June 17, 2014

Time to dump the coin toss?

Let the home team prepare the kind of pitch they want but let the visitors decide whether to bat or field first on it

On the 2013 tour to India, Australia won all four tosses but lost 4-0 © BCCI

One of the most common utterances heard regularly in cricket is that if a captain wins the toss, they should always choose to bat first. The supposed original quotation, ascribed to WG Gracem was: "When you win the toss - bat. If you are in doubt, think about it - then bat. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague - then bat." Similarly, Ian Chappell quotes his grandfather Victor Richardson as saying, "Nine times out of ten when you win the toss, bat first, and on the tenth occasion think about it, then bat."

There have been numerous statistical analysis arguing whether winning the toss actually makes any difference to the outcome of the match. However, the question no one seems to ask is: why do we toss a coin to decide which team bats and which team bowls? In fact, when did tossing a coin to choose between the two options first become standard practice?

References to the common usage of metal coins can be found as far back as the 7th century BC in the Greek islands and across middle Asia. In order to distinguish between the values, coins were imprinted with different images or text, and as early as 610 BC the "Lydian Lion" coin from Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) had two clearly defined sides - a lion's head on the obverse and a punch mark on the reverse that occurred during the minting process. At some point, and with humanity being what it is, probably very soon after the first coin was produced, two people decided to bet upon the outcome of throwing a coin up in the air and seeing which side finished facing the sky.

One of the first records of coin tossing can be found in early Roman times with reference to a betting game called "navia aut kaput", which translates roughly to "ship or head", which refers to the coins that carried the emperor's head and a ship image on their two faces. People in England and France played a similar game in the middle ages, called "Cross and Pile" (or "pile ou face" in French), when coins featured a cross on one side and a pillar on the other. This long history of tossing a coin with two clearly defined outcomes lent itself perfectly to situations whereby a random choice featuring two different options presented itself.

By the time the first laws of cricket were produced in 1744, tossing a coin to allocate the decision-making power to one team or the other had become commonplace*. What was particularly interesting about tossing the coin during these early fixtures was that the winner had two different choices to make: the still-standard option of whether to bat or bowl, but also of where to "pitch the stumps".

Before the introduction of established cricket grounds with permanent curators and defined "pitch" areas in the 1800s, matches tended to be played in open paddocks with the stumps seemingly arbitrarily placed onto the flattest section. However, depending upon the make-up and relative strengths of the teams, where the stumps were pitched could make a significant difference to the overall outcome. A side with considerable bowling expertise would opt for a different pitch location to that of a team with a strong batting line-up.

Cricket authorities should also abandon the "pretence" of ground staff being supposedly neutral, allowing the home side to legitimately and openly tell the curator to deliver whatever type of pitch the captain wishes

Over time, professional groundsmen started to become commonplace and cricket grounds featured permanent pitch "squares". This change negated the need for the dual function of tossing the coin, and by the time of the 1884 Code of the Laws, it was reduced to the current convention of just choosing whether to bat or bowl. Winning the toss was still a substantial advantage, as the pitch tended to start off in good (or at least reasonable) condition and then progressively deteriorate across the course of the match. WG Grace's original premise about always batting first makes considerable sense in this light. However, as the skills of the curators have improved over time, there is now no significant advantage to batting first in Test cricket (e.g. "Is batting first in Tests such an advantage?").

When reading through the live comments on ESPNcricinfo around the time of the toss in a Test match, there are two very interesting themes that emerge from the fan bases of the various countries. Firstly, there are common accusations of "pitch-fixing", whereby the home team is considered to have unfairly and unreasonably altered the state of the pitch to favour the perceived current strengths of the home side or weaknesses of the visitors.

This is not new, and no country is immune to this accusation; Australian fans would probably have broken the web with complaints about Old Trafford in 1956 or Headingley in 1972. Secondly, there is generally widespread gnashing of teeth following a "lost toss" and how this has substantially disadvantaged their team. Winning the toss is still seen by many fans as being a major step towards the overall winning of the game.

Perhaps it is time for cricket to move away from archaic, historically derived and now irrelevant conventions such as tossing the coin**. It is therefore proposed that the next update to the Laws of Cricket should instead read, "The visiting captain gets choice of innings, and must inform the umpires and opposition captain of this choice 30 minutes prior to the scheduled commencement". However, at the same time cricket authorities should also abandon the pretence of ground staff being supposedly neutral, allowing the home side to legitimately and openly tell the curator to deliver whatever type of pitch the captain wishes.

If the home side is strong in fast bowling, they can prepare a "spicy" pitch to favour their attack. However, they would do so knowing that the opposition will have the right to immediately insert them onto the greentop. Likewise, if they have greater strength in spin bowling, a dry and dusty turner can be presented, but the home captain knows that they will have to bat last on it. In recent times, both of these scenarios have played out and generally the better team has still won.

A great example is the India versus Australia Test series in 2013. Australia won all four tosses, and chose to bat first on turning tracks in all four matches. India still won every match as they were the superior team in those conditions. This series should act as a template for the future, with the home team preparing pitches that clearly favour their strengths, but the visiting team can develop their plans knowing that they can, at least initially, dictate the direction of the game.

* Currently, the Laws of Cricket note that the captains must toss to determine the choice of innings. This toss must take place in front of at least one of the nominated umpires and has to occur between 15 and 30 minutes prior to the scheduled commencement of play. The winning captain then needs to immediately inform both the umpire/s and the opposition of their decision. The precise wording regarding the toss and indeed the full laws can be read here.

** Yes, this is completely tongue-in-cheek. Please don't take it too seriously.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow