January 28, 2017

Why are teams choosing to chase more often in T20?

The greater power and depth of batting units has made chasing a distinct advantage in T20s. And that makes the toss ever more significant
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Fighting for the right to bowl: since the start of 2014, 61% of teams winning the toss have asked their opponents to bat first © Getty Images

When Perth Scorchers meet Sydney Sixers in the final of this year's Big Bash League, it is a safe assumption that, unless the wicket looks unusually bowler-friendly, both teams will want to chase. That has been the trend all summer long in the BBL. Twenty-seven of the 34 teams that have won the toss have opted to bowl. The seven who have decided to bat have all regretted it: they have lost every time.

Ian Chappell's aphorism - when you win the toss, you bat first nine times out of ten; the tenth time you think about it and bat first anyway - has been inverted. Yet it held true in Australian T20 cricket for many years. In the first season of the BBL, in 2011-12, just three times out of 31 did teams who won the toss opt to chase, a similar figure to the pre-BBL days in Australia. But ever since, chasing has becoming increasingly popular. Just over half of all teams opted to chase in the previous two BBL seasons; 79% have done so this year.

The penchant for chasing in Australia is a manifestation of a much larger trend. Until the end of 2013, 59% of teams chose to bat first, according to a database from cricket statistician Ric Finlay. Yet in recent years there has been a distinct shift towards chasing: from 2014 until the end of 2016, just 39% of teams who won the toss opted to bat first in matches. Chasing teams get a small but significant advantage: in the 2014-16 period, they won 5% more matches than those batting first.

The bat-second preference (as of January 25, 2017)
Year Percentage of teams inserting the opposition
2003 45.83
2004 51.02
2005 40.26
2006 28.42
2007 44.83
2008 42.08
2009 35.98
2010 34.81
2011 45.05
2012 43.45
2013 48.50
2014 61.11
2015 49.21
2016 72.05
2017 65.00

Batting second has become increasingly favourable as conditions have become more batsman-friendly. "When aren't they set up for batsmen? Small boundaries, flat tracks… yeah, it's just how it is nowadays," Tymal Mills lamented before the England-India T20I series.

Average scores in T20 cricket have nudged up in recent years - from 152 in the 2011-13 period to 159 in 2014-16, according to Finlay - making it harder for teams batting first to gauge what a match-winning total is.

Win percentage of chasing teams, by year (excluding ties/no-results)
Year Wins Losses Total Win %
2003 21 27 48 43.73
2004 24 24 48 50.00
2005 31 39 70 44.28
2006 41 50 91 45.05
2007 56 53 109 51.37
2008 108 85 193 55.95
2009 113 122 235 48.09
2010 152 155 307 49.51
2011 133 143 276 48.18
2012 159 141 300 53.00
2013 149 146 295 50.51
2014 176 157 333 52.85
2015 152 154 306 49.67
2016 186 154 340 54.70
2017 25 15 40 62.50

That has been Eoin Morgan's experience for Sydney Thunder this BBL, and indeed, around the world. "The level of skills batsmen have shown, the improvement dealing with levels of risk and finding boundaries means batting units or teams in general are quite comfortable knowing what their target is. The unease of posting a score, or knowing what a good score is, is becoming more and more difficult," he said. "Probably over the last three years, having a look at previous results or scores at the ground hasn't been as reliable as in the past. That's made it difficult."

So as batting has improved, precedent at a ground no longer provides a useful guide to what is a match-winning score. There is no real method, other than gut, for determining what is, say, a 175 ground and what is a 190 one. Teams batting first are at risk of undershooting, as when India made 192 for 2 in the World T20 semi-final, with Ajinkya Rahane performing his role - only, it turned out, it was a superfluous role - to perfection in making 40 from 35 balls. Increasingly they are also at risk of doing the opposite, and being so used to aiming for 200 that they fail to recognise when 150 is a match-winning score, and misjudge their plans.

Teams also now have greater batting depth. Bowlers increasingly recognise how they can make themselves more useful - and more likely to win lucrative contracts - by adding lower-order six-hitting to their games. Ben Hilfenhaus, who spent most of his professional career batting at No. 10 or 11, recently blitzed 32 not out to win a BBL match that appeared lost.

