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Arguing the toss

Will awarding the toss to the away team even up the playing field and deliver more away Test wins, or is this yet another case of received cricketing wisdom not stacking up with the facts?

Nathan Leamon
Misbah-ul-Haq and Alastair Cook at the toss, Pakistan v England, 1st Test, Abu Dhabi, 1st day, October 13, 2015

You will rarely be criticised for choosing to bat. Batting is the default setting; bowling first is seen as the gamble  •  Getty Images

On the first morning of the first Test between Pakistan and England in Abu Dhabi, three events came to mind. One current, one recent, one infamous. The first was the conversation between Michael Atherton and both captains at the toss and the unanimity of all concerned. The second, the recent proposal from Ricky Ponting and Michael Holding amongst others, that the toss be done away with in Test cricket and the choice given instead to the away captain. The other was Brisbane 2002, and Nasser Hussain choosing to bowl first on a day almost as hot as the one in Abu Dhabi.
Let's start with the second. The suggestion of awarding the toss to the away captain was made by Ponting as a possible solution to the perceived problem of home teams tailoring wickets to suit their strengths. And the resulting domination of home teams. "It has never been harder to win away from home", we are told repeatedly.
Ironically, the decline of away wins is one of those facts that is assumed to be true without often, it would seem, being checked. In fact, it has never been easier to win on the road. More Tests are won by the away team now than at any time in recent history.
Away wins in Tests
Decade Win%
 2010s  28.8
 2000s  28.4
 1990s  23.1
 1980s  21.1
 1970s  22.7
 1960s  21.5
This is largely down to the decline in the draw. There have been more and more results in Tests and although the proportion of them that have gone the way of the visitors has shifted slightly in favour of the home team, this has resulted in a significant rise in away wins.
That said, there are other factors that suggest the balance of power is shifting slightly towards the home team. The gap between averages at home and averages away is growing, for example. So let's assume for now that the premise is true, and that home teams are increasingly dominant.
Holding and Ponting have suggested giving the toss to the visiting captain to prevent home teams stacking the conditions in their favour. I don't know whether this is a good idea or not. But there are three reasons that we should question whether it would achieve its aims.
Firstly, it assumes groundsmen can reliably bake certain characteristics into a pitch. In practice, pitch preparation seems to be an inexact science. I have stood before Test matches around the world and listened to groundsmen describe how the pitch is going to play, only to watch it do something completely different half an hour later.
Since January 1990, the side that won the toss has lost slightly more Test matches (377) than it has won (374). Winning the toss in the modern era appears to give a side no advantage at all
It also presupposes that the interests of groundsman and home team are aligned, which is often not the case. In England for example, venues are heavily incentivised to maximise revenues from the Tests they host by ensuring five full days' play. So groundsmen, understandably, often pay less attention to the needs of the visiting circus than to the people who pay their salary for the other 51 weeks of the year.
Secondly, there is a law of unintended consequences in sporting rule changes that can often produce the opposite result to the one intended. If a home captain had control over the pitch, the framers of this law are assuming he would back away from tilting it in his favour. Is it not just as likely that he would go the other way and seek to produce a pitch so favourable that the toss was taken out of the equation? This after all is what MS Dhoni openly sought to do when England and Australia each last toured, produce pitches that turn big from ball one, and so take the toss out of the equation. Equally, you could imagine England or Australia producing genuine green-tops that would be as helpful to the quicks on day four as day one.
But lastly, and most importantly, it assumes that captains are able to use the toss to their advantage. This is not in any way proven. In fact the evidence suggests it just isn't the case.
At the time of writing, 1,048 Tests have been played since January 1990. During that period, the side that won the toss has lost slightly more (377) matches than it has won (374). Winning the toss in the modern era appears to give a side no advantage at all.
It wasn't always so. On uncovered pitches, batting first in almost all instances was a robustly successful strategy. If it rained during the match, the pitch would deteriorate, affecting the side batting second disproportionately. Until 1970, the side batting first in a Test won 36 per cent of matches, and lost 28 per cent.
But in the modern era, the advantage of winning the toss seems to have disappeared. This is, of course, stunningly counterintuitive. Test cricket is an asymmetric game. One team bats first, then the other. And the two teams' chances of winning are not equal. The team batting first has different requirements for victory to the team batting second, and the pitch changes over the course of the match, affecting the balance of power between bat and ball. Therefore, we would assume, teams that win the toss can choose the best conditions and so gain an advantage. But they don't. How can that possibly be?
Sometimes, a perfectly reasonable response to current circumstances becomes a habit, then a tradition, then an article of faith that outlives the circumstances that created it. We rarely question what we know to be self-evidently true. And so the bias towards batting first seems to have outlived the circumstances that created it by several decades.
"If you win the toss, nine times out of ten you should bat. On the tenth occasion you should think about bowling and then bat."
That was a very successful strategy to adopt for the first century of Test cricket. And one that is still the default setting for most captains. In the 700 Tests played since January 2000, nearly twice as many captains have batted first than have chosen to bowl. Is it still successful?
In a word, no. In that period, the side batting first has won 36 per cent of those Tests, the side bowling first 39 per cent. The bat-first bias at the toss would seem to be neutral at best, and probably counter-productive.
It is still hard to believe that captains aren't able to use the toss to their advantage. There are venues where the evidence is stark. Some pitches clearly favour the side batting first, some the side batting second. In the 40 Tests played in Lahore, the team batting first has won just three. Adelaide by contrast is a classic bat-first venue. It starts as a batsman's paradise, but by the fifth day can be very tricky to bat on, with considerable turn for the spinners. In the 74 Tests played at the ground the side batting first have won 35, the side batting second 19. Since 1990 averages in the first innings are 44.6, in the second 38.9, the third 30.1 and the fourth 27.1 and, as you would expect, in that period, 25 out of 26 captains have chosen to bat first, gaining a considerable advantage in doing so.
These are not isolated cases. Many pitches have similarly skewed characteristics. Galle and Old Trafford for example, both have similar records to Adelaide. Karachi is as bowl-first friendly as Lahore.


