The case for scrapping the toss

Dilruwan Perera led Sri Lanka's charge with the ball Associated Press

Scenario One: Team A, the home side, win the toss, and knowing that the pitch is likely to get spicier on days two and three, decide to bat first. As expected, the second-day pitch is tougher for batsmen and Team A lose their last 7 wickets for 88 runs. Thankfully, though, their top order had scored so heavily in relatively friendly conditions the previous day that their total is a very healthy 426. They also have an attack perfectly suited to exploiting day two's conditions, and so proceed to blast out the visiting team, dismissing them for 131 before stumps, at which point the match is nominally alive, but effectively dead. Only a big Team A victory is possible from here on in.

Scenario Two: Try another game, this one on a different continent. Team B, also hosts, and also expecting conditions to worsen, win the toss and bat first, from which point a familiar course of events takes shape. Team B make 287, before letting loose a trio of bowlers who are specialists in the prevailing conditions. They scythe through the opposition, dismissing them for 126. This match too, is effectively dead before the end of the second day.

Team A is South Africa, and the match in the first scenario is their 2017 Test against Sri Lanka at the Wanderers, which finished inside three days after Kagiso Rabada and co. practically devoured the Sri Lanka batting line up alive, finding frightening bounce on a surface South Africa had had made to order. Team B is, of course, Sri Lanka, and the game in question is the Galle Test last week, where again, the visitors were easily thumped on a pitch which had been micromanaged to suit Sri Lanka beautifully.

Which brings us to the SSC, where Sri Lanka are 364 runs ahead at stumps on day two, with seven second-innings wickets in hand. Not even Don Bradman, Brian Lara and all of the Marvel Avengers could haul South Africa to a winning position from here. For the third consecutive Sri Lanka-South Africa Test, only one result is possible by the end of the second day.

There is no doubt that South Africa have batted abysmally in Sri Lanka. Bales of hay have lasted longer against flamethrowers than the majority of their batsmen have against spin on this tour. And the reverse is also true: Sri Lanka's batsmen were lavishly woeful in South Africa. But could the toss have made a difference? Perhaps the matches would still have wound to the same conclusions, but if visiting sides had been given the chance to bat in the best conditions, there is a chance they may have put up more of a fight, made a few more clearheaded decisions, and kept hopes of victory alive into days three and four.

The ICC's cricket committee has raised the possibility of doing away with the toss and awarding the decision on who bats first to the visiting side, but then decided to stick with the status quo at their meeting last month. The reason provided was that they believed the toss to be "an integral part of Test cricket which forms part of the narrative of the game". Essentially, the committee sided with tradition, for tradition's sake.

But where does this leave series such as this one? If Sri Lanka knew they would definitely be batting last in Galle and at the SSC, it is unlikely each surface would have been quite as dry to begin with. When Sri Lanka play two Tests against South Africa next year, they can also expect surfaces that will almost completely neuter their spinners. On their last tour in South Africa, Faf du Plessis publicly admitted to asking for tracks that took Sri Lanka's matchwinner, Rangana Herath, almost completely out of the game.

After Galle, Du Plessis had also made another suggestion - that the practice match at the P Sara had been played on a surface kept intentionally flat, in order to deny South Africa preparation on the kinds of surfaces they would encounter in the actual Tests. Rather than complain, he seemed to believe South Africa should adopt the same practice themselves. Is this not taking home advantage too far?

The point here is not that the tracks at Galle, or the SSC have been unfair. Sri Lanka's batsmen have found ways to score, and their bowlers are substantially more adept on such surfaces. But down this path also lies peril for Sri Lanka. They have another three-Test series against England coming up in November, and presuming that all those tracks will be spin-friendly as well, where does that leave them ahead of a southern summer in which they play six Tests across New Zealand, Australia and South Africa? The recent Test series against West Indies yielded them two young pace prospects in Kasun Rajitha and Lahiru Kumara, but it is possible that by the time these bowlers arrive in New Zealand, they would not have played a Test in five months, thanks to the three-spinners-at-home strategy. Their home-ground specialisation, could, in the end, set them up for failures abroad, which in turn leads to more low-quality cricket.

There are, of course, teams capable of taking down oppositions in unfamiliar conditions - Pakistan's victory at Lord's being the most recent example. But Test nations are moving more confidently than ever to secure what they argue is only a fair advantage at home. If this trend leads to more lopsided series such as this one, the ICC may need to intervene. Canning the toss could be a good start.