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
30

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • on June 18, 2014, 1:52 GMT

    I have been giving some serious thought to the importance of the toss to the outcome of matches and if so, whether it should be left to chance. While if one team is quite stronger than the other, the loss of the toss by the higher ranked team may not affect the outcome of the match,this is not the case where teams are evenly matched - the toss does influence the result!!

    My recommendation is similar to that of some of the other posters - the visiting team should given the choice for the 1st , 3rd and 5th test if its a 5 test series and the home team, the 2nd, and 4th tests . If the series comprise an even no. of tests, then the choice is shared alternatively as per above.In this way we remove one of the 2 extraneous factors (the other is the pitch) and leave it to the performances of the teams to det the result of matches .Ultimately netral parties should prepare pitches!!

  • kiwicricketnut on June 19, 2014, 22:58 GMT

    completely agree, it just evens the contest out but if they persist with the coin toss then just allow teams to finalise their playing xi after the toss so they can properly adjust to the game situation, they should do this straight away it just makes sense, take luck out and replace it with proper preperation

  • nafzak on June 19, 2014, 21:28 GMT

    I love tradition and I hate it when captains go out for the coin toss without their jacket. Yes, it's English and I am West Indian, but somthings should never change. There is a certain grace and charm in some traditions like the coin toss that makes cricket different than baseball or most other sports.

  • on June 19, 2014, 15:10 GMT

    completely agree with armughan. this is a baseball idea and doesnt suit cricket

  • on June 19, 2014, 10:16 GMT

    I completely agree. In fact, I had given such suggestions in the past. For an neutral venue match, we may still need the toss, but in that case, I suggest that we allow the team losing toss to be able to make 1 change to the playing 11, so that they can adjust the team according to the situation they find themselves in.

  • Sigismund on June 19, 2014, 9:50 GMT

    I have long thought the same; although (as others have suggested) perhaps the choice should alternate, with the visitors going first. Groundsmen should be free to prepare the best pitch as they see it. It is very annoying how many people seem to think that a groundsman can prepare any pitch he wants, just like that. There are rather significant environmental factors which mean that, in general, you get English pitches in England, and Indian pitches in India. Why should anyone think this is 'doctoring'?

  • suriaero on June 19, 2014, 8:05 GMT

    The element of surprise is lost here if we say good bye to toss. Instead let allow the captain to select / announce his team after the toss. This will bring in more flexibility to the tactics of the captain who have lost the toss.

    Another way to improve the test cricket is by allowing a player replacement if he gets injured during the play. Now a days bowlers are injury prone due to the amount of cricket they play and they are bound to get injured. Replacement is essential.

    Bring in 12 players with 11 allowed to play, With an option of replacing one player in first innings and another replacement in second innings. Suppose if the team needs 2 wickets and they require extra bowler with which they can rattle the opposition in no time while the other team can have an option of choosing batsman to stay in the match.

    Each continent should have its own nature of pitch. But do make result oriented pitch rather than flat bed track. Hope this brings in more entertainment to the game

  • on June 19, 2014, 7:23 GMT

    With a low cloud cover for sure you're going to want to bowl first to exploit the swing. This massively unfair advantage can only be negated by the toss which is about as fair as it gets, especially in one dayers.

  • on June 19, 2014, 7:09 GMT

    I guess whilst some matches are so obviously weighted by the toss this discussion will always occur - but surely over time it balances out??

  • parvez_asad on June 19, 2014, 6:45 GMT

    What will happen in case of tri-series, world cup or champions League

  • on June 18, 2014, 1:52 GMT

    I have been giving some serious thought to the importance of the toss to the outcome of matches and if so, whether it should be left to chance. While if one team is quite stronger than the other, the loss of the toss by the higher ranked team may not affect the outcome of the match,this is not the case where teams are evenly matched - the toss does influence the result!!

    My recommendation is similar to that of some of the other posters - the visiting team should given the choice for the 1st , 3rd and 5th test if its a 5 test series and the home team, the 2nd, and 4th tests . If the series comprise an even no. of tests, then the choice is shared alternatively as per above.In this way we remove one of the 2 extraneous factors (the other is the pitch) and leave it to the performances of the teams to det the result of matches .Ultimately netral parties should prepare pitches!!