Captains' behaviour at the toss seems to be yet another example of received cricketing wisdom not concurring with the evidence. Where what teams do doesn't seem to maximise their chances of winning. Why is this the case?
Well, part of the story involves how our brains handle information. There has been a great deal of research into memory and perception, and the results are both surprising and illuminating when it comes to our decision-making in sport. For a start, our memories don't work as you might expect. They are not akin to a videotape; we don't record a series of events and then play them back as and when they are needed.
The disturbing truth is that our unaided recall is not very good. The human brain encodes less than 10 per cent of what we experience, the rest it simply makes up. Our minds construct a narrative around the coded memories we do have that fills in the gaps with a plausible story. Faced with a huge number of random or near random events (a cricket match, for instance) our brains pattern-spot, even when there is no pattern. Our minds look for those events that they can form into a pattern or story, and that becomes the meaning or lesson that we take away from the match. Even if the vast number of events that occurred didn't fit the pattern, we disproportionately remember the ones that did.
More Tests are won by the away team now than at any time in recent history. This is largely down to the decline in the draw
At their best then, our memories seem to work along the lines of Albert Camus's description of fiction, they are the lie through which we tell the truth. What we remember didn't actually happen, what we remember is a story that our brains have fabricated, but one that we hope contains the essential truth of what happened in a way that we can understand and retain.
Our fallible memories are only part of the reason captains and coaches behave the way they do. There is another, far more powerful reason to make the choices they make and one which is harder to argue against. For this we need to go back to Brisbane in 2002, and Nasser Hussain choosing to bowl.
"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." - F. Scott Fitzgerald
It was the first Test of the Ashes, an Australian team were at the peak of their powers and playing at home in 'Fortress Brisbane', the hardest ground in the world to win at as an away team. No visiting team had won in the last 26 Tests played at the 'Gabbattoir'. Hussain won the toss and chose to bowl, Australia were 364-2 by the close of play and went on to win comfortably.
It is no use looking back with hindsight and using that to determine whether a decision was right or wrong. I am sure that if Nasser had known that choosing to bowl first would bring a host of dropped chances, the loss of a bowler to injury and Australia piling up the first-innings runs, he would have chosen to have a look behind door B and strapped his pads on.
But he didn't know, and in evaluating a past decision, we shouldn't know either. We need to remain behind the veil of ignorance, aware of all the potential paths the match could have taken, but ignorant of the one that it did.
One way we can do that is to simulate the match. There are various models that allow us to simulate matches given the playing strengths of the two sides and give probabilities for the outcome. When we do this for that Brisbane Test, we get the following probabilities for England:
Decision Win Draw Lose
 Bat first  4%  3%  93%
 Bowl first  4%  10%  86%
Every batsman in Australia's top seven for that match finished his career averaging over 45 (three averaged 50-plus), none of the English players did, only two averaged 40. England had a decent bowling attack. Australia had Warne, McGrath and Gillespie with 1,000 wickets between them already.
England were a pretty good side, they'd won four, lost two of their previous 10 matches. But they were hopelessly outgunned, and in alien conditions. Steve Waugh, the Australian captain, was also going to bowl if he had won the toss. If he had done then Australia would almost certainly have won the match as well. Australia were almost certainly going to win regardless of who did what at the toss.
But none of that made any difference. Hussain's decision to bowl first was castigated by the public and press of both countries. Wisden described it as "one of the costliest decisions in Test history". One senior journalist wrote that the decision should prompt the England captain "to summon his faithful hound, light a last cigarette and load a single bullet into the revolver".