Sunil Narine, in action for Melbourne Renegades. As bowlers have sought to develop their big-hitting skills, batting line-ups have run deeper © Getty Images

"Bowlers can't afford not to bat in modern T20. They need to be able to slog a few," says Alex Wakely, the captain of Northamptonshire, the reigning T20 champions in England. "We prefer chasing because we bat so deep." Such depth allows teams to calibrate their run chases more effectively, and the greater proficiency of lower-order players can also liberate a side's top-order batsmen to attack more at the start of a chase.

Batting second also makes it easier for a side's bowlers. "The opportunity to bowl first also means you can usually stick to your bowling plans," says Charlie Burke, director of cricket for Cricket Hong Kong. For instance, having a spin bowler bowl two early overs and then return in the 14th and 16th overs, or ensuring that the final over is entrusted to a particularly skilful bowler. But when a side is bowling second, their plans have to adapt depending on the circumstances of the match - there is no sense in leaving the final over to the best bowler if the match looks to be on its way to being lost. When bowling second, bowlers are more likely to be forced to bowl at a time that does not ideally suit them.

There are some exceptions to this new bat-first preference. In the recent Desert T20, the T20 competition for Associates, ten out of 15 teams who won the toss opted to bat first - though nine of the 15 games were still won by the chasing team. Associates are less inclined to chase because teams tend to have less depth in hitting all the way down the order, believes Burke, though that could change as emerging nations gain experience.

And when wickets occasionally revert to favouring bowlers, it becomes much trickier to chase. During last year's World T20, the ground at Nagpur notably offered more assistance to bowlers than other venues; six of the nine matches there were won by the team batting first. But on the batting-friendly pitches that are increasingly the norm, batting second is a boon. So far in this year's Big Bash League, 61.8% of matches (21 out of 34) have been won by the side batting second.

"Probably over the last three years, having a look at previous results or scores at the ground hasn't been as reliable as in the past. That's made it difficult to set a target"
Eoin Morgan, England's limited-overs captain

There are areas in which bowlers can fight back, which might yet make captains more inclined to bat first after winning the toss. Innovators like the Bangladesh left-arm fast bowler Mustafizur Rahman, who has an astounding variety of deliveries, and Yasir Jan, an ambidextrous fast bowler from Pakistan, could shift the balance of T20s a little more in favour of bowlers. And a recent tweak to the laws of the game restricting the size of bats, which will be in force from October, could also make a modest difference.

Yet it seems more likely that the preference for batting second will increase further. "Teams are so heavily packed with power all the way through a batting line-up that chasing will become the norm," Wakely believes; pitches in T20 cricket are also likely to continue to improve. Since the start of 2016, chasing teams have won 11% more T20s than those batting first, suggesting the advantage is becoming greater. Should the proportion of matches won by the side batting second continue to increase, that would make the toss ever more important in T20.

The shortest format thrives on unpredictability; too much onus on the toss, as in this year's BBL, risks stripping T20 of a little of its excitement. If the trend in favour of batting second indeed continues, perhaps cricket's authorities could even become amenable to radical suggestions - for instance, sealed bids, with captains bidding a certain number of runs for the right to bat or bowl first - to reduce the importance of the toss. In the meantime, rarely in the history of T20 has winning the toss, and the right to bat second, been as coveted as it will be when Adam Voges and Moises Henriques walk out with the coin in Perth on Saturday.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • true-cricket_lover on January 30, 2017, 8:19 GMT

    If the trend continues the cricket sport will reduced to a level where the winner is decided on a simple Toss. We all know why teams choose to chase- to eliminate the uncertainity of what's a good score. Main cause for this is the size of the boundaries, besides other factors like the bat sizes, dew do contribute to this. If we look at the IPL stats, can observe from them that it is clear the teams batting second wins more often in Small boundary stadias- MUMBAI; DELHI; BANGALORE and the some what bigger ones the likes of MOHALI; HYDERABAD; CHENNAI do favor the teams batting first although batting second also got a decent record. Mind you in the both those stadias the muscular batters; bigger bats are there & dew is present but what even the contest between the teams is the ground size. It's time for cricketing bodies to step in & take counter measures to make the playing field even. Apart from Bangalore & Mumbai where and when did the Gayle & ABD played something substantial in IPL?

