Has the follow-on gone out of fashion?
In the third Test of the ongoing series in the West Indies, Brian Lara had an opportunity to enforce the follow-on when India fell short by 219 runs, but Lara chose to bat again. The decision raised plenty of eyebrows, especially since time was at a premium in the game, but increasingly, teams are choosing to bat a second time even when they have the chance to put the opposition in and attempt an innings victory.
Conventional wisdom has it's best to keep the opposition down when they are on the defensive, a task which is best done by asking them to bat again after they have been bundled out cheaply the first time around. Lately, however, that theory is being questioned, with captains choosing to rest their bowlers after their first-innings efforts before unleashing them again. Besides, the pace of the game has quickened, ensuring that there is often enough time to bat a second time, declare if necessary, and then try and bowl out the opposition on the fourth and fifth days, when the pitch is usually at its most helpful for the bowlers. And, of course, for the captains thinking about enforcing the follow-on, there's always the threat of Kolkata 2001 occurring again.
On that occasion, Steve Waugh decided to put India in again, and few could fault him: India had been thrashed out of sight in the first Test, and had just been bundled out for 171, 274 behind Australia's first-innings total. What happened thereafter has been written about far too often to warrant another detailed account in this column.
Taking that match as a cut-off, it turns out that teams have been more inclined recently to bat a second time than enforce the follow-on. In 53 cases when the side batting first has had the opportunity to win by an innings since that Kolkata Test, they have gone ahead and enforced the follow-on only 37 times - that's a conversion rate of only 70%. As the table below shows, it's a much lower percentage than in the 1990s and `80s. In the 1980s, especially, the follow-on was almost always put into effect whenever it was available - the only time it wasn't out of 32 possible cases was in 1983, when England chose to bat again against New Zealand at Trent Bridge despite having a lead of 213 runs. They eventually won the match by 165 runs.
|Period||Follow-on opportunities||Follow-on enforced||Percentage|
|Since Apr 2001||53||37||69.81|
A lot of the instances when the follow-on has been enforced in the last five years has also been because the opposition was either Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, two sides which are so obviously poorer than the other teams that there's hardly any risks involved in putting them in a second time. Since April 2001, teams have enforced the follow-on against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe 13 times out of 14 - the only occasion it didn't happen was in Colombo in July 2002, when Sanath Jayasuriya decided that a lead of 209 wasn't enough. Exclude the matches involving the two minnows, and the numbers in the last five years are even starker: 24 follow-ons out of 39, that's only 61.54%.
So have Australia actually been chastened by that experience in Kolkata? In 13 Tests after that one when they've had chances to enforce the follow-on, they've taken it eight times - the five times they didn't includes an instance when they were ahead by a whopping 324 runs, against New Zealand at Adelaide in November 2004. The most cagey, though, have been the West Indians - of five such opportunities they have enforced it just twice, and on both occasions the lead was more than 350.
|Team||Follow-on opportunities||Follow-on enforced||Percentage|
A hat-trick of draws
The ongoing series between West Indies and India has also witnessed something that isn't so common in Test cricket any more - consecutive drawn games. There were three of them in a row, in fact, the first time this has happened since December 2003 - on that occasion, England played out a couple of draws against Sri Lanka at Galle and Kandy, while away in Australia, Sourav Ganguly hit a defiant century to save India at Brisbane.
That, though, was the last example of three stalemates in successive matches spread across different series. To find out such an instance in a single series, you'd have to go back even further, to the 2001-02 season, when New Zealand held the Australians to three successive draws in a series Australia were expected to dominate. The previous such instance happened way back in 1997-98, when Sri Lanka drew all three Tests on their tour to India. The West Indies-India series hasn't been the best advertisement for the longer version of the game, but these numbers go to show that Test cricket has come a long way from the days when draws were the norm.
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo. For the stats, he was helped by Arun Gopalakrishnan.