Why second is so often best on English pitches

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The Independent Online

When does a pattern of results become a trend? Certainly not after three matches, even if each of the games played in this summer's NatWest series resulted in comfortable victories for the team batting second. Michael Vaughan and Brian Lara blamed their sides' batting for the poor performances at Trent Bridge, Chester-le-Street and Headingley. Totals of 147, 101 and 159 support the comments of the England and West Indies captains, but there is actually more to it than this.

When does a pattern of results become a trend? Certainly not after three matches, even if each of the games played in this summer's NatWest series resulted in comfortable victories for the team batting second. Michael Vaughan and Brian Lara blamed their sides' batting for the poor performances at Trent Bridge, Chester-le-Street and Headingley. Totals of 147, 101 and 159 support the comments of the England and West Indies captains, but there is actually more to it than this.

During last summer's one-day matches here there was a similar swing, with sides batting second winning 11 of the 12 matches played. To many this is still too short a period for conclusions to be jumped to.

But when the history of one-dayers in England is studied it can be seen that the side batting second can gain a 15.3 per cent advantage over its opponents by electing to bowl first when they win the toss. In an age when coaches and captains are spending thousands of pounds and hundreds of hours attempting to get a one per cent advantage over an opponent statistics like this should make the decision of an uncertain captain very easy.

England is not the only country where a decisive gain can be made from calling correctly. India, Pakistan and South Africa, where there is less than a three per cent swing in either direction, could be described as the fairest places to play limited over cricket and Australia is the only Test destination in the world where there appears to be a real advantage in batting first.

The West Indies is the venue where the greatest plus can be gained. Here there is an 18 per cent swing in favour of the side batting second and, ironically, it is in New Zealand - the third team in this summer's triangular tournament - where the third biggest gain can be made.

The presence of these three teams in England this summer, and the inability of sides to win matches when batting first at grounds in their country, could explain why fans are not seeing the runs flow freely.

Recently the weather has been grim but the most significant reason is the pitches. The West Indies, England and New Zealand are locations where pitches traditionally offer seamers the greatest help. Unlike in Australia, where they prepare one-day pitches for the day before the match takes place, grounds in England tend to produce surfaces which are fresh. Most contain a fair amount of moisture before the start and this makes batting difficult during the early stages.

These three countries are aware of the benefits of bowling first and have generally adapted their game plans accordingly. England have won significantly more games on home soil than they have abroad even though the old-fashioned attitude in this form of the game was to win the toss, post a decent score and then put the opposition under pressure.

The pitches can also confuse the outlook of batsmen who feel they have to post totals of 250 and more because teams have become so good at chasing down good scores. And it is the combination of attempting to set a big score on a pitch offering assistance to the bowlers which has led to too many teams being dismissed cheaply when they have batted first.

Each of the captains in this competition will be desperate to win the toss and get the decision correct over the weekend, when two crucial matches will be played in Cardiff and Bristol. For the second week in a row England have got away with playing back-to-back fixtures. Last weekend it was the West Indies who had to rush from Birmingham to Nottingham and on this occasion it is the Kiwis.

Stephen Fleming's side is top the table and two wins would ensure them a place in next Saturday's final at Lord's. A victory for Brian Lara's side would leave England needing to win their two remaining games.

"We have already learnt in this series that if the side batting first does not put up a good fight it is a mis-match," Lara said. "We have got to make sure that if the same situation arises again we have to be a little bit more mature and show a bit more fight and a better technique so that we can get the runs on the board for the bowlers. The toss seems to be affecting the results of games in this tournament but I reckon before this series is over a team batting first will win a match."

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