Friday, July 24, 2015

The Benefits and Costs in Cricket of Not Enforcing A Follow-On

Once again, in the second Test of its current series against England, the Australian cricket team did not enforce a follow-on that was available to it. As a nervous Australian supporter, worried about the possibility of either English rain or a couple of dogged batsmen, this yet again infuriated me. It seems that Australia have abandoned the follow-on ever since they were beaten after enforcing it by India in 2001. Former Australian captain Ricky Ponting rarely enforced a follow-on, and current Australian captain Michael Clarke has never enforced it.

Is it better to enforce a follow-on or not? One main reasons I’ve heard for not doing so is to give your team’s bowlers a rest. Another is to not bat last, when runs are usually harder to make, in the event that the other team is able to catch up to your score. The main reason for enforcing a follow-on is to finish the match more quickly, particularly if there is not a great deal of time in the match left.

While batting last is a little nerve-wracking only three teams have ever won in over a century of Test Match cricket after being forced to follow on. This is out of over 300 teams that have been forced to follow on, meaning that, Australia’s fears of Kolkata aside, less than 1 per cent of teams that have enforced a follow-on have lost. On the other hand your chance of losing if you bat again is probably remote as well. You will most likely get a 400-plus run lead, and from there your chance of losing is very small.

So the more important consideration in one’s choice about whether to enforce a follow on is your chance of drawing, or not winning, the match. In cases where a follow-on has been enforced, draws have occurred in about one-quarter of cases. When Michael Clarke has not enforced a follow-on available to him the Australians have typically won, so I’d say, my nerves aside, he actually hasn’t hurt his chances of winning that much through his practice.

Therefore, it seems to me what the decision really comes down to is when it is best to give your bowlers a rest. (More cynically, it may also come down to match attendance figures.) Should you try and finish the match early and give them some more rest before the next match? Or should you give them a break mid-match? Nightmares of Kolkata aside, it seems that the Australians prefer the latter option. Which I guess is fine by me now … until it costs them a win anyway.

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