(Photo: PTI)
(Photo: PTI)

Why teams are preferring to bowl first in IPL

Since 2016, the teams winning the toss have opted to bowl first more than 8 out of 10 times, underscoring a greater conviction in the art of the chase

In the way he had been teeing off, anything was possible. Yet, 53 runs of 18 balls for the second time in 12 days? Chasing 205 against Royal Challengers Bangalore last week, Andre Russell delivered for the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) again, and with five balls to spare. Forgotten was his skipper, Dinesh Karthik’s inability to change gears. Freeze-framed was Russell and his sledgehammer blows, and a bigger question taking shape in the Indian Premier League (IPL): Is there any score teams feel they cannot chase down?

At the toss, teams are opting to bowl first with lopsided frequency. Of the first 22 matches in IPL 2019, the team winning the toss opted to bowl 19 times. The good sides, ostensibly, do so in the belief they can take the game deep and stay in the hunt, and then have power-hitters like Russell finish it off. The lesser sides feel it is their best bet to win a game, knowing how much to chase and sometimes having the opposition bowlers battle with the dew.

This wasn’t always the case. Till the 2016 season, it was closer, with teams winning the toss opting to bowl 52% of the time, and the decision to bat or chase seemingly being shaped by multiple considerations, including the wicket, pressure, lineups and dew. There were even seasons like 2009 (held in South Africa), 2010 and 2013, when teams preferred to bat first. However, between 2016 and 2018, teams winning the toss have bowled first in 81% of the games, a frequency they have maintained in 2019, too.


At a time when the possibility of scrapping the coin toss is being considered in the longest format of the game to give touring teams a greater chance at competing, the question of the toss affecting match outcomes in the IPL is also in play. But just like the longest format, there are sides that have a higher chance of converting a toss win into a match win, and then there are those that are not quite there.

It comes down to calibre. As it usually goes in the IPL, Chennai Super Kings (CSK) is the stand out team. In the nine full seasons that CSK has played, it has won 65% of the matches in which it won the toss, peaking in 2011 and 2018 (when it won the trophy), and in 2013 (when it made it to the finals).

After CSK, the next best is KKR, with a winning percentage of 57 in matches where it wins the toss. CSK being the aberration here can be attributed to its general winning habit. At the other end is Delhi Daredevils (now, Delhi Capitals), which has only won 40% of the games in which it has won the toss. Delhi, along with Kings XI Punjab, also holds the ignominy of losing all matches in which it won the toss in two seasons.

Historical IPL data does justify the current thinking of teams to bowl first. Only in two seasons has the performance of a side batting first exceeded the probability outcome of a coin toss (50%). This was in 2010 and 2015.

In all other seasons, sides that have chased have consistently returned better results than sides which batted first. The difference was especially pronounced in the 2014 and 2016 seasons, when 62% and 61% of matches, respectively, were won while chasing. In the last two seasons, this figure dropped to 52% and 53%, respectively.

Five of the eight current IPL teams have been more successful in chasing.

Among teams, Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad are the only teams that have won a greater percentage of their matches while batting first and defending totals. For all three teams, 53% of their wins came while batting first. Match venues also play a big role in making toss decisions. Former Australian captain Ian Chappell had once said about Adelaide: “At Adelaide, 99% of the time, if you win the toss, you bat first. The other 1%, you think about bowling, and then you bat anyway."

That spirit is especially invoked in a ground like the Chinnaswamy stadium in Bengaluru, where the boundaries are short, the pitch is flat and dew comes into play in the second innings. In Bengaluru, 85% of sides choose to field first. Then, there’s Chepauk in Chennai, where the pitch is slow and spinners come into play, and batting first has been the choice 73% of the time.

Other venues lie between Chinnaswamy and Chepauk, but more towards the former.

Teams prefer to field first, and that’s how it rolls in the IPL these days.

Harsh Gupta works at howindialives.com, a database and search engine for public data.

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