Somewhere, right now, the Indian players are in a state of celebratory peace. After being given a scare at Rajkot – one that was thwarted mainly by the calm aggression of Virat Kohli – India are back to their spinning ways at home. Winning. I meant winning.
We will celebrate Cheteshwar Pujara’s third consecutive hundred, glorify Ravichandran Ashwin’s rise as a genuine all-rounder, run out of plaudits to describe Kohli. These have all contributed greatly to India’s recent domination. But like the dew that comes and goes unnoticed on a cool summer morning, one other contributor has quietly flown under the radar.
In the last nine Tests at home, India have won an improbable eight tosses, starting with the series against South Africa. The one they lost was in Rajkot, where they had to bat last for the first time at home since the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in 2012-13. It was also the first time they batted last since the perceptible, unwritten change in approach towards home advantage: Indian pitches must turn, earlier rather than later.
The Indian in me celebrated the win in Vizag. But the cricketer in me cringed, as I saw the visitors having to bat second, and last, after India had made merry in the best of the batting conditions.
This is to take nothing away from the players of both teams. India applied themselves brilliantly with both bat and ball, and England could have benefitted from a more positive approach in both their digs. The team that played better won.
But let’s not pretend they didn't have a head start.
The institution of the toss has been almost immutable, as integral to sports as a ball is. It’s primary role is to maintain fair play, to allow both teams equal chance of choosing. In this, it has historically succeeded. It’s secondary role is to decide factors that should be arbitrary; like which side of the field a team chooses, which later changes at half time. But in cricket, this decision is far from arbitrary.
On wickets that are likely to change in nature as the game progresses, the toss presents a significant advantage to the winning team, in that they can make the best of the conditions before they change. In India, that usually means batting first. In New Zealand, and England, it could mean inserting the opposition, and only having to bat once the wicket has flattened out.
Ironically, the toss ends up doing the exact thing it is meant to prevent: handing one team an unfair advantage.
The conundrum is not limited to the longer form. In ODI cricket as well, especially in day -night matches where dew is a factor, conditions in the two halves are often so foreign, you would be forgiven if you thought it was a different match.
Of course it is up to the players to capitalise on the advantage. And there are well known instances of that not happening. Think back to the World Cup final in 2003, where an overeager Zaheer Khan and an underwhelming Javagal Srinath wasted good bowling conditions, allowing Australia to bat India out of the game.
Which brings us again to the complicated question, of what is a good wicket. The strip at Vizag lasted five days, and so would be considered ‘good’, but it gave the team batting first a decidedly warmer welcome. The infamous Nagpur wicket, pejoratively rated ‘poor’ by the ICC (a decision I thought smacked of ‘batter’s game mindset’) could be said to be fairer. Consider this: both teams batted on the first day, the ball was turning just as much for both sets of bowlers, since they took almost adjacent turns bowling. With both teams playing in equal conditions, the situation was a true test of skill, and India came out well on top because they had better spinners.
Arguably no other sport is as influenced by the condition of the playing surface as Test cricket is. Add to that the uncertainty and influence of the toss, and you have a cocktail of suspense, drama, and action. It is part of the je ne sais quoi that makes Test cricket enchanting and unparalleled. But the same factors also sometimes make it deleteriously unfair.
County cricket has done away with tosses, although for different reasons, and had some success in that experiment. Is it worth trying out in Tests? Steve Waugh, Michael Holding and Ricky Ponting think so.
It is a slippery path to go down though. Giving the visiting team the option to choose whether to bat or bowl, as the stalwart trio have suggested, will leave no incentive for home teams to prepare pitches that suit them. Instead of having a 50-50 chance of exploiting home conditions, that chance will reduce to almost zero. The last two years has seen some superb and gripping Test cricket, mostly due to conditions that challenge the visiting team. The fun has just begun, let's not be hasty to bash the bowlers party, (God knows they don't get many.)
Writer Liam Cromar’s suggestion, that the side that loses the toss be allowed one change in their playing XI, is a good middle ground. But hypothetical questions get only hypothetical answers, said American singer and activist Joan Baez. A more worrying, very real problem, is the fact that so few people are talking about this.
“The more you attribute to randomness, the less can be attributed to skill” wrote Worcestershire cricketer Jack Shantry, in his debut as a writer. Football, tennis, and hockey all ensure that players swap sides at fixed times, so as to reduce this randomness. In cricket, not only do we have no such system, but most people won’t even realise that this randomness exists. Across both longer formats, we often have an imbalance and an unfairness, created by less than uniform conditions, which have been repeated so often over the decades, we hardly give them a second glance. The Illusory Truth Effect has descended on our game, like a snow so fine you won't even feel it. Till it buries you.
Nathan Leamon, the England team analyst, pointed out in a Nightwatchman essay recently, that since 1990, winning the toss has resulted in 401 wins, and 388 losses. The difference is not great enough to cause us to ruffle our feathers. However, on wickets the likes of which we are seeing in India, I would bet on that gap increasing as the sample size gets bigger.
So, I look forward to the rest of this series. Not just for the cricket, which promises to be excellent, but also because probability demands that India will lose a toss sooner rather than later. If that happens on a pitch that is not as accommodating (for batting) as the one in Rajkot, it should help us decode whether it is home advantage or toss advantage.
The writer is a former international cricketer and now a freelance journalist, she tweets at @SnehalPradhan
Updated Date: Nov 22, 2016 11:49 AM