WARNING: Please do not even try to read this unless you are cricket fan. If you are not it will only irritate you thx.
Test Cricket: Australia vs. South Africa: 6 tosses to ZERO, nada, nought. Time for a change in the rules.
by Jarrod Hart
Winning the toss in cricket can be a very significant advantage, and lead to unfairness. Let me explain…
Firstly, I am going to admit that I am an avid cricket fan. And being a nerd too, this makes me doubly susceptible to a love affair with sports statistics.
I probably learnt most of my maths skills working out how many runs Graeme Pollock required to improve his season’s average, or calculating the run rate required by Clive Rice’s Transvaal team to win the Benson & Hedges night series final at the Wanderers.
So what is my problem with the toss?
In many sports there are environmental factors that skew the game – the sun shining in your eye when you serve, the dew on the putting green, the wind behind Jonny Wilkinson, and so on.
A cricket pitch is no different. Being composed of sand and grass, it is not wholly predictable – it is also prone to evolve over time.
It can therefore be a big advantage to bat first, or perhaps to bat second. The skilled captain can often tell what the pitch will do from looking at it. To make things fair, a coin toss is used to see who gets to choose who goes first. Fine. Over the course of years, all teams will win some and lose some. However, with test matches taking five days each, the teams only play each other once every few years, so the ‘fairness’ may take a generation to arrive.
The stats are clear. Winning the toss helps. Get the latest stats from wikipedia; at the time of writing 34.7% of toss winners had won the match. 30.8% of toss losers had won. The remainder draw/tie.
Some people will still say, oh, that’s not too big an effect, less than, say, the home advantage in football. Yes the numbers aren’t too dramatic, but what no-one seems to be pointing out is that that 3.9% difference is actually coming from a somewhat bigger difference in a smaller subset of the matches.
For example, many cricket tests are one-sided. That is to say, the favourite wins. In cricket upsets are fairly rare (rarer than in football for example). Draws yes, but complete reversals are not that common. This means that there have been lots of outclassed teams winning the toss (statistically, even the most outclassed team win the toss half the time). They have of course, mostly lost.
Secondly, there have been matches where the pitch really was constant. That is to say the toss didn’t help.
So we are left only with the matches between evenly matched teams on pitches that change. The 3.9% positive toss effect must be a stronger effect coming from this subset of the results.
I also have anecdotal evidence (all scientists, wince now). I have often watched a match, where the first team has scored 600 of a flat pitch, and then seen the second team face a ball that suddenly stays low or cuts around. We have recently seen some almighty thrashings, some by an innings plus. These by teams that were, just before the match, considered fairly equal.
Now we come to the present time. The #1 and #2 teams in the world have been locked in battle for several months. I am of course referring to the ongoing test series between South Africa and Australia. And Australia have just won their sixth toss in a row. They have won the last three matches, on ‘evolving’ pitches, and of course I am bitter, of course I am looking for excuses. But I am rational enough to see unfairness when it strikes.
I was not going to write about it. I knew it would come over as whining. Until a friend pointed out a simple solution: they could have one toss at the start of the series and then alternate the choices for the remaining tests, thereby preventing one team heaping the unfairness too high.
Today’s sixth win in a row for Australia was too much. We need a change in the rules. The South Africans have lost their #1 ranking to the toss, and it stinks.
The last 6 tests:
Test no. 1899 Toss won by Australia, match by SA (In Australia)
Test no. 1902 Toss won by Australia, match by SA (In Australia)
Test no. 1904 Toss won by Australia, match by Australia (In Australia)
Test no. 1910 Toss won by Australia, match by Australia (In SA)
Test no. 1913 Toss won by Australia, match by Australia (In SA)
Test no. 1916 Yes, Toss won by Australia, match ongoing (In SA)
Foot-note: Being a cricket stats nerd, it was of course sad news to hear that Bill Frindall, a peerless cricket analyst had died. He acted as the eye of a the nerd-storm that has been raging for years, about which most of the world was blissfully unaware. His death has left us all without bearing, little squalls in the night. CricInfo is not not quite the same. Yes, it’s rammed full of passionate staff, many of whom are nerds and scholars of the game, but it seems to lack the Frindall touch. I ask you this: who will care about this problem with the toss in this new world order? Bill would have.