Heads we win, tails you lose
You could argue – as many have – that test cricket is an absurdity.
Men and women in long white trousers play for six hours, pausing for lunch and afternoon tea; men’s games can go for five days, women’s four (with no guarantee of a result at the end of it), but captains can be fined or even banned if their sides don’t bowl sufficient overs in a day’s play; the umpires can stop the game if they think the light isn’t good enough, even if both teams are happy to play on. Twice an over bowlers can propel the very hard ball at a batsman’s head at 150kph: if they hit it, nothing happens; if they mouth off at the batsman while he’s trying to regather his senses, they may be fined.
Perhaps this bundle of eccentricities explains test cricket’s appeal to literary types (P.G. Wodehouse, Harold Pinter, Lloyd Jones), theatrical types (Tim Rice, Stephen Fry, Sam Mendes), rock stars (Eric Clapton, Elton John, Mick Jagger) and politicians, from Bob Hawke on the left to John Major on the right to Robert Mugabe in whichever dark corner of the spectrum he resides.
(Mugabe once said “cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe.” You might have thought his real ambition was for everyone to starve in Zimbabwe, but there’s an echo of historian G.M. Trevelyan who opined that “if the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt.”)
It’s therefore perhaps appropriate that proceedings commence with the toss of a coin, a casual, almost flippant ritual that can have major consequences. The pitch is a critical component in a five day game: some wickets are helpful to quick bowlers to begin with but then become batter-friendly, so the team fielding first gains an advantage. Some start out benign but deteriorate as the game proceeds, thus the team batting first is in the box seat.
Too often it’s a case of lose the toss, lose the game, although there are instances of captains misreading the pitch and virtually conceding the game by choosing unwisely upon winning the toss.
Even though it means pure luck may determine the outcome, the toss has rarely been challenged, presumably on the basis that there has to be some way of deciding which team bats first and that’s as good as any. Now, however, former Australian captain Ricky Ponting has called for the toss to disappear from test cricket to make life easier for visiting teams. He argues that if the away team automatically gets to choose whether to bat or bowl, it will dissuade the hosts from preparing wickets that suit them and/or don’t suit the visitors.
Recent results tend to confirm that the combination of winning the toss and familiar if not favourable conditions confers a significant if not insurmountable advantage. In the last three Ashes series played in England, the home team has won the toss ten out of 15 times and won all three series.
Another way of evening things up would be to allow the team that loses the toss to make one post-toss change to its starting line-up to align its personnel with the pitch conditions. Thus if the wicket is expected to take spin as the game goes on, the team losing the toss and having to field first and bat last when conditions will be at their most difficult could go for the attacking option of bringing in a second spinner or the defensive option of bolstering its batting strength.
This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Listener.