One of cricket’s most famous characters was W. G. Grace, who played between 1865 and 1908.
At some point in his career, he said: “When I win the toss on a good pitch, I bat. When I win the toss on a doubtful pitch, I think about it a bit and then I bat. When I win the toss on a very bad pitch, I think about it a bit longer and then I bat.”
Since the first Test in 1877, Grace’s adage has been followed by many Test match captains, founded on the belief that batting first carries an advantage. On 72 percent of occasions when the home team captain has won the toss in a men’s Test match he has elected to bat.
Based on an analysis of 2,502 men’s Tests played up to April 16 this year, the side winning the toss and batting first won 42 percent of matches and lost 31 percent. The side which lost the toss won 32 percent of matches, compared with losing 37 percent.
This suggests that winning the toss provides a small, but often significant, boost to a team’s chances of winning a Test.
Over almost half a century of Test cricket the belief in batting first has held some verity. However, closer examination reveals some fluctuation over time.
Most pitches deteriorate in condition over the course of five days, especially if rain-affected and, almost certainly, through wear and tear. This was even more the case in the era of uncovered pitches that ended in 1979 for Test cricket.
Between 1887 and 1980, captains who won the toss elected to bat almost nine times out of 10. The side which won the toss won 36 percent of matches and lost 28 percent, slightly lower than between 1877 and 2023.
Covered pitches brought about change. In the 30 years between 1980 and 2010, the side which batted first won 32 percent of matches, whereas the side batting second won 29 percent. The chances of winning, having batted first after winning the toss, had decreased marginally.
It would be logical to think that captains changed their decision-making accordingly and, to an extent, they did. In those 30 years, the percentage of times that the team which won the toss and elected to bat fell from 72 percent to 66 percent.
Within this pattern, there are some venues which favor batting first and some which favor batting second. Hence, it would also seem logical that captains who win the toss at those venues would make their decisions based on this knowledge and bat first at venues where little bias exists toward bat or ball.
Statistics provide one story, but psychology and team dynamics provide another. A captain must be able to carry his team with him on decisions.
On a scorching hot day, at a venue where the home team has a dominant record, the visiting captain wins the toss. The pitch is like concrete. If he decides to field, he runs the risk of alienating his team, especially his bowlers. If they are not supportive, the outcome is unlikely to be beneficial, especially if it is the first match of a series.
At Brisbane, Australia has won 70 percent of Test matches since 1980, a further 18 percent being drawn. It would be a bold captain to opt to bowl first there. Yet, that is what England’s captain chose to do in 2002. Australia won handsomely by 384 runs. The captain was widely derided in public and by the press.
Why would a captain make that decision? It would be understandable if the pitch seemed to offer hope or there was cloud cover or humidity, which could encourage the ball to swing or deviate off the pitch, but when it does not, why take the risk?
In the last 10 years and, in England’s case, the last year, a shift has occurred. Analysis of 356 Tests played between 2010 and June this year, revealed that 47 percent of matches have been won by the team electing to bat on winning the toss, compared with a loss percentage of 34 percent. This represents a remarkable 10 percentage-point increase on the previous 50 years.
Just as remarkable is the home side’s percentage win rate, when choosing to bat, of 59 percent and its 65 percent win ratio when sent into bat. The effect of this approach has been to reduce the percentage of drawn games down to around 20 percent, well below the long-run average of 31 percent.
The explanatory variables for this shift are debatable. One is that the advent of shorter format cricket has led to changes in mindset that encourage faster scoring, freeing up more time to complete the match, rather than play for a draw.
In England’s case there is an evangelical attitude to play swashbuckling cricket to make it attractive to its audience and encourage others to follow. Its management believe, in contravention of orthodoxy, that bowling first and, thus, batting last, is the best chance of securing a result.
What has concerned the authorities is that too much of an advantage is gained by whoever wins the toss. Winning Tests away from home has become difficult, with concerns that home ground curators prepare wickets which confer too much advantage to the home side. It may not just be the pitch. A lack of acclimatization time now exists in cricket’s crowded calendar.
There has been talk of getting rid of the toss entirely, letting the visiting captain decide whether to bat or field, or only using it for the first game of a series and then alternating which side gets to choose who bats.
All of this tugs at cricket’s essence, as the suggestions deny a part of cricket’s heritage and tradition. Will the captain who wins the toss judge the pitch, the weather conditions, and the relative strength of the two teams correctly? The toss provides an element of surprise and suspense, now, as it once did for W. G. Grace.