  • kiwicricketnut on June 19, 2014, 22:58 GMT

    completely agree, it just evens the contest out but if they persist with the coin toss then just allow teams to finalise their playing xi after the toss so they can properly adjust to the game situation, they should do this straight away it just makes sense, take luck out and replace it with proper preperation

  • nafzak on June 19, 2014, 21:28 GMT

    I love tradition and I hate it when captains go out for the coin toss without their jacket. Yes, it's English and I am West Indian, but somthings should never change. There is a certain grace and charm in some traditions like the coin toss that makes cricket different than baseball or most other sports.

  • on June 19, 2014, 15:10 GMT

    completely agree with armughan. this is a baseball idea and doesnt suit cricket

  • on June 19, 2014, 10:16 GMT

    I completely agree. In fact, I had given such suggestions in the past. For an neutral venue match, we may still need the toss, but in that case, I suggest that we allow the team losing toss to be able to make 1 change to the playing 11, so that they can adjust the team according to the situation they find themselves in.

  • Sigismund on June 19, 2014, 9:50 GMT

    I have long thought the same; although (as others have suggested) perhaps the choice should alternate, with the visitors going first. Groundsmen should be free to prepare the best pitch as they see it. It is very annoying how many people seem to think that a groundsman can prepare any pitch he wants, just like that. There are rather significant environmental factors which mean that, in general, you get English pitches in England, and Indian pitches in India. Why should anyone think this is 'doctoring'?

  • suriaero on June 19, 2014, 8:05 GMT

    The element of surprise is lost here if we say good bye to toss. Instead let allow the captain to select / announce his team after the toss. This will bring in more flexibility to the tactics of the captain who have lost the toss.

    Another way to improve the test cricket is by allowing a player replacement if he gets injured during the play. Now a days bowlers are injury prone due to the amount of cricket they play and they are bound to get injured. Replacement is essential.

    Bring in 12 players with 11 allowed to play, With an option of replacing one player in first innings and another replacement in second innings. Suppose if the team needs 2 wickets and they require extra bowler with which they can rattle the opposition in no time while the other team can have an option of choosing batsman to stay in the match.

    Each continent should have its own nature of pitch. But do make result oriented pitch rather than flat bed track. Hope this brings in more entertainment to the game

  • on June 19, 2014, 7:23 GMT

    With a low cloud cover for sure you're going to want to bowl first to exploit the swing. This massively unfair advantage can only be negated by the toss which is about as fair as it gets, especially in one dayers.

  • on June 19, 2014, 7:09 GMT

    I guess whilst some matches are so obviously weighted by the toss this discussion will always occur - but surely over time it balances out??

  • parvez_asad on June 19, 2014, 6:45 GMT

    What will happen in case of tri-series, world cup or champions League

  • vinjoy on June 19, 2014, 1:49 GMT

    Quite logical but immaterial to ICC. Daryll Cullinan proposed it around 18 years back, around 1997 in an interview to media. 18 years now.

  • inswing on June 18, 2014, 22:42 GMT

    I have believed this for a long time, and it is a very good idea. It would serve to reduce the home field advantage a little bit. The home side would still win more often, but the advantage would be reduced. That's what we need, instead of 4-0 here and 0-5 there.

  • on June 18, 2014, 18:50 GMT

    that would kill the game folks, besides there are games at neutral venues as well. Reminds of the many right out of Major League Baseball ideas Dean Jones and Co tried as the members of ICC committee. Cricket is cricket, not baseball.

  • on June 18, 2014, 18:21 GMT

    Stuart, though tongue-in-cheek, this is not a bad idea. Create a proper 5 day pitch that helps quicks over the first 5 sessions, goes to sleep for the next 6 and assists spinners over the last 4. Sides would end up picking 3 quicks (more stamina required by them), 2 spinners (preferring that 2 / 3 of these 5 are handy batsmen). Wicketkeeper who can bat competently & 5 good btasmen.

