New Zealand cricket March 23, 2013

Don't bat (especially if you're a Kiwi)

Despite the head shaking at Brendon McCullum's decision to insert England in Wellington, the statistics suggest batting first in Tests is not a sure-fire route to success - particularly if you are New Zealand

Wellington watch: never mind the bowl-first theories © ESPNcricinfo Ltd/Paul Ford

If I had a dollar - or preferably a pound sterling - for every piece of criticism that came Brendon McCullum's way in Wellington when he elected to bowl, my net worth would be threatening to break out of the working classes and into the middle classes.

One local scribe even flogged the dead captaincy horse by mischievously querying what Ross Taylor would have done if he was out there with Alastair Cook for the coin throwing, instead of the incumbent. The hoariest old cliche was wheeled out - yes, the one variously attributed to Shane Warne, Don Bradman, WG Grace and Ian Chappell: "If 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."

So when the news from the middle of the Basin emerged over the blaring PA: "New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum has won the toss and elected to bowl." Hands went to heads, heads shook in bewilderment, knitting needles were downed, eyebrows were raised, faces were aghast.

Brendon must be a bit thick, was the implication. The New Zealanders were frightened of facing the English and Welsh bowlers. They were are still spooked about that train wreck in South Africa when they were rolled, bowled and rissoled for 45 all out on day one in Cape Town. Commentators in both hemispheres were mystified and know-it-all talkback trolls clamoured to get on air to point out the error of McCullum ways, and tell us all how it was a complete doddle for the English top order to rattle up tons in the wake of such foolhardy decision-making.

But here's the thing. If we look at the numbers, and I'm no sabermetrician or statistical wizard like some, I think our skipper might be on to something.

"In the long form of the game we don't get too hung up about winning Test matches, but we do care about not losing"

Although I do have some social skills and am not as reclusive these days, I confess I broke out my abacus to run a few numbers after stumbling upon a slab of research by a couple of Australian chaps in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society from a few years back. In between multinomial logistic regression models, this dynamic Melbournian statistical duo produced this little piece of show-stopping evidence:

Contrary to popular opinion, it is found that the team batting second in a Test enjoys a significant advantage. This challenges the established orthodoxy of generally electing to bat first when winning the toss, and is probably the main reason why winning the toss is not helpful.

The great "bat first" theory is exploded by this analysis, which covered all matches by all teams over a five-year period.

But what about the specific state of play for the New Zealand Test team, with their black caps and creamy clothing, what do the tea leaves say on the Kiwi front? In the long form of the game we don't get too hung up about winning Test matches, but we do care about not losing.

So I had a squizz at how NZ's Test results vary, depending on what we do on the first day of a Test match: and the fact is we are less likely to lose if we pad up second.

To give you an idea, if you see the New Zealand openers striding out to the wicket looking nervous and glancing at the sun on the morning of the first day, our chances of winning sit at 18%, losing 44% and drawing at 38%. We don't lose 56 times out of 100.

However, if it is Tim Southee starting off the day's play bowling right-arm over the wicket, we end up winning 19% of the time, losing 38% of the time, and in a stalemate 43% of the time. We don't lose 62 times out of 100.

In a nutshell, the Warne-Bradman-Grace-Chappelli Theory of Self-Insertion is off the mark, or patently wrong, depending on how politically correct you are. It is a myth that batting first is always the best option for a Test captain, and it's definitely not the No. 1 option for the skipper of New Zealand.

Paul Ford is a co-founder of the Beige Brigade. He tweets here