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The Strange Power of the Follow-On

In Some Cricket Matches.. by Bill Ricquier

Nobody could have been surprised by the result of the First Test between Australia and the West Indies at Hobart. A thumping victory for the hosts , who had earlier made short shrift of a more challenging- though strangely low-key – New Zealand side, was always on the cards. But the mode of West indies’ defeat- not just its general air of hopelessness -was worthy of note. West Indies were asked to follow on- an increasingly rare event in Test cricket and almost unheard of in Australia these days.

There is no real equivalent in any other sport to the special indignity represented by being asked to follow on. In a five day Test the required margin is 200 runs. The humiliation of having to go back in , with the other side being in a position of such dominance that they do not feel the need to take their second innings , has often historically been enough to condemn the weaker team to defeat. Whether the West Indies will be able to recover from this particular setback must be open to doubt.

Forty years ago a very different West Indies side – young , yes , like this one but proud and spirited , slumped to a traumatic five-one defeat in Australia at the hands of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. The margin of victory was more than conclusive: it was overwhelming, although there were no innings victories and no follow-ons. But there were consequences. The West Indian captain , Clive Lloyd , took stock of what had happened to his side. Introducing a four-man pace attack he revolutionized Test cricket and took the West Indies to a position of dominance that lasted for the best part of twenty years.

Nothing like that is going to happen this time. This is more like the tour of 2000-2001, when the West Indies lost five- nil in Australia. Their team included Courtney Walsh, Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul but they were out of their depth. Still, however bad a team you are, if you bat first, at least you can’t be asked to follow on. In that series the West Indies batted first in four of the Tests, the first two of which they lost by an innings. In the fourth Test at Melbourne , Australia batted first and made 364, captain Steve Waugh making a hundred. West Indies made 165 in their first innings , avoiding the follow on by the narrowest margin. Walsh, , who was batting at the time, was so excited at avoiding the follow on that he ran himself out going for a third run. Such is the strange power of the follow on. Not that saving it made much difference :Australia’s ultimate margin of victory was 352 runs. A young Marlon Samuels – the only survivor from either side in the current series – made a defiant fifty in the second innings. He was a wraith-like presence at Hobart.

Walsh had deprived Waugh of what would have been his first opportunity as captain to enforce the follow on in Test cricket. That chance finally came in Austalia’s next series , in India , in February/ March 2001. In this series Waugh took his run of consecutive Test victories to a record sixteen. Then came the extraordinary third Test at Kolkata , where Waugh , having again scored a century in Australia’s first innings, at last enforced the follow on , and lost , as V V S Laxman and Rahul Dravid batted Australia out of the game. For the third time in Test history , a side – Australia, as it happens, each time – had lost after enforcing the follow on.

Is this why the follow on has become less common? Maybe, partly. Waugh, a particularly ruthless captain , was certainly not put off enforcing the follow on. But his successors perhaps lacked that singular aggressive streak. Michael Clarke, for all his perceived tactical nous, enforced the follow on only once, in his final Test, against England at The Oval in 2015. Other highly regarded captains, such as Andrew Strauss, were similarly cautious when it came to the follow on.

The reasons are perfectly understandable. No more rest days in Tests, everything is going against the bowlers . Too much cricket, and all the rest of it.

In the ” old days” different reasons could be found for not enforcing the follow on. In 1959, India had a difficult tour of England, losing five-nil. England won two of the first three Tests by an innings, India following on in the first . In the fourth, at Manchester, England made 490 and at close of play on the second day( Friday) India were 127 for six in their first innings. Before play began on the Saturday the England captain, Colin Cowdrey, took the unusual step of announcing that , as the weather was rather nice and the August Bank Holiday was approaching, England would not be enforcing the follow on. India made a decent fist of the fourth innings, with a century on debut from Abbas Ali Baig, , drafted in from the Oxford University side to replace the injured Vijay Manjrekar, and another from the highly experienced but hitherto ineffective Polly Umrigar. But it is difficult to avoid the feeling that England could have got the whole thing over and done with much earlier than the morning of the fifth day.

Sometimes the indignity and humiliation can be inflicted without the need to enforce the follow on. No better example exists than Sri Lanka’s memorable victory at The Oval in 1998. England made 445 , taking the best part of two days to get them. Muttiah Muralitharan took seven for 155 in 59.3 overs. When Sri Lanka batted , it was like a different game. Sanath Jayasuriya eased to 213 off 278 balls. Aravinda da Silva made 152. Sri Lanka made 591. There was nowhere to hide when England batted again. Muralitharan took nine for 65 in 54.2 overs asEngland were dismissed for 181. Sri Lanka won by ten wickets.

The point is – Arjuna Ranatunga, Sri Lanka’s captain, won the toss. Like Angelo Mathews in the recent Test at Dunedin he invited his hosts to bat on a belter. Apart from the fact that the invitation was gratefully received, there the similarity ends: there is only one Muralitharan.

After the game, Ranatunga gleefully and predictably said that his decision on winning the toss was all part of a cunning plan – to give Muralitharan a break between innings. In other words, if he had batted first , he would have enforced the follow on.

Well , maybe.. After all, history is written by the victors.

Bill Ricquier, 16/12/2015.

The article was featured in ESPN Cricinfo:

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