Tossing out the toss — the way to go?

To fret and fume about the pitch and to negate home advantage by discounting the toss would affect the innumerable ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of the game. What is sport but for its unpredictable scripts? What is sport without its supreme practitioners using their technique to counter all kinds of pitches and conditions?

Going by the spin of the coin... Michael Clarke of Australia and M.S. Dhoni of India at the toss ahead of the WACA Test in January 2012. Captains have suffered or soared based on their decision on winning the toss.   -  Getty Images

The most dramatic prelude to any cricket match is the twirl of the coin, the call for either ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ and those milliseconds of anticipation before the lucky captain reveals his decision to either bat or bowl. The toss has a certain charm, enormous history, lots of anecdotes and, yes, a sense of urgency too as the news agency or cricket website reporter has to blitz an alert to his or her office, stating ‘who won the toss’, ‘the decision’ and ‘team compositions.’

Most captains have suffered or soared based on their decision on winning the toss. Closer home, Mohammad Azharuddin was pilloried for opting to field at Lord’s (1990) and watching Graham Gooch amass a whopping 333. Sadly, the then Indian skipper’s stylish hundred that gifted paroxysms of delight to Old Blighty’s cricket writers was conveniently forgotten.

If Azharuddin struggled with the stigma of that decision, Sourav Ganguly watched his stock soar after he decided to bat on winning the toss at Headingley in 2002. It was a brave decision and the team prospered and won the game. The late W. G. Grace may have simplified it by saying, “When you win the toss, bat nine times out of ten. The tenth time, think about it and then bat.” But truly, there is always much ado about the toss.

The buzz got louder when the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) recently announced that there will be no mandatory toss in either division of the English County Championship in the 2016 season. The ECB’s decision was stoked by a desire to encourage ‘the development of spin bowling.’ The idea is to let the visiting team have the first choice of whether it wants to field first. That would entail its fast bowlers having the best opportunity to dismantle the home side’s batting and precisely that move might make staging grounds to tone down the pitch’s assistance to the speed merchants and probably give a helping hand to spin. If the visiting team does not opt to exercise that option (of fielding first) then the toss will take place.

The chairman of the ECB’s cricket committee, Peter Wright, was quoted in Cricinfo: “By giving the away team the option of bowling first, we hope the home side will be encouraged to produce the best possible four-day pitch.” If England is worried about host counties preparing surfaces that blatantly ally with prodigal swing and seam movement, the reverse headache is true for India where State associations may prepare a pitch blatantly favouring its bowling attack’s speciality — be it spin or medium-pace.

Though the cliche about Indian pitches tends to hinge on ‘turning tracks’, the desire to grant ‘green-pitch’ exposure to home-bred batsmen did force many curators to let the grass linger, and last season, Harbhajan Singh fumed: “Our domestic pitches make any bowler look like Mitchell Johnson!”

The question does rear up — can the ‘let’s-do-away-with-the-toss-mindset’ be replicated in India? And would that mean the host association curators will prepare balanced pitches that would do away the significance of the toss? And if the experiment of doing away with the toss has to be implemented in India, then it would have to come with a caveat — unlike England counties’ ‘visiting team to field first’ rule, out here it would have to be ‘visiting team to bat first’ clause as State associations, despite their new-found love for fast bowlers, still have better expertise to prepare slow, sluggish tracks that aid spin, but no home squad would want to bat last on such a surface. Former India spinner Sunil Joshi, who also represented Karnataka for nearly two decades, declared that such a move isn’t feasible in India.

“I honestly think we are complicating things by doing things like doing away with the toss. The toss is part of the natural flow of the game and why should that be altered? We are also missing the point in this debate about pitches. Instead of obsessing about the playing surface, we all should enhance the technical skill sets of the players. It is the skill that determines the result and not the pitch.

“When we tour Australia or England, don’t we train specifically for those conditions? It is all about having the right skills and adjusting them to the demands of the surfaces,” Joshi said.

It is a fair point that Joshi makes. The sliver of luck or misfortune that trails a toss and the decisions it entails are all part of the sport’s infinite appeal. To fret and fume about the pitch and to negate home advantage by discounting the toss would affect the innumerable ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of the game. What is sport but for its unpredictable scripts? And what is sport without its supreme practitioners using their technique to counter all kinds of pitches and conditions?