In the first Test against Sri Lanka at Galle, Indian skipper Virat Kohli did not enforce the follow on despite having a lead of 309 run in the first innings. No reasons were given as to why India did not ask Sri Lanka to bat again, but from the comments that were offered by the experts one could get the impression that opting for follow on had become more of an exception rather than the rule in Test matches in the twenty first century.
What is a follow on? Law 13 of the new 2017 code states that in a two innings match having duration of five days or more, the side which bats first and leads in the first innings by more than 200 runs shall have the option of requiring the other side to follow their innings. In matches of lesser duration the quantum of first innings lead required for enforcing follow on shall be lower. Thus in a match of three or four days duration first innings lead required shall be 150 runs while in two-day or one-day matches it would be 100 and 75 runs respectively.
When Kohli decided that India would bat despite having a first innings lead in excess of 300 runs, one's thought immediately went to an instance when enforcing follow on gained India a big psychological advantage. In the first Test against the West Indies at Kingston, Jamaica, in 1971, play was washed out on first day and hence the Test match became curtailed to one of four days' duration. India was led by their new skipper Ajit Wadekar while the legendary Gary Sobers was captain of West Indies. India batted first after winning the toss and, after tottering at 75 for five wickets at one stage, reached a total of 387, helped by a brilliant knock of 212 by Dilip Sardesai. When the West Indies batted, good spells by off-spinners Erapalli Prasanna and S.Venkataraghavan helped India limit the hosts to 217, giving them a first innings lead of 170 runs.
Wadekar decided to enforce the follow on as India had a lead in excess of 150 runs. When Wadekar went to the West Indies dressing room to ask Sobers to bat again, he was stunned and asked how could that be done as lead was less than 200 runs. When Wadekar insisted, Sobers checked with the umpires who informed him that the Indian skipper was right. "Imagine the captain of a Test match side not knowing the elementary follow on rules", Wadekar had remarked in his autobiography "My Cricketing Days". The West Indies batted again and, with help of an unbeaten 158 by Rohan Kanhai and a stroke-filled 93 by Sobers, managed to save the Test.
This was the first instance that the West Indies had been made to follow on in a Test against India. This was also the first time that India had secured first innings lead over them in a match played in the Caribbean. The mere act of being forced to follow on was a huge blow to the psyche of the West Indians who had looked upon India as an inferior side. For the Indians this was a big boost to their morale and placed them in a positive frame of mind for the rest of the series, which they won 1-0. India's victory in that series owed in no small measure to the decision of Wadekar to enforce follow on in the first Test.
An analysis of decisions regarding enforcing follow on rule has shown that captains have shown a greater disinclination to opt for follow on after the second Test of the three-match series involving India and Australia at Kolkata in 2001. In that Test, Australia had asked India to bat again after securing a first innings lead of 274 runs. But a magnificent 281 by V.V.S. Laxman, ably supported by Rahul Dravid who scored 180, not only prevented Australia from winning the match, but also set up an Indian victory.
Statistics show that in the 141 Tests where it was possible to enforce follow on after 2001, only in 80 instances were it enforced, out of which 14 ended in a draw. On the other hand, out of 61 matches where follow on was not enforced, only five ended in a draw. In other words, not opting for follow on had a better effect on the final result than enforcing it.
What could be the reasons for this? One school of thought states that bowlers need a break after dismissing the batting side and would prefer not to have follow on enforced. With the increase in number of matches at international level, bowlers are an overworked lot and they would prefer to take some rest to recuperate before being asked to go out and start bowling again. This would make perfect sense when one finds that teams that have followed on have fared much better in the second innings, indicating that the same set of bowlers held lesser terror when they bowled again without a break.
Another probable reason could be that the basic reason for enforcing follow on no longer applies in present day cricket. Follow on was originally introduced to give the side that secured a good enough lead in first innings adequate time to bowl out the other side and win the match. The sole intention of the side batting again was to save the match and they used to depend on batsmen who would stay at the wicket for long periods to accomplish this task. However, as the speed at which runs are scored in Test matches have increased considerably during recent years on account of increased influence of limited overs cricket, such "stayers" have become a rarity. Moreover, one finds that when the side does not enforce the follow on, their batsmen are normally able to score fast enough to deny the other side any chance of attempting a freak win, while giving their bowlers ample tim to bowl out the opposition a second time.
The results of Galle Test that India won by a record 304 runs (the biggest margin of victory for them in an overseas Test) on the fourth day vindicates Kohli's decision not to enforce follow on. Maybe a time has come for lawmakers in cricket to have a relook at the provisions governing follow on - whether it should still remain in the books or should it undergo substantive modification in terms of margin of first innings lead, in case it is not to be repealed. The law as it stands today looks increasingly redundant in the conduct of modern game.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)