Why batting first has almost always made sense in crunch games in long-form cricket

April 14, 2024

Fielding on winning the toss, as captains did repeatedly at the end of the Sheffield Shield recently, almost never makes for a good strategy

Why batting first has almost always made sense in crunch games in long-form cricket

It’s becoming a trend - certainly in Australia - for the captain winning the toss to send the opposition in to bat.

It happened on every occasion in the last seven Sheffield Shield matches of the season, including the final. Then, in a rather worrying imitation, it occurred all six times in the Sydney first grade finals. As talented English actress Emma Thompson shrewdly observed in a recent movie, “There are a lot of sheep out there dressed in human clothing.”

The idea of regularly winning the toss and inserting the opposition in important matches often lacks common sense and makes one wonder whose decision it is. Is it the captain alone deciding to bowl first or is he being ill-advised by the backroom hierarchy? Or is it a trend that has developed from T20 cricket, where it’s helpful to know the target?

The decision was exceedingly confusing in the case of the Sydney first-grade finals, where the team that finishes higher on the minor-round table advanced if there was no result in the match. On most occasions this meant the team that advanced in the case of a no-result batted well into the second day to ensure the opposition was shut out of the game.

Surely if a lower-placed team bats first on winning the toss and plays well, they can at least determine when to declare. After all, they are the team who have to take all ten wickets to win and advance. It’s better to be in a position to declare your first innings to try and win, rather than the match eventually being abandoned because the advantaged team bats well into the second day.

Fielding first after winning the toss also suggests a lack of faith in the openers. It should be an accepted fact in cricket that openers are selected because they have the qualities to see you through a tough new-ball period.

The definition of insanity is when the same decision is repeatedly taken but a different result is expected each time. That means many captains in Australian cricket have attained the required criteria.

Scoreboard pressure, where wickets can be taken because a satisfactory first-innings total has been posted, is a reality.

There are exceptions to every rule but especially in a knockout match it is usually best to post a decent total in the hope of winning the game. Short versions of the game like T20 are an altogether different proposition.

A good example of batting first comes from the career of Darren Lehmann, before he went on to represent Australia. When South Australia captain David Hookes sent the opposition in on a renowned good batting pitch at Adelaide Oval once, Lehmann grabbed the skipper by the collar and screamed, “I drove to the ground today fresh and prepared to bat.”

The operative word in Lehmann’s sensible lament was “fresh”. Why would you want to field while you are fresh and then bat when weary after having spent hours in the field chasing leather?

The old quote by Vic Richardson, my grandfather, is often invoked: “If you win the toss, then nine times you bat first, and on the tenth occasion you ponder the decision but still bat.” It’s worth remembering that grandfather Richardson was a former Australia captain who led in an era of uncovered pitches.

It doesn’t make sense in that case to not bat first if you win the toss in dry conditions.

However, in the case of covered pitches too, there is still plenty to recommend batting first. In that case a team bats while the players are fresh and can claim a substantial advantage if they post a decent total. Then if they bowl well, that advantage is enhanced.

Whatever decision is taken at the toss, you need to play well but there are many reasons why batting first is best. After all, there is only one decision a captain who wins the toss has to make: how do we best go about winning the game? –Cricnfo

Why batting first has almost always made sense in crunch games in long-form cricket