At the International Cricket Council’s Committee meeting held in May the decision was taken to retain the coin toss in Test match cricket. Now for those of an even disposition this may seem like a matter of too little import to warrant the careful consideration of a sport’s governing body and countless column inches of media attention. Indeed, a weak-willed writer unable to resist a pun may even suggest that most people couldn’t give a toss. However, cricket is born of detail and its aficionados revel in the minutiae from which the game derives its majesty. I can still recall from childhood anticipating each new Test as an event of individual significance and one that began, not with the first ball (although that is a ritual in itself), but with the toss of the coin.
There can be few, if any, sports in which the toss carries such weight. The opportunity to serve first in tennis may enable a winning start, but its impact is forgotten thereafter. Across the various footballing codes the occasional prevailing wind may give temporary advantage to the team choosing ends but it’s rare that it should actually affect the result. In cricket, though, and for Tests in particular, the toss is the moment in which the shape of the match is set. For the dedicated viewer it may alter the pattern of their coming days. The team fielding on day one is likely to be batting at some stage on day two. Therefore when to plan for Kohli walking to the crease? How soon before Lyon is brought on? As for the players, well the opportunity for first use of favourable conditions can influence not only the course of the game but its very outcome.
The fact that a match of thirty hours spread over five days can be so influenced before ever it has begun is the reason for the toss being a topic of consideration for the ICC. It is generally accepted that we are seeing an increase in instances where the host nation prepares wickets to suit the strengths of their own players. Winning the toss in such circumstances maximises the benefit to the home team by allowing them to use the pitch to its best advantage. On top of all the usual challenges presented to touring teams, this additional “home town” bias is viewed by some as a factor in the growing preponderance of one-sided home series victories. There is undoubtedly risk in encouraging an imbalance in Test cricket at a time when competitive contests are vital to maintaining interest in the longest format of the game.
To counter this trend the case has been made to eliminate the toss and give first option to the away team as a means of reducing the impact of “doctored” wickets. The idea is not a new one. Indeed the English Cricket Board removed the mandatory toss from the County Championship in 2016. Under their model for domestic four-day matches the visiting captain is given the option of bowling first or having the toss as normal to decide which side bats. For now, at least, the ICC has chosen not to make a similar move as it “felt that it (the toss) was an integral part of Test cricket which forms part of the narrative of the game”. Instead the Committee urged member nations to continue to focus on delivering pitches that provide a fair contest between bat and ball.
Has the ICC made the right decision?
To offer an opinion first requires an understanding of the scale of the issue. To do this I have taken a look at the past one hundred Tests working back from the recently completed series between England and Pakistan. Whilst one hundred Tests strikes me as a reasonable sample, I was surprised to find that it covered only two years stretching to July 2016 and the clash between Zimbabwe and New Zealand. So much cricket in so short a time. Consider that the first one hundred Tests were played over a span of thirty-one years, then add the ever increasing demands of the other formats of the game and perhaps the answer to underperforming away teams lies simply in sheer exhaustion born of endless travel!
Statistics, of course, can be spun to support most arguments. The one hundred Tests under consideration cover thirty-four completed series (this excludes four one-off matches, but includes two series in the UAE that are notionally home events for Pakistan). Of these, nineteen (56%) have been home team wins, ten (29%) were won by the away team with five drawn. Is that really such an unreasonable outcome? Indisputably, home advantage is a legitimate concept in any team sport and so a weighting towards home victories is entirely to be expected. At 56%, the proportion of home series victories is not substantially more than an even 50/50 split in a two horse race. Breaking the numbers down to individual matches does little to alter the balance with fifty-seven won by the home team, thirty-one away victories and thirteen draws.
Perhaps, as is so often the case, the real cause of this perceived issue is not so much the impact of home advantage when viewed broadly, but rather when narrowed down to that subset of powerful cricketing nations that set the agenda for the game. An analysis of the performances of England, Australia and India over the same period is revealing. England have played four home series for two wins and two draws winning eight times and losing five for a home winning percentage of 61.5%. Across four away series, they lost three and drew a two Test tour of Bangladesh. In total, fourteen matches were played away from home producing a solitary victory with ten defeats and three draws. It’s a dramatic contrast in fortune and one that is similarly matched by Australia. The Aussies have contested just three series at home in this period winning two and losing to South Africa. They have won eight of the eleven Tests played (72.7%). Away from home, however, they (like England) have failed to win any of their past four series, losing nine matches out of thirteen with three wins and a draw.
