Truii data visualization, analysis and management Australian test cricket team in Brisbane 1928 crop

Cricket: Should you bat first? Part 2: Bat or Field?

This is the second of a trilogy in whether you should bat or field first in test match cricket.

  1. The first post provides a little background and shows that there is no consistent advantage in winning the toss.
  2. This post analysis the bat first vs field first option based on all test matches.
  3. Post three (and the big clincher – like all trilogies) shows that regional differences are key to making the batting vs fielding decision.


Win the toss and bat

Most captains have subscribed to the bat first philosophy (Figure 1). The bat first philosophy was applied in 73% of all test matches, and in the early years (1880s-1970s) the toss winning captain chose to bat first 86% of the time. In the modern era (post 1980) the percentage of ‘bat firsts’ has dropped to 64%.

This is still significantly more than 50%, so there must surely be something in the strategy. For the statisticians amongst you, I split the record into groups of 100 games through time and applied the Truii trend testing to show that there is a significant (p<0.01) trend in the choice to bat first (although it is pretty obvious in Figure 1).


Figure 1: Percentage of time the winner of the toss elects to bat for all test match cricket games.

(source ESPN Cricket)

Bat first success rate

So you have won the toss and elected to bat. What are your chances of winning the match? Overall you are likely to win 3% more games than you lose when you bat first (Figure 2). However the data is all over the place, with no clear trend through time. Cherry pickers will see a rise in the success rate since 2004 but within the context of the broader data set these are well within the variation you would expect.


Figure 2: Batting first (after winning the toss) advantage (n=number of games where toss winner elected to bat first)

(source ESPN Cricket)

The data seems to indicate that batting first doesn’t give you any real advantage. The captain should weigh up all the variables and make a considered decision about batting of fielding.

Field first success rate

So how about those brave captains who assess the pitch on its merits and consider the upcoming weather and want to give their seam bowlers a crack on a juicy wicket with overcast conditions. To go against the conventional wisdom to bat first, you would want to have a compelling reason (to avoid looking like a goose when you lose).

The bat first camp includes those captains who have weighed up the conditions and thought that batting was their best option. But it also includes those captains who cannot decide, or simply go with the convention of batting first. Based on this logic, the field first camp should have a higher number of independent thinkers who choose to field because it suits them best (not because of convention). To follow through on this thinking, we would expect a disproportionately higher winning ratio for those captains who choose to field first.

To make sure we have a reasonable sample size I have restricted Figure 3 to those game groups where more than 20 of the 100 matches were ‘field first’ decisions. This restricts the analysis to just the modern era. In the heady mid 1980s, this strategy was ace – 38% more wins than losses when choosing to field first. The strategy really backfired in the period 2008-2011 with an increased loss of 25% by fielding first.


Figure 3: Relative advantage in winning the toss and electing to field.

(source ESPN Cricket)
Similar to the bat first strategy, the field first strategy yields no consistent advantage. Probably the key point is that either strategy gives you around a 3% improvement in chances of winning – as long as you choose the right one.

So how do you choose the right strategy.. blog part three looks at the regional differences: bat first in OZ, bowl first in the subcontinent..

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