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Is it worth considering dropping the toss in Test cricket?

What's wrong with home advantage? Test cricket is the ultimate challenge partly because sides are at liberty to tailor conditions to suit their strengths, like with spin-friendly conditions in India BCCI

Have non-contests ever been as hotly contested? It's fair to say that when the alterations to the playing conditions of the 2016 County Championship were announced, there were a good number of conflicting opinions, and words, flying about. Visiting captains were to be given the option of foregoing the toss if they wanted to bowl first, the idea being to negate home reliance on green seaming wickets. "Toss uncontested" duly made its appearance on scorecards from Headingley to Hove.

After one season - and one season remains a small sample size, so caution is advised - it would appear that the tweaked regulations have indeed promoted tweak, with spinners brought to the fore. It's certainly been enough of a success - or perhaps not too much of a failure - to justify continuing the experiment.

Why stop at county cricket, though? Is there any reason why it should not be extended to Test cricket? Indeed, at first glance, some variant of toss concession - whether automatic permission for the visitors to bowl first, bat first, or choose either option - might appear to redress one of the deepest on-field imbalances in the international game: home advantage.

The difficulty of winning away from home has been highlighted all the more by Bangladesh's 1-1 draw with England, which has ensured that that country will not be viewed as a near-certain-win destination for touring teams. Taking the example of England a little further, results show that they have now failed to gain series victories on their most recent visits to all bar two of the Test nations: 1-1 in the West Indies, 2015; 0-5 in Australia, 2013-14; 0-0 in New Zealand, 2012-13; 1-1 in Sri Lanka, 2011-12; 0-2 in Pakistan, 2005-6 (plus 0-2 on UAE soil in 2015); 0-0 in Zimbabwe, 1996.

Indeed, the only teams not on that list are South Africa (2-1 in 2015-16) and India (2-1 in 2012-13). Few observers would expect India to still be on it by the end of the year - and that is at least partly down to the expectation that the pitches for the series starting this week will assist the home team. Less than a year ago, South Africa - then No. 1 in the rankings - were spun out for 3-0, with the Nagpur pitch, in particular, incurring particular criticism.

"The last thing that Test cricket needs is for its pitches to suffer the homogenisation creeping into ODIs: cricket as a spectacle is much more engrossing when both bowlers and batsmen are in the game"

Touring has never been easy. In all the decades of Test cricket, there has only ever been one decade when away wins matched the number of away losses - the 1890s, when all of 32 Tests were played. Since the 1930s, there has been a near-constant decline in the away win-loss ratio, with each decade proving worse for touring teams than its predecessor - bar the 2000s, which recorded a slight upturn, mainly thanks to the mighty Australians. The ratio has now slumped to 0.571; if the same downward trajectory continues, it will not be long before it hits 0.5, meaning that teams will be losing twice as many games as they win. It should be noted in passing, incidentally, that the percentage of away wins has increased over the decades; the problem is that that of away losses has too - it is the draw that is becoming rarer.

Whatever the reasons are for this long-term decline - two of the most frequently vaunted factors being the influence of T20 on technique, and reduced acclimatisation on shorter tours - there is a temptation to twiddle with the parameters of the game. Michael Holding, in a column for Wisden India, called for the toss to be done away with entirely in Test cricket, with the aim of evening up the "contests between bat and ball", a call that Ricky Ponting has also made - under his scheme, the visiting captain would always "win" the toss.

The aim of maintaining a contest between bat and ball is more than laudable - it is a fundamental principle of the game - but it is far from certain that removing the toss would do anything to further that aim. England team analyst Nathan Leamon made the point in a Nightwatchman essay that since 1990 winning the toss has only translated into a very slight advantage (currently 401 wins against 388 losses); captains often fail, arguably, to make proper use of winning the toss, so handing it to them automatically may be of less help than expected. Furthermore, if visiting players are weak players of seam or spin or swing bowling, their deficiencies in that department will be likely to be exposed regardless of when they choose to bat.

Another potential negative of the arrangement was glimpsed during the early part of the 2016 Championship season: the high number of drawn matches, likely due at least in part to the batting-friendly surfaces promoted by the altered regulations. The last thing that Test cricket needs is for its pitches to suffer the homogenisation creeping into ODIs. Cricket as a spectacle is much more engrossing when both bowlers and batsmen are in the game. Leamon also observed that there was a chance that groundsmen would go to the other extreme, providing surfaces that overwhelmingly favoured the home side, regardless of whether they batted or bowled first, thus rendering the toss near-irrelevant.

Not only would there be no guarantees, therefore, that such a policy would redress the imbalance, but the game itself would also lose something. Playing away is supposed to be hard. Indeed, a large part of what makes Test cricket the ultimate challenge is the necessity of coping with conditions that are not merely alien, but that strongly favour the home side. There's nothing inherently untoward or underhanded about a team preparing a surface that plays to their strengths; the variation encountered around the world is one of cricket's great assets.

Doing away with the toss would also risk, somewhat counter-intuitively, reducing the satisfaction for supporters: Everest would be that little bit lower. Overcoming a deck that has been tailored, if not outright stacked, to the home side's strengths emphasises the achievement of the fish out of water - and this is only magnified if the team also lost the toss. England's 2-1 triumph over India in 2012-13 was secured despite the visitors losing the toss in each of the non-drawn matches. Two years later, when India visited Lord's, they not only had to deal with one of the greenest tops seen there of late, but losing the toss also condemned them to batting first on it. Their subsequent victory was a great moment for the Away Team collective.

The ICC retains the right to penalise a pitch if it deems it poor, with the overriding objective being to "provide a balanced contest between bat and ball over the course of the match, allowing all the individual skills of the game to be demonstrated by the players at various stages of the match." This is entirely appropriate, and the ICC should continue to perform such a role; both Nagpur in 2015 and Trent Bridge in 2014 received "poor" ratings under this system. In bilateral series, that is about as far as the ICC should go. It should resist any temptation to meddle with the toss.

If the toss must be modified, then may it be this modification: allow the team that loses the toss to make one alteration to their side before play begins. Thus the team winning the toss would continue to receive the primary advantage, as it should do, while the team losing the toss would be granted the consolatory measure of being able to adapt their team in response. For example, a team might initially name a side with three specialist bowlers and an allrounder; if, however, they lost the toss and were condemned to bat last, they could opt to replace the allrounder with a specialist batsman, with half an eye on a draw-saving rearguard effort. Alternatively, they might choose a highly aggressive strategy, and replace the allrounder with a specialist bowler, with the intent of nullifying the imbalance through all-out attack by their bowlers.

Such an arrangement would allow home advantage to be preserved, while offering teams a touch more leeway in coping with that advantage. Indeed, the teams that will most benefit will be those that learn to prepare conditions that provide just enough assistance for their skills to shine more brightly than those of their opponents. It would also add to, rather than subtract from, the opportunity for variations in the game.

The main driver behind the Championship change was player development, not spectacle improvement. Like it or not, in this day and age, much of the raison d'etre of Championship cricket is to provide a training ground for players before international duty. Test cricket, by contrast, is not meant to be a place to learn one's trade, nor to develop players for a higher level of cricket. In short, the reasons that make dropping the toss a provisional success in the Championship do not hold for the Test game, wherein great cricketers, and great cricket teams, find a way to win, despite every outrageous fortune slung against them - and that includes the toss.