  • mirandola on January 28, 2017, 22:21 GMT

    It isn't rocket science; I think any captain of short-form cricket would tell you that he'd prefer to chase (that's certainly been my experience from playing Uni, Club and League cricket, anyway). Point is, going in first - unless you're certain you've got a winning side - you never know what might be a good score; chasing - well, you always know! It's generally really as straightforward as that.

  • espn23406671 on January 28, 2017, 20:07 GMT

    To reduce the importance of toss, split each innings into 2, both both teams bat twice for 10 overs. It will also make the game more exciting and sustain interest till late stages. ODIs should also be played as two innings of 25 overs.

  • Behind_the_bowlers_arm on January 28, 2017, 11:46 GMT

    If the pitch isn't likely to change due to early life or late dew then knowing what you need feels easier. You see some teams setting getting a bit confused as to what is enough on a wicket and how to approach their innings. Also obviously if you are batting second you also get a feel for how the wicket is playing and what is working and what isn't.

  • DrJez on January 28, 2017, 11:07 GMT

    The WT20 last year made this point very clear, although some observers didn't agree. Most notably the semi-final, India vs WI. India apparently thought 192 was a good score, but still lost. With as many as 8 wickets in the bank one assumes that India could have scored more had they needed to, by starting the final slog earlier. The SA vs England game made a similar point. England remarkably chased 229, scoring 44 off the first 2 overs. Would they have made so many runs without such a huge target to chase? I doubt it.

  • Jose...P on January 28, 2017, 6:53 GMT

    Ian Chappell's aphorism: When you win the toss, you bat first nine times out of ten, is based on Test Cricket. Primarily for 2 reasons.

    1. Pitches gradually deteriorates over 5 days, & you don't want to bat last.

    2. You have 90 + overs to use your 11 batters wisely, frequently re-assessing after every session. Twice

    -

    T 20 Logic is different:

    1. When you know the target, it is easier to pace the innings.

    2. When you have 11 players to use 20 overs, U can ask them to go & hit the leather off the ball, more often than not. Even if 1 or 2 fails in that process, U still have 9 or 10 more, to re-assess and reset the pace for the chase.

    -

    If the T 20 logic is so clear (of course in normal pitches), why did every one (almost everyone) follow Chappell's aphorism?

    Simple! Inertia! Until bad experience shook you off that inertia! That's the logic at Level 1.

    How to make the best use of the mix of the talents is also an issue, but it almost always come at Level 2, in my view.

  • Baddabing on January 28, 2017, 4:51 GMT

    I watched about a dozen BBL matches over the past few weeks, every one of them except one produced the same result - team batting first scores 163 plus or minus 5 runs and team batting second wins in the last over, that is just the inescapable nature of the t20 format,of course any captain would be crazy to choose to bat first.

  • Ledcult on January 28, 2017, 4:43 GMT

    Okay, limit the number of batsmen allowed to 9, so 8 wickets instead on 10 being available so more thought has to be used instead of blind slogging. Play 11, but reduce the number of those allowed to bat. Make it more interesting, designate each player into a band, say openers and first wicket down, band 1, middle order band 2, allrounder, bits and pieces, band 3 and bowler only, band 4. 9 players allowed to bat, but a maximum of 2 from each band plus 1. That would place more pressure on the better batters and reduce the depth aspect. As this is such a contrived game, a bit more tampering would not matter.

  •   Nikko Chunn on January 27, 2017, 23:25 GMT

    The stats don't lie much..... but occasionally they do. Batting first in Tests, ODIs and T20s is always the best option. You can't bat first and expect to win as a result, but you exert about ten runs of pressure extra in T20, 15-20 in ODIs and make the other team bat last in Tests and hopefully only bat once anyway..... There is one caveat however - you must do it WELL!! In fact winning usually requires you outplay the opposition.... scientifically and factually batting first will always give you an advantage. Maybe in many of your matches it was simply that the better side chased... and thus won. I mean T20 only requires one good batting display instead of two or three, so it could feasibly be comparatively easier to chase... but only comparatively. England beat India the other night by less than two overs... and India were singularly awful. But because England were chasing... it still looked possible India might win here and there..... It is all semantics.

  • blahblah1234567 on January 27, 2017, 23:08 GMT

    Batting is easier than bowling due to the pitches in t20s. That's a simple answer to the question.

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