The predicament of captains at the toss
Every Cricket match, be it backyard cricket, street cricket, gully cricket, school cricket, First Class matches or International cricket matches, starts with a bit of a raffle in the form of toss.
In International Cricket matches, as the coin goes up in the air, it is not only the captains involved in the process who are nervous. It is the entire fanbase of both the teams, whose hearts miss a beat before the tossed coin finishes its journey.
Once a toss is won, in Street Cricket, it is an easy decision for the “Captain” which is to bat first always. It is a no-brainer as the idea is to right away go and give a whack at the ball at the first available opportunity.
In International Cricket, it is not that simple. Even experienced captains backed up by knowledgeable think-tank are always in a dilemma whether to bat first or bowl first.
1. Factors determining the decision of captains at the toss
A) Format of the game
The format of the game, whether a five day Test match or a 50 overs One day International or a T20 match, determine the choice. If it is a Test Match, though not always, captains are more inclined to bat first.
If it is a T20 match, teams would want to bowl first as nobody knows what a safe score is in T20s. The ODI is somewhere in between where the captains take into consideration the other factors as well to arrive at an appropriate decision.
B) Locale of the match and nature of the wicket
When matches are played on slow and low sub-continental pitches like India and Sri Lanka, teams would love to invariably bat first, more so in a Test match. Such pitches are more conducive to bat on the first two days. As the game progresses, the wicket slows down bringing the slow bowlers into play.
Besides, in Test matches, teams shun to bat last in the fourth innings on a deteriorating pitch. Therefore, on sub-continental pitches, captains can ponder over the possibilities any number of times, but should finally settle for batting first.
Unless you are blessed with a Marshall, Holding, Roberts, and Garner in your bowling line up, it is always better to bat first in a Test Match in India.
When matches are played in places like England, Newzealand, and South Africa, captains are more willing to put the opposition in to exploit the bowler-friendly conditions on a fresh wicket. When overhead conditions are murky, teams would try to press home the advantage by bowling first.
C) Composition and strength of the team
A team, packed with fast bowlers would look to bowl first, whereas a team with more spinners would love to bat first. Some teams are good at chasing any target, while some others are more comfortable in setting a reasonable target and then defending the same with its bowling resources. Thus the decision of the captain is influenced by the team composition and strength of his team.
D) External factors like rain and dew
Cricket is the only game which is controlled by so many external factors like rain, dew, gloomy overcast conditions, the direction of the wind etc. In a day-night match, the dew factor will come into play. Bowlers struggle to grip the ball when there is dew. For the batsmen, the ball will skid through and come onto the bat nicely.
When captains anticipate dew later in the night, they choose to bowl first and complete their team’s bowling before the dew sets in. Sometimes, the spectators are left to wonder why so much importance is given to the dew factor. In a 50 overs game, dew is likely to set in at a later part of the second innings, perhaps after 30 overs.
In such a scenario, the pertinent question on everyone’s mind is why the captains are not brave enough to win the toss and bat first and take the game out of the reach of the opposition in the first 80 overs, well before the dew starts falling. There had been a history of Captains losing the plot after attaching too much importance to the dew factor.
In shorter versions of the game, when the weather forecast is for rain, the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern method will come into play which will favour the team chasing. Sometimes, the dampness in the wicket due to overnight rain may force captains to bowl first.
At times, by giving excess importance to external factors, captains err and play into the hands of the opposition.
E) The mindset of captains
One of the most successful captains in the history of Cricket, Ricky Ponting of Australia, always wanted to bat first. On the other extreme, during Rahul Dravid’s tenure as ODI Captain of the India Team, India successfully chased down targets on 11 consecutive occasions. The captain’s mindset plays an important role in such decisions.
F) The significance of the game
In a crucial match like a knockout match or the final, it is always better to bat first and put runs on the board. That way the pressure can be shifted to the opposition.