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No toss is fine, but what about the spinners?

What's wrong with the odd dustbowl? Getty Images

Despite the advice of one or two team-mates, I've always felt the toss was a completely random affair, lacking in both technique ("It always falls on the side facing up") or pattern ("Tails never fails"). Even so, the toss was often the start of me being blamed - sometimes for simply losing it, at others for making the wrong decision - so occasionally I'd shift this burden back on to the mouthier players by canvassing opinion and suggesting that since I'd followed their lead, they better bloody get it right.

The significance of the toss is hard to know - enough, evidently, for the odd opposing captain to pick up the coin before I'd had chance to check the outcome - although its weight in club cricket is to a large degree determined by the low quality of the pitches and the format of most Saturday-afternoon games, which necessitate ten second-innings wickets being taken for a win.

As Jon Hotten blogged here a couple of months back, it isn't clear how much of an advantage winning the toss actually comprises. A recent Numbers Game column showed (apropos a suggestion of Darren Lehmann's that the away team should be given the toss in Test cricket) that this eventuality has of late increased the chances of victory in England and Sri Lanka, but not in Australia and India - although one must be wary of drawing causal conclusions from these bare facts, since a team's capacity to exploit the toss is dependent on the bowling resources at their disposal.

In higher standards and the longer formats of the game, the toss shouldn't be all that significant. Optimally, the advantage of bowling on the first morning, while the pitch still contains moisture, should be counterbalanced by the notional disadvantage of having to bat last. Of course, perfect balance is unattainable - if only because of cricket's essential asymmetry: two direct antagonists, yet each doing different things at different times in different, ever-evolving conditions - yet should be pursued nonetheless.

It is the lack of another type of balance in the prevailing conditions of County Championship cricket - conditions that rarely favour spin over seam - that has in part led to this year's somewhat radical experiment with the toss, whereby the visiting captain, if he so wishes, can opt to bowl first, otherwise there will be a contested toss.

"Doing away with the toss is undoubtedly an ambitious tweak to the county cricket ecosystem, but in many ways it leaves the basic character of that ecosystem - that it's always seam-bowler friendly - unchallenged"

The change has been designed to stop teams producing "result pitches" (in an English context, greentops), and thus to prevent mediocre bowlers being as penetrative as they currently are, which, in turn, will help, it is hoped, reverse the decline in English spin bowling, in both numbers and quality. Discussing the rule changes in an interview on this site, former England batsman Robert Key said: "My original view was that we should have tougher penalties for poor pitches. But that is so hard to police. It just becomes a minefield. But what I still think is that the stigma over spinning pitches has to end. If we see 15 wickets fall to seam bowling on the first day of a game, nobody bats an eye. But if the ball turns on day one, people start to worry. That has to stop."

It is undoubtedly an ambitious tweak to the county cricket ecosystem, but in many ways it leaves the basic understanding of the character of that ecosystem - that it's always seam-bowler friendly - unchallenged. The options presented to the visiting captain only reinforce that bias.

As it stands, the away captain can either bowl first (presumably to take advantage of excessive moisture in the pitch) or can contest the toss, the inference being that he would either prefer to bat first or is a pathological gambler. In other words, if the advantage lies in bowling first, then that advantage is automatically handed to the visitors. Again, this is to disincentivise the home groundsman from preparing pitches too favourable to medium-pacers, whichever team they play for.

But what about the spinners in all this?

Taking the opposite view to Key, Yorkshire captain Andrew Gale was against the experiment, arguing that it removed the potential exploitation of home advantage. But that isn't strictly true. What if your team has two excellent spinners, the visitors don't, and the groundsman prepares an ultra-dry pitch, perhaps one on which there has already been a 50-over and T20 game? Clearly the advantage at the toss would be to bat first, since the pitch is only going to get worse. So why isn't that option available to the visiting captain? (Perhaps the options at the toss could switch on July 31, the start of the English summer, although most clubs have only four or five Championship games remaining by then.)

If the foregoing scenario panned out under this summer's regulations, the home team captain would know for sure he had a 50-50 chance of being able to get the best out of this pitch (batting first, bowling last) and might thus instruct the groundsman to take the gamble to make a spinning pitch. On a green pitch, he almost certainly knows that he will be batting first, in the least advantageous conditions, and so probably won't. So the new rules aren't an automatic advantage for the visitors.

It could be argued that, either way, English cricket still gets the net result of more spinner-friendly surfaces, simply by virtue of them being less green. But why not have the odd home team-favouring dustbowl, for variety's sake? After all, England's two best Test spinners of recent times, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, learnt their trade by bowling plenty of overs on helpful Northampton strips.

Anyhow, it's clear that any beneficial long-term changes to the character of county cricket - in particular, the percentage of overs bowled by spin - will take time to emerge, although this season's number of draws (52 out of 79 games, already more than last year's total, with 65 games remaining) and double-hundreds (13, compared to 16 in total last year) already suggests the pitches are flatter.

Ultimately the whole problem with pitches is bound up with the consequences of losing. It is competition - the jeopardy of the two-divisional structure; the omnipresent threat of settling in to second-rank status, second-rank budgets, young talent forever seduced by greener (or browner) grass elsewhere - that creates the doctoring and distortions. A short-term outlook for the county takes precedence over long-term benefits for England.

The ECB taking macro decisions to seed conditions in which spinners might flourish is a hugely complex affair without any guarantees. When all is said and done, perhaps centrally contracted groundsmen would offer the best solution, alongside universal recognition that English cricket is diminished without encouragement and opportunity for its spinners.

Time will tell how the experiment with the toss changes things, but a recent ESPNcricinfo poll revealed that 54.64% of 1583 respondents thought offering the visiting team the option to bowl first was a good idea, which, given the reaction to a recent high-profile vote, is tantamount to unanimity.