28. Toss Up

Keshav Maharaj claimed that the toss has had an outsized impact on the ongoing Test match. Is that true?

Hello, and welcome back!

Following a rather hectic IPL and World Cup, where I had built the Deep Extra Cover app (for ODIs and T20s), and wrote the first twenty seven editions of this newsletter, I got a bit burnt out with cricket. It stopped exciting me, and my unscientific forays on social media suggested that others were burnt out as well.

And so, I gave the Ashes a complete miss, and India’s tour of the West Indies as well. Over the last couple of weeks, my interest in cricket seems to have revived once again. I have revived doing live matches on Deep Extra Cover (the app, not the videos). And I finally managed to get myself ball by ball data of all Test matches going all the way back to 2001, so I thought I could revive this by doing a series on Test matches. Hopefully along the way we can clear some Ashes backlog as well.

I’m writing this early in the morning on Day Three of the ongoing Test match between India and South Africa at Visakhapatnam. India is in a strong position, having reduced South Africa to 39 for 3 in response to India’s 502/7 declared. South African spinner Keshav Maharaj claimed in an interview last evening that the toss, which India won, has had a huge bearing on the progress of the game so far.

In more than 813 Test matches since mid 2001 for which I have the data (this excludes the two Test series that South Africa played in Bangladesh in 2015 - I’ve been having some trouble getting that data), the team that won the toss has won 349 Tests (43%), and lost 286 (35%). The remaining have been drawn. So at the macro level there is some advantage to winning the toss.

It gets a little more interesting if we also look at what captains did after winning the toss. When the toss winning captain chose to bat first, the team won 45% , lost 35% and drew the remaining. On the other hand, when the toss winning captain chose to field, it’s almost even, with wins 39% of the time and losses 38% of the time!

In other words, when the captain chooses to bat upon winning the toss, there is a ten percentage point handicap in favour of the team winning the toss. This completely disappears when the toss winning captain chooses to bowl. No wonder two thirds of the time the team winning the toss has chosen to bat!

The toss handicap seems to have suddenly shot up over the last four years, for no apparent reason. Until 2015, the team winning the toss was roughly winning half the games (counting draws as half a point). In each of the last four years, though, the team winning the toss has won more than 60% of the games.

Partly in explanation of why the advantage of the toss has grown, I offer this graph. Two years before the toss started offering a decisive advantage, the percentage of games won by the team batting first shot up.

In 2015, less than 60% of captains who won the toss chose to bat (this number has been consistently above 50%). In 2016, that number shot up to close to 80%, where it remained until last year.

In a future edition, we will look at what characterises a batting first friendly pitch. For the time being, we might have some sympathy for Keshav Maharaj’s statement - you never know how the game would have gone had South Africa got first use of the Vizag pitch.

Going forward, I plan to write one edition of this newsletter a week, to keep it sustainable. When big events, such as the IPL or next year’s World T20, come up, I will increase the frequency. Meanwhile, don’t forget to share this with whoever you think might find this interesting.

Before I go I have a question - I have some interesting data and analysis to offer on other sports (football, tennis, etc.) as well. Do you think I should expand this newsletter to cover all sports, or should I start separate newsletters for each sport? Write back to me and let me know!