  • on June 18, 2014, 12:10 GMT

    There is an old way to ensure equality between two parties. One is allowed to cut the cake, the other can choose the piece. The author's suggestion is quite logical and reasonable.

  • Harlequin. on June 18, 2014, 7:11 GMT

    Finally, a rule change I agree with!

    It is fun to think up little rule changes, but 95% of the time they tend to just complicate the game further without really adding any benefit (paddles952 and deckchair with a couple of excellent examples). But the one the article talks about both simplifies the game as well as potentially making it more interesting - I like the idea of different wickets/conditions and if the groundstaff are encouraged to create them then that is a good thing imo.

  • paddles952 on June 18, 2014, 3:52 GMT

    how about a skill challenge ? I.e like the old t20 bowl off... first team to bowl a single stump wins the "toss"

  • on June 17, 2014, 22:04 GMT

    It's a great idea in theory, but with some matches able to be decided by the toss it just won't work.

  • nursery_ender on June 17, 2014, 21:58 GMT

    If we do away with the toss it would remove one of the excuses from the armoury of the losing team. DRS has largely removed 'bad umpiring' from that list (despite the best efforts of certain video umpires). If we're not careful teams will actually have to accept their own inadequacy as the reason for a defeat. Do we really want that?

  • on June 17, 2014, 21:14 GMT

    Its a brilliant idea - doing away with the toss, however the alternative is not giving the visiting side an auto choice on what it wants to do. Though the idea does make a lot of sense to me, the home team gets to decide what the pitch should be like, however he should also know that the visiting team would get to first exploit the conditions. What happens in ODIs on neutral venues or well World Cup, where there are lots of neutrals. Further the curator has been known to mess up pitches, and so even though asked to prepare a seam friendly pitch everyone turns up to learn that the ball hardly moves. Also, a lot of room for deceit here, as the visiting team could be informed that a turning pitch has been sought, and on the day they find a green top waiting. I am all for the toss going for a toss, as sometimes its 'win the toss win the match' or toss weighing too heavily on the outcome. So do away with the toss but not in the way you suggested.

  • mrmonty on June 17, 2014, 19:58 GMT

    Yes, because we know pitches turn out exactly the way we expect them to (sarcasm)!!!

  • on June 17, 2014, 19:00 GMT

    Test cricket, as in life, entertains with its unpredictability factor and value of instinct. A "No Toss" situation would mean pre-coached players from both sides carrying out the gulped stuff over the course of the first 3-4 days and when it really gets unpredictable in the last sessions, have a what-to-do-now feeling. Its more logical that each of the 22 chalks out his own action plan half an hour before the play and learns to deal whatever situation he`s put in. As about teams not succeeding overseas, its not a new phenomenon. Just that we don`t have enough quality (players) to thrive on new surfaces. Taking the toss is really unfair to those who thrive(d) on talent and not just on the support staff manuals.

  • on June 17, 2014, 18:45 GMT

    Rock, paper, scissor could work too. Just optimistically speaking.

  • on June 17, 2014, 18:25 GMT

    A test match mirrors life, where the going is not always what you expect to be. By taking the coin toss out of the equation, you make it a mechanical setup for the first 3-4 days, where they write a schoolbook test gulped from the support staff's handbook. Above all, it takes the element of instinct out of the game, which is what the masters thrive(d) on. In such situations, a more uncertain environment in which everyone of the 22 players decide their course of action, 30 minutes before play gives a better sense of player's character and watching. And the home turf problem is not something new. it's been there forever, only that you don't have enough quality players acclimated to it.

  • MiddleStump on June 17, 2014, 17:32 GMT

    Not a good idea. Toss is not just a formality. There is strategy involved in the decision as well as the ability to read the pitch and weather conditions. Many tests matches have been decided by wrong decisions made by captains who won the toss.

  • Deckchair on June 17, 2014, 16:32 GMT

    Give each side 100 units for a whole series. The captain bids for the right to choose whether to bat or bowl. Sealed bids. Highest bid wins.

