All over the toss of a coin!

11th December 2015

The toss of a coin is the preliminary to action in many sports. In most of them, making the right call rarely matters – but in cricket it usually does. Weather conditions may change. The pitch may deteriorate, or get better for batting. The home captain tosses, the visiting one calls, and W G Grace is said to have called out “The Lady”. With Queen Victoria on one side, Britannia on the other, he won no matter which face of the coin was uppermost.

But reluctant to leave things as they are, the ECB is proposing to conduct an experiment in the second division of the county championship next season. They will do away with the toss.

Never mind that the coin flipping has been part of the Laws of Cricket since 1744; never mind that traditionalists will be frothing at the mouth. The ostensible reason is that counties have been preparing wickets to suit their own team. No doubt they have – just as Test match wickets are seldom prepared to favour the visitors’ attack.

It is also said that the change is to encourage clubs to develop spin bowlers. Yet everyone knows why there are so few good spinners today: because so much of the season is crammed into April, May and September, when wickets are often green, when there is cloud cover, and when the quicker bowlers can do the job. Spin has also been in decline ever since the authorities legislated for the covering of pitches. In the days before covers, every county carried two spin-bowlers, because sun on a drying pitch after rain was spinners’ heaven.

However specious the reasoning is, the experiment may be interesting. To give the visiting captain the choice of batting or fielding first may sometimes give his team an advantage. But it won’t change his preparations. He will still have to consult the weather forecast for the four days of the match. He will still scrutinise the wicket – and take advice from his senior batsmen and bowlers. He will make his decision and may still be disturbed if the home captain indicates that it suits him fine.

Because even though giving the visiting captain first choice should tilt the balance in his favour, he may still misread the entrails and get it wrong. The weatherman may have called it wrongly. In any case, even the best-considered decision may be made to look stupid by the operation of chance, with or without the luck that the toss of the coin brings.

For chance plays a key part in all sport. Think, for instance, of the influence of a net-cord at set point in tennis, or the bounce of a well-struck drive taking a sideways leap off a ridge on the fairway into deep rough in golf. Think of a loose horse impeding the favourite and causing him to crash into an Aintree fence, or a footballer slipping as he is about to take a penalty.

Success or failure in cricket will often be decided by the tiniest of margins. A ball grazes the bat and you’re out for a duck. It misses the edge by a millimetre and you go on to make a century. In sport, as in life, chance upsets apple-carts or brings scarcely deserved rewards. Even a lucky dip may win the Lottery.

Whatever you do, you simply can’t take chance out of cricket. So why try? In short, the proposal to dispense with the toss is bonkers. As the true Conservative adage has it: “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”


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