins.”

Yet, the era of flat Indian pitches is over—at least temporarily. The majority of Indian pitches in recent years have turned abruptly and from start to (early) end. Does the team that wins the coin toss get to bowl first, though? The team that loses the toss and bats second has won all three of the opening tests in the current Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Despite the small sample size, is there any significance to be found?

In Ahmedabad, Rohit Sharma was questioned about this during the pre-game news conference.

“It’s actually something I really thought of,” he said. “If you win the toss, what should we be doing? So I guess the three results that have come, the captains have preferred to lose the toss in that case. But usually that doesn’t happen. It’s maybe the first time that [the captain losing the toss] has gone on to win the game [all three times]. I don’t think that has ever happened in India.

“Having said that, we know these conditions. We’ve played so much cricket here. Pitches obviously tend to get slower and slower. The wear and tear is a lot more as the day and the game goes on. So obviously when you win the toss, you need to make the most of batting first. I said in the press conference after the [Indore Test], we didn’t bat well enough in the last game, which is what cost us in that game. We didn’t have enough runs in the first innings, it’s probably what cost us the game. Again it tells you that toss is not a factor at all in this series. You’ve got to bring your best skills, play best cricket and win the game.”

The fact that the team batting second has won all three Test matches may just be a coincidence. Yet, according to ESPNcricinfo’s control data, batting second in this series may have been simpler than batting first.

All four innings of the Test matches have seen difficult batting, but the first and third innings, where batters have attained control percentages of about 79 and 78, respectively, may have been slightly more difficult than the second and fourth, where they have gone at 82 and 81, respectively.

As a result of the two run-chases thus far having tiny targets and a decrease in bowling ferocity as the chases drew closer to conclusion, we can now dismiss the fourth-innings number. But is it relevant that hitting has been about three percentage points easier in the second innings than it was in the first?

It appeared like Australia’s spinners in Indore were able to turn the ball more quickly and sharply on the first morning than their Indian counterparts were able to accomplish later in the day. That might have something to do with the remaining traces of moisture that were present in a pitch that was otherwise completely dry. Moisture can benefit spinners in addition to helping seam movement since the leather tends to skid off the pitch more noticeably and the seam tends to hold it slightly more.

The most hazardous moment to bat was thought to be when the pitch was “drying,” or when there was a layer of wetness just below the dry dirt, back when pitches were exposed.

On each of the three morning sessions in Delhi, wickets fell in groups, and batting appeared to become noticeably simpler after lunch. Due to dew forming in the cool late-evening and early-morning hours and nightly perspiration under the covers, this could have again been caused by moisture.

The moisture argument may have some merit, as evidenced by the fact that in all three Tests, control percentages increased from the first to second innings. The weather in Delhi may have played a role in a sort of evening out, which provided both bowling attacks with openings to take advantage of over the three morning sessions.

But, there may be too much speculation at play here, and we may be using the wrong telescope focal length. There may be a case to be made that the control data simply show which team is ascendant, rather than teams winning because they are taking advantage of the best circumstances.

The team that bowls better is likely to cause more issues and have a lower control % in a hypothetical situation where the pitch and weather conditions are the same for both teams. Your bowlers are more likely to strive too hard to take wickets than to bowl good lines and lengths and wait for mistakes if you have been bowled out for a low day-one total, as Australia and India were in Nagpur and Indore, respectively. In Nagpur, Pat Cummins delivered an errant first pitch, and on the opening day in Indore, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja repeatedly overpitched.

Teams defending low first-innings totals must also transition to defensive fields earlier than usual. As bowlers adjust to having a different batter on strike, it may cause the strike to rotate more frequently and result in line and length mistakes.

In this series, it’s feasible that teams batting second have to bat in slightly less difficult circumstances than teams batting first. But, it is apparent that in two of the three Test matches, the team batting second has started its first innings in a favourable position. It is difficult to determine whether batting second has actually provided any benefits. But this fascinating series has raised yet another extremely debatable issue.

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