We go about our routine in a manner that often strays into the path of monotony with the same old schedule to follow and the same old pattern to adhere to, day after day and season after season. In our almost machine-like existence, we are unable to explore the finer nuances; our zombie state robbing us of the opportunity to leave a lasting mark on humanity. Yet, once a while the opportunity does come along. The chance to overcome the sturdiness and leave an impression that will test the test of time. An act that will be so overwhelming that it shall forever be associated with you; never to leave your side.
A watershed moment of sorts. As Test cricket rumbled on and on and on with hardly any excitement for the generation that had made the switch to One Day Cricket, the Ides of March way back in 2001 brought with it its new history. A format that had kept many citizens awake with the level of competition on offer was now swept over with the phenomenon of half-asleep eyes, blankly glued to the television sets as they desperately tried to stay in touch with the five-day format. Test cricket badly needed a saviour and the hallowed Eden Gardens was privy to a momentous occasion in which the immortal Australians were battled and the history books accommodating a new chapter.
The chapter on “Follow-ons and Psychology in Test Cricket”. As much as cricket is a physical contest between the bat and the ball, it is equally a game of the sledges and the ability to unnerve the rivals. As much as it is about a bowler racing up to bowl at 150 kmph, it is equally about the fiery stares offered by them to the batsman once the delivery has been bowled. The mundane happenings are interrupted by the ruffling which often leads to the batsman being dismissed or the bowler losing his momentum completely, never to find it again in the game.
However, these are smaller in magnitude. Each mini-battle is confined to that particular game and hardly threatens to loom large over the greater horizon of cricket. And this is why the 2001 Kolkata Test match stands tall. Not only did it dent the 16 consecutive Test winners Australia, it affected the players playing at that time and the players who will play later as well, where decades later, captains and coaches tremble to call upon the follow-on, choosing to bat a second time instead.
The impact of the game can just be seen in the numbers available. From 1981 to 2001, in matches where follow-ons were applicable, 70 of the 77 games had teams following-on, a whopping 91%. Since then just 56.7% of the games have seen follow-ons and in the last two years, those numbers are only declining.
Australia did not ask England to bat a second time in the 2006/07 Ashes even after they had a lead of 445 at the Gabba. England had a lead of 391 against Pakistan and chose to bat again at Old Trafford in 2016. Pakistan was safe with 309 runs ahead in the first innings in Abu Dhabi in 2014 but they did not send Australia to bat again. The only two recent matches that come to mind where it was enforced is the Hobart game between Australia and West Indies in 2015 and the Test match between India and Sri Lanka earlier this year.
So what exactly has changed? Is the psychological impact from 2001 so deep-rooted that Steven Smith was quick to bat again in the second match of the Ashes at the Adelaide Oval despite having a lead of 215, only to rue it later? Is it muddling with the way the captains think and is it forcing them to tread the defensive route instead of going out all guns blazing? Yes and no.
The scars are still present. Maybe if the comeback in 2001 had not been staged, we would have seen many more follow-ons being imposed, which would have been a more aggressive style of playing Test cricket. Taking the opposition and scuffing them mentally is what the beauty of cricket is but with flatter pitches and high scoring rates, it is often difficult to do just that.
A team has a lead of 200. The opposition is allowed to bat a second time. It is game on. The bowlers who have sweated it out for almost 100 overs for one and a half days en route the ten wickets have to bowl again. Just a twenty-minute break for them in between the two innings as the battle for another ten starts right away.
Even though the rivals are less of a threat, the very thought of taking up ten wickets AGAIN is exhausting. The pitch hardly has anything for the bowlers. It is as placid as a highway. The task of proving the captain right and taking all the wickets again, preferably without having to bat again is a lonesome uphill task. Niggles have to be shrugged off and the first ball of the second innings is on its way.
The team who has been given the follow-on now emerge a stronger unit. With the vision of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid around them, they embark on a new mission. Overhauling the deficit and then notching up runs in a jiffy. The pitch has no visible demons and the upsurge of T20 cricket has meant that run rates of 3 to 3.5 runs an over is achievable in the Test arena.
The deficit is overhauled in two sessions and the aim is to bat out another two. Even a lead of 150 can prove to be a challenging ballgame and thus begins a riveting contest of bat and ball. The spinners have a say on the fifth day and a couple of quick wickets ensures the tables have been turned, and how.
In yesteryears, when teams would pace at a run rate of 2 runs per over, the chances of a comeback if asked to bat again were much lesser. Hence most results would either be an outright win or a commendable draw. Previously, the pitches too had greater sting and wicket-taking was not such a notorious task as it is today.
With long series and incessant matches, captains shy away from exposing their bowlers to the grind again. But as Smith, haunted by the memories of Kolkata, refused to let England bat a second time, only to regret it later, will say in the rest of the Ashes- “To follow-on or not to follow-on; that is the question!”