To bat or not to bat...

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To bat or not to bat…

Kamran Wasti

Pakistan’s test captain Misbah ul Haq was in a position to enforce the follow-on on three occasions during the last season and on each occasion, decided not to. While it was perceivable that the generally emotional followers of cricket in Pakistan would call that ‘defensive’, it surprised me then that even Umar Farooq of Cricinfo toed the same line stating sweepingly that by not enforcing the follow-on Misbah ul Haq had “missed a great opportunity to make a massive statement of intent”. It was no slip – Umar Farooq would repeat that assessment a day or two later when he maintained that “Pakistan’s decision of not enforcing the follow-on remained debatable as it might have reflected that Misbah still does not have as much confidence in his bowlers to take another 10 wickets with an extensive lead of 354 runs”. A few days back, Michael Clarke did not make England bat again at Lord’s and sparked statements of mockery, particularly from Indian cricket followers who naturally referred to Calcutta 2001.

It is very easy to be carried away by the prospect of an innings win and make sweeping statements about the ‘negativity’ of the captain in question but it would help to remember that there have been just three instances of a team actually losing a test after enforcing the follow-on in over 2200 tests which amounts to less than 1%. In each of those three cases, the team that won feasted on tired bowlers and some poor captaincy by the losing captain: In the first instance, Australia made England bat again (still early days of cricket) after bowling around 150 overs and then the captain made George Giffen bowl 75 overs to match his first innings number in a timeless test. The other two instances had some superhuman performances from Ian Botham, Bob Willis, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Harbhajjan Singh. However, taking nothing away from those five, the match result also owed a lot to what virtually amounted to stupidity of the bowling captain. At Leeds, Kim Hughes kept up with his fast-bowlers bowling to aggressive fields and Botham and Dilley kept hitting them out. An over or two from Ray Bright could easily have changed things. Even then, a target of 130 was not a big deal but Australian batting, dubbed one of the worst to tour England in ages by Ken Piesse no less, collapsed to Bob Willis on a wicket that was increasingly developing uneven bounce. Similarly, at Calcutta, Australia made India bat again on the third day on a wicket that was playing its best and by hoping that the Indians would fall fumble with their patience as they faced a constant wide outside the off-stump line. They did not. Even then, Australians could easily have saved the test match but foolishly went about chasing the target and lost heavily.

What cricket followers do not realise is that a lot has changed over the past twenty years. Most critically, there are no rest days – consider Kim Hughes’ decision which was perfectly justified in terms of his bowlers’ workload: He enforced the follow on after England had been bowled out in just 50 overs and then had a rest day to follow immediately after his decision. Steve Waugh, on the other hand, assumed that India, at Calcutta, would collapse just as easily after the enforcing the follow-on early on the third day without worrying about some of the ground realities that I have already mentioned earlier.

Misbah ul Haq’s decisions should be taken in that vein. In the two tests against Australia and New Zealand, the follow on was not enforced after bowling Australia out in around 70 overs on the third day through a limited bowling attack on a flat wicket. With two days and a quarter to go, Pakistanis chose to bat on and won with loads of time to spare. On the same ground against New Zealand some days later, the follow was again not enforced on the third day and again Pakistan batted. They had a similarly limited, inexperienced bowling attack. And in both these cases, there was no rest to day to follow that third day. The decision against Bangladesh was more straightforward as it became obvious that Misbah clearly only intended to give his bowlers some rest as Pakistanis batted for only around 40-odd overs and then got about their business on the third day.

A lot of things have changed over the course of time. Bowlers get injured more frequently than they did back then. The rest days have gone. Results have become more frequent. Scoring rates have increased. Enforcing the follow-on in the 1980s and 1990s was plausible as usually, the decision-making time came on the third day with a rest day to follow or indeed at times on the fourth day when time was at a premium. All that in an era where anything above 2.5 runs an over was considered fast-scoring. Not so now when teams bowl out the opposition on the third or even on the second day and most captains recognise the value of preserving their bowlers and letting them loose on a crumbling wicket.

At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to win a test for your side. If enforcing a follow-on increases that probability or presents a more viable option, then doing so helps. If not, it should remain what it is: An option rather than an obligation and should never used to judge a team’s or a captain’s “manliness” or “intent”.

Perhaps the sensible among us would take cue from what Arjuna Ranatunga had to say when asked about why he opted to bowl first at the Oval in 1998. “The bowlers would be too tired,” he said implying that he would have had been in a position to enforce the follow-on. He opted not too by bowling first and Muralitharan, with 40 percent of all Sri Lankan overs and 16 wickets, ensured a ten-wicket win. Nothing defensive about it. There was nothing defensive about Misbah’s tactics too as Pakistan completed three of their biggest wins ever (221 runs, 356 runs and 328 runs) with ample time to spare.

Contrary to the popular belief, not enforcing the follow-on was not made fashionable by the Australians by the Bob Woolmer-Hansie Cronje era South African team who, as a norm, would bat on. Woolmer identified the potential workload that his prime bowlers, particularly Alan Donald faced and sought about devising strategies that would ultimately see Alan Donald become the best fast-bowler in the world during his era. Pakistanis on the other hand can console themselves that they had their opponents on the defensive – particularly in Johannesburg in 1995 and 2013 where they lost by 324 runs and 211 runs respective. Indeed at Hobart (2010) and Perth (2004) too where the defeat margin was merely 231 and 491 runs respectively. And as for Misbah, while he can be criticised on a lot of counts, blasting his follow-on decisions, especially when he led Pakistan to big wins with plenty to spare is at best preposterous.

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