  • Sarathc90 on June 17, 2014, 15:01 GMT

    @Jonathan 'For Test Match series, the choice of innings should alternate, with the visitors getting the choice in the 1st, 3rd and 5th tests, home team in the 2nd and 4th.'

    Excellent suggestion. The most sensible option really. Came here to comment, but couldn't really add anything to it.

  • Jonathan_E on June 17, 2014, 12:46 GMT

    This idea would work for county championship matches, where everybody plays each other home and away.

    For Test Match series, the choice of innings should alternate, with the visitors getting the choice in the 1st, 3rd and 5th tests, home team in the 2nd and 4th.

  • TheCricketEmpireStrikesBack on June 17, 2014, 12:41 GMT

    The idea to give visiting sides the choice of whether to bat or bowl is the best idea in cricket for a very long time and I like Giffenman's suggestion for the idea to go viral.

    It would help reduce home advantage generally and result in more competitive cricket. Cricket needs a more level playing field - and not just at Lord's.

  • Giffenman on June 17, 2014, 11:25 GMT

    Sounds like an excellent idea indeed. The idea should go viral for the authorities to take notice.

  • Giffenman on June 17, 2014, 11:25 GMT

    Sounds like an excellent idea indeed. The idea should go viral for the authorities to take notice.

  • TheCricketEmpireStrikesBack on June 17, 2014, 12:41 GMT

    The idea to give visiting sides the choice of whether to bat or bowl is the best idea in cricket for a very long time and I like Giffenman's suggestion for the idea to go viral.

    It would help reduce home advantage generally and result in more competitive cricket. Cricket needs a more level playing field - and not just at Lord's.

  • Jonathan_E on June 17, 2014, 12:46 GMT

    This idea would work for county championship matches, where everybody plays each other home and away.

    For Test Match series, the choice of innings should alternate, with the visitors getting the choice in the 1st, 3rd and 5th tests, home team in the 2nd and 4th.

  • Sarathc90 on June 17, 2014, 15:01 GMT

    @Jonathan 'For Test Match series, the choice of innings should alternate, with the visitors getting the choice in the 1st, 3rd and 5th tests, home team in the 2nd and 4th.'

    Excellent suggestion. The most sensible option really. Came here to comment, but couldn't really add anything to it.

  • Deckchair on June 17, 2014, 16:32 GMT

    Give each side 100 units for a whole series. The captain bids for the right to choose whether to bat or bowl. Sealed bids. Highest bid wins.

  • MiddleStump on June 17, 2014, 17:32 GMT

    Not a good idea. Toss is not just a formality. There is strategy involved in the decision as well as the ability to read the pitch and weather conditions. Many tests matches have been decided by wrong decisions made by captains who won the toss.

  • on June 17, 2014, 18:25 GMT

    A test match mirrors life, where the going is not always what you expect to be. By taking the coin toss out of the equation, you make it a mechanical setup for the first 3-4 days, where they write a schoolbook test gulped from the support staff's handbook. Above all, it takes the element of instinct out of the game, which is what the masters thrive(d) on. In such situations, a more uncertain environment in which everyone of the 22 players decide their course of action, 30 minutes before play gives a better sense of player's character and watching. And the home turf problem is not something new. it's been there forever, only that you don't have enough quality players acclimated to it.

  • on June 17, 2014, 18:45 GMT

    Rock, paper, scissor could work too. Just optimistically speaking.

  • on June 17, 2014, 19:00 GMT

    Test cricket, as in life, entertains with its unpredictability factor and value of instinct. A "No Toss" situation would mean pre-coached players from both sides carrying out the gulped stuff over the course of the first 3-4 days and when it really gets unpredictable in the last sessions, have a what-to-do-now feeling. Its more logical that each of the 22 chalks out his own action plan half an hour before the play and learns to deal whatever situation he`s put in. As about teams not succeeding overseas, its not a new phenomenon. Just that we don`t have enough quality (players) to thrive on new surfaces. Taking the toss is really unfair to those who thrive(d) on talent and not just on the support staff manuals.

  • mrmonty on June 17, 2014, 19:58 GMT

    Yes, because we know pitches turn out exactly the way we expect them to (sarcasm)!!!