India’s record is slightly different. If anything they are even more dominant at home winning all five series played (I include a one-off Test against Bangladesh here). Of sixteen home Tests they have won eleven (68.8%) drawn four and lost only once. On the face of it, their away form also appears healthy, winning two of three series played with six wins, two losses and two draws across ten matches. However, those two victories were in Sri Lanka under similar conditions to those that they would experience at home with the other against a poor West Indies side. If we look back a little further (I think I mentioned that statistics can be spun to support any argument) then a different story emerges. Extending India’s form line over the preceding ten away series they won only two, with the opposition again being Sri Lanka and the West Indies. Other than that, they lost twice in Australia and twice in England (experiencing 4-0 whitewashes in each country in 2011/12) They also lost once in New Zealand and South Africa and managed to draw a three Test series in South Africa in 2010/11 as well as drawing a one off Test in Bangladesh in 2015. Overall, a return of five wins from thirty-one outings (16.1%) in clear contrast to their more impressive recent form.
Suddenly some clarity begins to emerge. At the overall level the doctoring of pitches and the vagaries of the toss seem less significant than the simple fact that some teams are stronger than others. The West Indies have sadly been weak for some years now and consequently have not won a series at home since 2014 and that against Bangladesh. Bangladesh themselves remain an emerging cricket nation and despite some encouraging wins in recent years the sub-continental conditions seemingly so helpful to India’s cause have yet to make their home a fortress. Other than against Zimbabwe (twice) Bangladesh is still waiting to register a home series victory against any Test playing opposition.
If the preparation of pitches to favour home teams can be more accurately described as an issue for those nations who wield most power and command the greatest share of the all important television revenue then can we be so sure that the removal of the toss would prove an effect measure in eliminating the problem? Again it surely comes back to the relative strength of the teams in question. England’s problems away from home have been cited above. They reached a nadir in a horror fourteen month period between November 2016 and January 2018 during which time they played a five match series first in India and then in Australia suffering 4-0 reverses on each occasion. One might assume these to be classic examples of the need to remove the toss in order to even a playing field that would be dry and dusty in India whilst quick and bouncy down under. If only England had been given first choice of use in such circumstances. Well actually on eight of those ten occasions they were. Despite this highly improbable advantage (I’m reliably informed that there is just a 4.4% chance of correctly calling a toss eight times out of ten) England failed to turn even one win with the coin to a win on the field. Remarkably, during the Ashes, the only occasion that England failed to win the toss was the one game where they avoided defeat on the flat track in Melbourne. Clearly the toss of a coin is irrelevant if you are just not good enough.
Perhaps then there are other factors that need to be addressed if it is desirable to reduce the inequity in contests between the leading nations. Whilst it is a difficult solution in these days of crowded schedules, the need for better preparation by touring teams remains an argument that won’t soon go away. England’s lead in to the first Test in Australia involved a two day knock about with a Western Australia XI and two four day contests against a Cricket Australia XI mostly comprised of promising youngsters. Where was the match hardening competition against a full strength State Shield side that was once de rigueur in the build up to an Ashes series?
At least England managed to carve out three weeks in Australia before hostilities commenced. One can only assume that their preparation for the tour of India in 2016 included an entirely separate tour of Bangladesh given that there were only eight days between the scheduled finish of the second Test in Dhaka and the start of the series in India. That either amounts to an ill-judged disdain for Bangladesh or an appalling lack of time to re-focus on the task at hand on arrival in India. Contrast that with Pakistan’s recent experience in England. Arriving in late April they played three county matches plus the inaugural Test in Ireland before taking on England at Lords. The ensuing win, whilst always a possibility with the enigma that is Pakistan, was surely due in some part to being properly acclimatised.
So where to from here?
I believe the ICC were correct in their decision to retain a valued tradition of the game. Nevertheless, Test cricket will continue to suffer if the natural advantages enjoyed by any home team are exaggerated to the point where the contest is destabilised and the outcome too often pre-determined. The respective Boards of each nation have a responsibility to encourage an environment where teams compete on a basis of equal opportunity if not necessarily equal ability. It has been interesting to note a shift in approach in India in recent times, where more that once we have seen Test wickets prepared that have deviated from the traditional spin friendly formula. Virat Kohli stated during last year’s visit by Sri Lanka that his team had asked for surfaces to assist the fast bowlers in preparation for the conditions that they would face in the subsequent tour of South Africa. It is to be hoped that India’s ambition to establish itself as the world’s leading Test nation may start a trend towards less insular thinking when it comes to wicket preparation. Despite the brevity of many Test series, these days we are still able to enjoy four or five match encounters whenever India, England, Australia and South Africa meet. Opportunity enough for a variety of pitch types to ensure a complete examination of the skills of both teams. How wonderful if that were to be a glimpse into Test cricket’s future.