Importance of tosses in Test cricket

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15 Dec 2020 | 12:37 PM
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Nitin Fernandes

Importance of tosses in Test cricket

Are teams winning the toss likelier to win Tests now than they were in previous eras?

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Earlier this year, when India toured New Zealand, Virat Kohli’s side were top of the ICC Test Rankings. While they have had success in a few away tours, it’s their dominance at home that had propelled them to the summit of Test cricket. But in the five-day format, that’s to be expected – teams tend to perform much better in familiar conditions than they do overseas.

Going into the New Zealand tour, though, India had won their last two away Test series. One saw them secure a fourth successive Test series win in West Indies and the one before was a memorable first Test series triumph in Australia. So, India would have been confident of putting up a strong challenge in New Zealand.

The series, though, proved to be pretty one-sided in favour of the hosts. Batting collapses in each of the two Tests saw India end up on the wrong side of the result. After the defeat in the first of those matches, captain Kohli had remarked: "Day 1, the toss did turn out to be very important. But at the same time, we take a lot of pride in being competitive as a batting unit and we were just not competitive enough. I don't think we put their bowlers under enough pressure. Anything over 220-230 and we would have been talking a different language."

The first sentence of that quote stands out. The Indian skipper clearly felt that the toss played a huge role in the defeat. In fact, he lost both tosses in this series which, consequentially, resulted in two losses. But this wasn’t a new experience for Kohli.

In early 2018, India had toured South Africa for a three-Test series and lost 2-1, with the winner of the toss coming out victorious in each game. Then came five Tests in England where Kohli and co. lost 4-1 after having lost the toss in every match. In Australia later that year, on the other hand, the Indian captain won three of four tosses and won the series as well.

So, across India’s last series in each of the ‘SENA’ countries, they’ve won three and drawn one out of the four Tests in which they’ve won the toss. But when they’ve been on the wrong side of the coin flip, they’ve won one and lost nine times in 10 games.

So, is this an anomaly for India alone or are results in Test cricket more toss-dependent these days?

GROWING INFLUENCE OF TOSSES ON RESULTS

Here, we have used a decade-by-decade comparison, considering matches played since 1950s because 100+ Tests have been played in every decade since. Before the 1950s, Tests were played sporadically and, in fact, there were just three teams playing until the late 1920s. More recently, only 18 Tests have been played in the 2020s so far, and hence, the ongoing decade has obviously been ignored as well.

It’s interesting to note that until the turn of the millennium in 2000, the decade with the highest win percentage for teams winning the toss was the 1950s (35.98). When you look at it closely though, you will realise that it is because drawn results became very common over the next few decades. From the 1960s to the ‘90s, the percentage of matches that ended in a stalemate were quite high.

Hence, you might think that the high win percentage of teams winning the toss in the past couple of decades is mainly due to the fact that Tests are way more result-oriented these days. To counter that argument, we have considered win/loss ratios so that draws are out of the equation. This metric simply displays the number of wins per loss for the team that wins the toss.

Under this metric, it is not the 2010s that have been most favourable to teams winning the toss, but it is the 1960s with a win/loss ratio of 1.49. While the 2010s might not be at the top of the list, it still has a very high percentage of 1.34. And, more interestingly, it’s a huge rise from the corresponding ratio of 1.02 in the decade before. In the 1990s, the ratio was at 0.94 with teams winning the toss attaining more defeats than victories. This clearly indicates that results have become more favourable towards the teams winning the toss over the last decade.

WHEN HOSTS WIN TOSSES

If we look at results when home teams have won the toss, then we notice that the advantage is even greater and significantly at that. Hosts won the toss in 210 Tests between 2010-19 and came out victorious 122 times, leading to a win percentage of 58.1, easily the highest in any decade where at least 50+ Tests had home teams winning the toss. The win/loss ratio (2.49) for the 2010s is also the highest under those conditions.

Simply put, while getting results in Tests away from home requires exceptional ability, there is a lot dependent on the coin toss as well. So, India’s recent away results are somewhat in keeping with the overall trend.

While India might have been victorious in Australia last time around – with Steven Smith and David Warner back, and Kohli set to miss three Tests – they go into this battle for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy as underdogs. And they’d be hopeful that unlike in New Zealand earlier this year, the toss of the coin will at least be partial in their favour Down Under.

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