It’s time to bury the Kolkata follow-on myth

Glenn Mitchell Columnist

By , Glenn Mitchell is a Roar Expert

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    The theory that the 2001 Kolkata Test influences Australian captains regarding the follow-on is baseless and makes no sense.

    It is time to abandon the concept altogether.

    Let me explain.

    Steve Waugh’s first Test series as skipper was in the Caribbean in March 1999.

    He had a dream start with the Windies shot out for 51 in the last innings of the first Test at Port-of-Spain to hand Australia a thumping 312-run win.

    Waugh then won the toss in the second Test at Kingston and chose to bat.

    Australia was bowled out for 256 with the hosts amassing 431 in reply.

    When the tourists were rolled for 177 in their second innings the West Indies romped to a ten-wicket win.

    The hosts won the third Test and Australia the fourth leaving the series all square at two-all.

    To this day, Waugh rues the decision he made when he won the toss in the second Test.

    In hindsight, he believed had he inserted the Windies on the back of being all out for 51 in the fourth innings of the opening Test he could have broken their spirit with another solid bowling display, and as such, recorded a series win.

    That regret shaped the remainder of his Test captaincy.

    At Kolkata in 2001, in his 23rd match as skipper, he had his first opportunity to enforce the follow-on.

    He did not hesitate.

    After being swept aside inside three days in the opening Test at Mumbai, India was dismissed in its first innings in the second Test at Kolkata for 171, handing the tourists a whopping 274-run lead.

    Mark and Steve Waugh

    What ensued was a cricketing freak of nature with VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid batting the entire fourth day to set-up a once-in-a-generation victory.

    I was there commentating and I have never seen a day’s play like it and I doubt I will again.

    The teams convened a few days later at Chennai with India recording a two-wicket win to take the series 2-1 thus denying Australia their first series win on Indian soil since 1970.

    If anyone was to be scarred by such a happening it would have been Steve Waugh.

    He wasn’t.

    Four Tests and five months later at The Oval, Waugh had another chance to enforce the follow-on.

    He did and Australia won by an innings and 25 runs.

    Before his captaincy reign ended he had another six opportunities to enforce the follow-on and he did it each time and each time his side won.

    So, the man who led Australia to that famous loss at Kolkata enforced the follow-on on each of the seven occasions he had the chance after that fateful Test and won every time.

    Hardly a case of a captain or team being gun shy.

    Waugh’s successor, Ricky Ponting, played in all those matches so it is doubtful that he was mentally scarred by the time he ascended to the job.

    Around 18 months before the end of Waugh’s captaincy something did begin to change in Australian cricket, however, and it would shape future captains’ outlook on the follow-on.

    I was in the UAE in 2002 covering the Test series between Pakistan and Australia for the ABC.

    Leading into the second Test of the series – the first had been played in Colombo – I was watching the Australian team train at the Sharjah International Cricket Stadium.

    The team’s official scorer and assistant manager, Mike Walsh was standing behind the bowlers with a note book.

    I had not seen it before and after training asked what it was he was doing.

    I was told that at the behest of team physio and conditioning coach, Errol Alcott, he was keeping a tally on the number of deliveries each bowler was sending down.

    Each of the quicks – Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Andy Bichel – were on a set schedule.

    When they had bowled their individual allotment, as decreed by Alcott, they were told to stop bowling.

    It was the start of a regime that would only grow in subsequent years.

    In fact, as fast bowlers continued to breakdown – and Australia has had more in the rehab ward than any other Test nation in the last 15 years – the stringent monitoring of the quicks has escalated.

    In turn, it has become from and centre in the minds of successive captains in that time.

    With the exception of opportunities to enforce the follow-on in Asia – and they have been very rare – where teams are not keen on batting last, almost every decision has been predicated on bowler workload.

    Steve Smith said as much when quizzed about his choice not to ask England to follow-on at Adelaide.

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    “We know it’s a long summer”, he commented post-game, “And I think these bowlers we’ve got are very valuable, and just giving those guys a little bit of a rest always make me confident they can come back and do the business they need to do.”

    Rightly or wrongly, the health and ongoing fitness of Australia’s fast bowlers is the primary driver behind the decision as to whether or not the follow-on will be enforced.

    Hence, the mental scar that was supposedly left after Australia’s demise at Eden Gardens 16 years ago is a furphy.

    It is time it was put to bed – permanently.

    Glenn Mitchell
    Glenn Mitchell

    After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.