If T20 is the future of cricket what to make of the data analysis that comes with it? Performance stats help decide how to bowl at opposing batsmen, set markers for the number of wickets during a powerplay and so on. Win the toss and bat? Time was when this amounted to something like a conventional wisdom, although the Guardian newspaper this summer reported that 72% of teams in T20 matches in 2016 batted second and that 55% of teams chasing won; a conventional wisdom overturned maybe.
Underpinning much of this is the belief that T20 cricket produces a limited number of variations and, given many games, what statisticians measure will be stable for long enough to introduce an element of predictability. While games may mimic some of the features of an experiment, it would be fair to add that data analysts have not solved what the 18th century philosopher David Hume called the problem of induction. So, if scientific methods in T20 cricket might be useful up to a point, the question is which point or points?
The new wisdom of win the toss and bowl seems to have permeated well in the T20 Blast; the bat: field first ratios being approximately 30:70 both last year and this. Prior to Finals Day, the number of games won batting first:second in 2016 was 52:63, something very similar to the (presumably more general) numbers given in the Guardian.
As to why there might be an advantage batting second, uncertainty about how the pitch will play and what constitutes a par score may be part of it. Limited overs games may be ‘moving on’ all the time, the effects of changing bat sizes, boundary ropes and mind sets that play the game. The average score of those batting first in games this year was 172, seven more than in 2016; given this background, playing wait and see after winning the toss is an understandable decision.
This seems believable enough for some games, although the numbers in 2017 after the quarter finals for those winning batting first:second were 58:53; which raises the question of whether the new wisdom has moved on to the point where it tilts the odds in favour of the opposition. Perhaps winning streaks in high profile matches have a disproportionate influence on thinking: in the 2016 T20 World Cup the West Indians won the toss, fielded first and won all six matches. Less commented on, maybe, was the experience of the 2016 T20 Blast winners, Northamptonshire, who won the competition on a losing streak of eight coin tosses.
It is, of course, possible that a more sophisticated look statistically, controlling for (measurable) other influences on winning might retrieve support for the current fashion for fielding first. It might do the opposite. It might also just be that statisticians have been making available the benefits of a sugar pill, or a data placebo, for those minded to swallow one.