December 4, 2015

To flip or not to flip?

Has winning the toss given the home team a huge advantage in the last 15 years?

The India-South Africa series is the third in the last five months where the home team won the toss in each Test © BCCI

All numbers are for Tests played between the top eight teams only.

Darren Lehmann has become the latest voice to support the idea of doing away with the toss and allowing the visiting team the first choice over whether to bat or field. This follows the ECB's move to scrap the mandatory toss in the County Championship next season, and instead allow the visiting team to decide if they want to field first.

The move in England was prompted by the frequent use of excessively green pitches, which take spinners out of the equation. In the Indian context the concern has been the opposite. The pitches for the series against South Africa, the Nagpur one in particular, have been too dry and crumbly to start with, offering excessive assistance to spin from the beginning. All this has brought the toss into sharp focus over the last few months.

Admittedly, over the last five months, the coin has been especially cruel to the overseas captain. Since the beginning of July this year, 20 Tests have been played among the top eight teams - 17 of them in England, Sri Lanka, Australia and India, and three in the UAE.

In the 20 tosses that have happened in those Tests, visiting teams have lost 16 - this includes England's three Tests in the UAE, which have been taken as home games for Pakistan. Apart from that series in the UAE, where England lost all the tosses, there have been two other clean sweeps, in terms of tosses: India have won all four in their ongoing series against South Africa, and Sri Lanka won both in their two home Tests against West Indies.

In these 16 Tests where the visiting captains lost the toss, they went on to lose ten Tests, draw three, and win just two, one of which was a dead rubber that Australia won at The Oval. (The only other was India's win in Colombo.)

On the other hand, in the four Tests when the overseas teams won the toss they did much better, winning two and losing two.

The Oval Ashes Test was one of two matches since July won by the visiting team, which had lost the toss © Getty Images

The hugely skewed toss results in Tests on difficult pitches over this short period, and the way home teams have taken advantage of the conditions, is clearly a factor in the toss getting so much attention (though it's also true that in domestic games too home teams have prepared pitches that ensure the toss has too much influence on the result).

But five months and 20 Tests is too small a sample size. Have tosses had a huge bearing on results over the last few years? The tables below examine the results, overall and for overseas teams, since the beginning of 2001.

Overall in these 15 years, teams have a win-loss ratio of 1.113 when they won the toss, winning 206 Tests and losing 185. In home Tests this goes up significantly, to 2.333 (133 wins, 57 defeats). When they lost the toss, they still did pretty well, winning 126 and losing 72 (ratio 1.75); however, winning the toss improved their win-loss ratio by about 33%.

The impact of the toss wasn't as much in the period between 2006 and 2010. In fact, during this period teams losing the toss did better than teams winning it. Teams losing the toss had a 66-58 record during this period. In the last five years, though, the win-loss ratio for away teams rose by 48% when they won the toss, compared to when they lost it. In the period between 2001 and 2005, that percentage was almost 61%.

Teams winning the toss in Tests since Jan 2001
Period Matches W/ L Ratio
 Jan 2011 onwards  171  72/ 57  1.263
 Jan 2006 to Dec 2010  180  58/ 66  0.878
 Jan 2001 to Dec 2005  186  76/ 62  1.225
 Overall since Jan 2001  537  206/ 185  1.113

Away teams in Tests in the last 15 years*
  Won toss Lost toss
Period Tests W/ L Ratio Tests W/ L Ratio
Jan 2011 onwards 77 20/ 39 0.513 94 18/ 52 0.346
Jan 2006 to Dec 2010 95 22/ 45 0.489 83 19/ 36 0.528
Jan 2001 to Dec 2005 96 30/ 42 0.714 89 20/ 45 0.444
Overall since Jan 2001 268 72/ 126 0.571 266 57/ 133 0.429
* In Tests involving the top eight teams only; UAE has been taken as home venue for Pakistan, and away for the opposition
The away Tests exclude the Pakistan-Australia Test in Sri Lanka in 2002, and the Pakistan-Australia series in England in 2010

The recent Test results suggest that overseas teams have been disadvantaged by losing the toss, but the table below indicates that some of the teams have been extremely strong in home conditions even when they have lost the toss. Australia, for example, have a 28-6 win-loss record at home when they won the toss, but they did even better when they lost the toss, winning 27 Tests and losing just four, out of 41.

Similarly, overseas teams have found it tough in India: their win-loss record is 5-20 in 36 Tests when they won the toss; in Tests when they lost the toss, their record is similar - four wins, 15 defeats.

Sri Lanka is one of the countries where the team winning is toss is very likely to win the Test © AFP

In some other countries, though, winning the toss has made a difference to the fortunes of overseas teams: in England, overseas teams have a 9-28 record when they lose the toss, but it improves to 13-24 when they win it.

In Sri Lanka the numbers are even more stark - 5-14 for the overseas teams when they lose the toss, but 12-15 when they it.

Going by the numbers over the last 15 years, these are the countries where the overseas teams will benefit if the toss is done away with. For teams like Australia, India and South Africa, winning or losing the toss hasn't mattered much when they have played at home.

And then there's West Indies, who seem to lose equally frequently regardless of whether they win or lose the toss at home. They have a 7-14 record when they win the toss, and 6-14 when they lose the toss.

Teams in each country, in Tests after winning toss (since Jan 2001)
  Home team Away teams
Host country Tests W/ L Ratio Tests W/ L Ratio
Australia 39 28/ 6 4.666 41 4/ 27 0.148
Pakistan/ UAE 24 12/ 3 4.000 23 7/ 10 0.700
India 31 15/ 4 3.750 36 5/ 20 0.250
England 48 28/ 9 3.111 49 13/ 24 0.541
Sri Lanka 31 14/ 5 2.800 33 12/ 15 0.800
South Africa 34 21/ 10 2.100 31 8/ 16 0.500
New Zealand 26 8/ 6 1.333 25 9/ 8 1.125
West Indies 33 7/ 14 0.500 30 14/ 6 2.333

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter

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