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Analytics in Action: To Bat First or Bowl First in Cricket?

The biggest extravaganza in the world of cricket—the ICC Cricket World Cup—is upon us. The tournament is one of the world’s most viewed sporting events and is considered the “flagship event of the international cricket calendar” by the International Cricket Council. This is the 12th edition of the Cricket World Cup scheduled to be hosted by England and Wales.

For those not familiar with the game, cricket is played on a large field (or pitch) with a running area bound on either side by two wickets and six stumps. A bowler (someone who throws the ball) hurls the cricket ball while a batter (with a large flat-faced cricket bat) tries to hit it past a sea of fielders. Teams take turns at both offense (batting) or defense (bowling) based on a side out.

There are many factors that can influence a cricket match outcome:

  1. The weather on the day of the match dictates whether it ends up being a high scoring or a low scoring affair. 
  2. The condition of the pitch can also play an important role in the outcome. 
  3. The skill of the players can be a key factor.
  4. The toss… who doesn’t dread losing the toss? 

While there are several factors influencing the outcome, one of the most difficult decisions that captains must make is whether to bat first or bowl first. This is a crucial decision and a strongly debated topic. One way to decide is to look at history: How did teams fare batting first vs. chasing, and how did this pattern vary across venues. 

Can analytics help in making this decision?

Following are very simple Oracle Analytics Cloud (OAC) visualizations that look at all the world cup matches played from 1975 to 2015. Using OAC, it only takes a few minutes to gain interesting insights on a strategy to adopt for teams competing at the 2019 World Cup.

Eleven World Cups have been played so far, and England hosted four (4) of them. Australia won the World Cup 5 times; India and West Indies come in a distant second by winning two each; Sri Lanka and Pakistan won it only once.

A Marker in Finalists’ Strategy

Teams batting first won 63 percent of the time, while teams chasing first only won 37 percent of the time. So, if a team is skilled enough to enter the finals, batting first doubles its chances of holding that cup!

Team Strategies That Worked

Digging a bit deeper, this pattern varies by teams. For Australia and India, batting first or second didn’t seem to matter when they won the World Cup. West Indies, however, only won by batting first. So, if West Indies makes it to the final at Lords this time around, the best bet would be batting first.

Team Strategy When England Is Hosting

Since England is the host nation in the upcoming event, let’s shift our focus to only those World Cups which were played in England. Interestingly, when hosted in England, finals were won most of the time (75 percent) by teams batting first. 

When it comes to semifinals, it’s the opposite, with teams batting second having won most semifinals.
These numbers contrast significantly with semifinals and finals hosted outside of England. In all the other countries, teams batting first have won most finals and semifinals.

Venue-Wise Strategy

Could venue even play a part in this pattern? Let’s consider the premier venues of England where most of the games in the 2019 World Cup are about to be played: Birmingham, Leeds, and Lords. Teams playing there have done equally well batting first or second. 

But if you are playing in Manchester (where the 2019 semifinals will be played), history suggests it’s better to chase, while at The Oval (London), teams batting first have fared way better.

Let’s look at the venues where teams have won with the highest average runs margin. Birmingham, Taunton, and Chester Le Street are the preferred grounds to bat first where the winning margin is high.

Now let’s look at those venues where teams bowling first have won with the highest wickets margin. Canterbury, Lords, and Leeds are the venues where teams chasing first have fared well.

Looking at overall batting win rate across premier venues in England, Nottingham and The Oval are the most preferred venues to bat first. 

Team Strategy Across World Cups Games

Some individual teams historically fare better when batting first vs. chasing at World Cup matches, irrespective of venues and location. Australia, the top performer, has mostly won by batting first (60 percent). In contrast, arch rivals New Zealand are way better chasers (60 percent).

In the early days of World Cups or even other cricket matches, for that matter, teams always preferred to bat first. Bat first, score big, and put the opposition under pressure. But looking at the trend from the 2007 World Cup onwards, stats show us that there is not much of a difference in batting first or chasing. Does this indicate that teams are getting better playing under pressure while chasing? Perhaps they are.

Conclusion

Most of the cricket enthusiasts would argue that batting first has been the best winning strategy so far, but data does not always support that position: captains winning the toss would benefit from looking at historical stats to make an informed decision. 

For the upcoming World Cup in England, insights from historical data suggest a few distinct approaches: 

Semi Final 1 (in Manchester): Data shows that Manchester has been a venue where teams have dominated while chasing. It also shows that historically in England, semifinals were won by chasing. So, the team winning the toss is more likely to win the match if they let the opposition bat first.

Semi Final 2 (in Birmingham): If you win the toss in Birmingham, though the venue doesn’t favor teams batting first or bowling, data also suggests that there have been big wins with runs margin (i.e., by batting first). The team winning the toss is more likely to win the match if they bat first.

Finals (Lord’s): Historically, teams have won in finals in England by batting first. The team winning the toss is more likely to take the game if they bat first.

May the best team win!

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