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Analysis

Win toss, bat first. Or not. Why the old adage hasn't worked in India this time

One possible reason is that teams batting second have got to bat in slightly less tricky conditions than teams batting first, but there might be more to it

Rohit Sharma won the toss and asked Steven Smith to field, India vs Australia, 3rd Test, Indore, 1st day, March 1, 2023

Rohit Sharma: 'It's actually something I really thought of - if you win the toss, what should we be doing?'  •  BCCI

"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's a quote attributed to WG Grace, and the great man certainly followed his own advice. He won four tosses as England captain, and batted first each time .
In Indian conditions, batting first has almost always been a no-brainer. There's usually not a lot of help early on for the fast bowlers, and whether pitches start off flat or spinner-friendly, they only get more difficult to bat on as Test matches progress. Teams winning the toss in India have batted first 263 times in Test cricket, and bowled first only 22 times.
Over all these Test matches, batting first has certainly given teams an advantage, though it's a small one. Teams batting first have won 90 of the 285 Tests played in India, and lost 80.
Since the turn of the century, however, the script has flipped, with teams batting first winning 36 Tests and losing 46. What has happened?
What's happened could have something to do with a pattern observed by Ben Jones and Nathan Leamon in the excellent book Hitting Against The Spin: How Cricket Really Works. In the book, Jones and Leamon argue that teams should insert their oppositions on flat pitches, which usually begin to deteriorate only towards the end of day three, by which time both teams have usually batted once.
From this point on, the argument made in the book is that it's easier for teams batting second to turn a first-innings lead into a win than for the team batting first. Unless a follow-on is involved, the team batting second only has to chase the target it has been set, while the team batting first often has to calculate the timing of a declaration: when, and with how big a lead.
"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."
The time of flat Indian pitches, however, is over - at least for the time being. Indian pitches of the last few years have mostly turned sharply, and turned from start to (early) finish. And yet, is there a case for the team winning the toss to bowl first? In the first three Tests of the ongoing Border-Gavaskar Trophy, the team losing the toss and batting second has won each time. It's a tiny sample size, but could there be something to it?
Rohit Sharma was asked about this during his pre-match press conference in Ahmedabad.
"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."
It could well be a coincidence that the team batting second has won all three Tests. But ESPNcricinfo's control data suggests that batting second may have been easier than batting first through this series.
Batting has been challenging across all four innings of the Test matches, but it may have been marginally more challenging in the first innings and the third, where batters have achieved control percentages of roughly 79 and 78 respectively, than in the second and fourth, where they have gone at 82 and 81.
Now we can disregard the fourth-innings figure, because the two run-chases so far have been of small targets, and there has been a drop-off in bowling intensity as the chases have neared completion. But is it significant that batting in the second innings has been roughly three percentage points easier than it has been in the first?
In Indore, it certainly seemed as if Australia's spinners got the ball to turn more sharply, and quickly, on the first morning than their Indian counterparts did later in the day. It could have had something to do with the last bits of moisture that remained in an otherwise bone-dry pitch. Apart from aiding seam movement, moisture can help spinners too - the seam tends to grip the pitch a little more, and the leather to skid off it in a more pronounced manner.
In the days of uncovered pitches, it was reckoned that the most dangerous time for batting was not when the pitch was wet, but when it was "drying" - when there was a layer of moisture just below the dry topsoil.
In Delhi, wickets fell in clusters in each of the three morning sessions, and batting seemed to get significantly easier after lunch. This again could have been down to moisture, thanks to dew setting in in the chilly late-evening and early-morning periods, and overnight sweating under the covers.
There could certainly be something to the moisture theory, with control percentages rising from first to second innings in all three Tests. Delhi's weather may have contributed to something of an evening out, which gave both bowling attacks windows to exploit during the three morning sessions.
But perhaps this is too much theorising, and we might be looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Rather than teams winning because they are getting the best of the conditions, there could be a case that the control figures simply reflect which team happens to be in the ascendancy.
In a hypothetical environment where the pitch and weather conditions are the same for both teams, the team that bowls better is likely to cause more problems, resulting in a lower control percentage. If you have been bowled out for a low day-one total - as Australia were in Nagpur and India in Indore - your bowlers are likelier to try too hard to take wickets rather than bowl good lines and lengths and wait for mistakes. Pat Cummins sent down a wayward opening spell in Nagpur, while R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja overpitched frequently on day one in Indore.
It's also the case that teams defending low first-innings totals have to move to defensive fields earlier than usual. It can lead to the strike rotating more often, and errors in line and length while bowlers adjust to having a different batter on strike.
It's possible that teams batting second have got to bat in slightly less tricky conditions than teams batting first in this series. It's certain, though, that the team batting second has begun its first innings in an advantageous position in two of the three Tests. It's hard to say, therefore, if there has been any real advantage to batting second. It is, however, another immensely ponderable topic that this intriguing series has thrown up.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo