Heads you lose, tails I win. Who gives a toss?

Heads you lose, tails I win. Who gives a toss?

Nobody really gives a toss about the toss except cricket people. When it comes to this flip of an old coin, this help-me-God spin of chance (it’s appropriate that a sport frequently under investigation for betting begins with a gamble), everyone has a wise word.

Richie Benaud, who can occasionally be dryer than a Bond martini, has written, “The hallmark of a great captain is the ability to win the toss, at the right time." W.G.Grace once observed: “When you win the toss…bat. If you are in doubt, think about it…then bat. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague…then bat." And Michael Atheron, responding to a reader question about an Ashes toss last year, smirked: “I would look at the pitch, call over Nasser Hussain and ask him what he would do, then do the opposite."

Such levity does not go down well in all press boxes. For us writers from the subcontinent, and especially TV pundits ensconsed in their cliche-proof glass booths, the toss is deeply serious, a test of character and assertiveness, a confirmation of cricketing acumen, a match-defining moment…well, whatever baloney fills the time. There are careers at stake here, folks. I’ve lost count of the captains who’ve been hung and quartered (some proudly by this writer) for failing to calculate the revolutions on the coin and correctly conclude which way the coin will fall.

Worse is when they get it right only to get it wrong by making some childish decision, like batting when clearly, obviously, patently, they should have bowled. When we write “it’s a good toss to lose", what we mean is that hey, el capitano, it’s lucky you didn’t have a decision to make because we would have hammered you either way. Of course, captains whose poor decision at the toss results in a Test win are plain lucky.

It was dispiriting, therefore, when John Buchanan, that direct descendant of Sun Tzu, said to me last week: “If a team is good enough, 95, 98, 99 per cent of the time, the toss is irrelevant."

A bout of sunstroke had made me wonder if we had begun to overestimate the toss, which led to a phone call to Buchanan, who said “yes". A captain asked the same question merely snorted. Sure, the odd decision is obviously right (Dravid choosing to field in Trent Bridge), but this coin lob has become overdramatized by writers; and television, with its allergy to subtlety and sense, has twisted this routine cricketing act into high theatre.

The same applies to pitch reading, a Barnum & Bailey production ever since Tony Greig stuck his key into the earth and read us its past, present and five-day future. Having seen people surround a Test match pitch and nod sagely, I tried it a few times, pressing the earth and tut-tutting authoritatively but, alas, exited as ignorant as I arrived. Every crack told me no story.

Some former players do read wickets astutely, admits Buchanan, but asserts that most of cricket’s tribe are unsure about what goes into making a pitch, or what the curator has done. Furthermore, he says, even if you have previous information about the pitch, so many other factors matter: the wicket on that day, the type of ball, how a bowler or batsman will play.

Perhaps we have become too simplistic in our reading of cricket games, attaching excessive weight to the toss, or pitch, or even who bats where. Victory is complicated, as is defeat.

Great teams anyway do not instinctively shrink when their opponents win the toss and bat first on a dead wicket. They see it not as fate, or cruel circumstance, but a challenge. During Australia’s 16-Test winning run between 1999-2001, played on 11 different wickets, five outside Australia, Steve Waugh lost eight of 16 tosses. “We adjusted pretty well", is Buchanan’s pithy explanation. Success, he knows, lies beyond a tossed coin or a stabbed key.

Buchanan has a final thought; he usually does. He advocates a modernizing of the toss, which for him means holding it earlier. Currently, teams have 30 minutes to prepare after the toss, and in a professional sporting world, he insists, that’s “ridiculous". Instead, he suggests, have the toss an hour before play, which would allow teams to prepare thoroughly, sandpaper strategy, debate a 12th man. It will, he says, give a flip of a coin more relevance that it presently has.

(Write to Rohit at gametheory@livemint.com)