For Nasser in Brisbane, read Ricky Ponting at Edgbaston in 2005, another decision to insert the opposition that has never been lived down. Yet, if either of them had batted first and lost, no one would ever remember their decision at the toss. You will rarely if ever be criticised for choosing to bat. Batting is the default setting; bowling first is seen as the gamble. And remember, the side that bats first loses significantly more than it wins.
Test cricket is one of the greatest contests in sport, a brilliant, multi-faceted contest for mind and body. But it is also a game of numbers. If you can tilt the numbers slightly in your favour, get them working for you, not against you, plot a slightly more efficient path to victory, then you are always working slightly downhill rather toiling against the slope.
As I write this, Pakistan are about to go out and bowl for the fourth consecutive day of England's first innings in Abu Dhabi on a pitch that you could land light aircraft on. They have home advantage, have made the orthodox decision, played well, and yet there is only one team that can win the match from here, and it isn't them. If this is what home advantage and winning the toss looks like then they are welcome to it.
It is all but certain that if they had ended up batting second they would now be in a considerably better position. Reverse the first innings as they have happened and Pakistan would now be batting past an exhausted England side and about to put them under the pump for a difficult last three sessions. And in the alternative scenarios where one side or the other got a first innings lead, as we have seen, those work disproportionately in favour of the side batting second.
But, we all do it. We look at a pristine wicket, flat, hard and true, and batting seems the only option. It is written into our cricketing DNA. The evidence may suggest there is a small marginal gain in bowling. But small margins be damned. If the marginal gain erodes your credibility and authority, then that is probably not an exchange you are willing to make. There are tides you can't swim against.
Which brings us back to Alastair Cook and Misbah-ul-Haq, standing in Abu Dhabi in the baking heat. Both are men of considerable character; brave, implacable and preternaturally determined to win. Each has withstood the slings and arrows of captaining their country through some fairly outrageous fortunes. Each is ready to bat first without a second thought. Because while they are certainly brave, they are not stupid. And you would have to be really stupid to make the right decision.
And there of course you have the central problem of much decision-making in cricket. This pitch is slightly different to all the other pitches that there have ever been. And you don't know for certain how it is going to play, or how that will influence the balance of power in the match. There are those who would argue that this is why stats are useless, or at best very limited.
I would agree entirely that stats are never sufficient to make a decision. There is nuance and subtlety to weigh; the brain and eye have access to information that the laptop doesn't. The feel and instincts of coaches and players, the hard-wired learning from decades in the game, contains incredibly valuable information and will always be the mainstay of decision-making that must be flexible and fluid through changing match situations. But if we are honest, we must also accept that the sheer weight and tonnage of what we don't know about how cricket works would sink a battleship. To use stats and nothing else to make decisions would be incredibly foolish, and as far as I am aware no one ever has. But equally, to insist on making decisions on incomplete information, without ever reviewing the effectiveness of those decisions would seem almost equally perverse.
I'm not saying that everyone was wrong in Abu Dhabi. I'm not saying that Misbah should have bowled. The weight of opprobrium heaped on him doesn't bear thinking about. It's the sort of decision that ends captaincies. No, Misbah had only one option and he took it. But maybe, just maybe, one day there will come a time when it isn't such an obvious choice.
This article first appeared in All Out Cricket magazine. Click here to find out more, including an upcoming exclusive with Ben Stokes.

Nathan Leamon is the ECB's England cricket performance analyst