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Numbers Suggest the Toss Has Never Been More Important in Test Cricket

CENTURION, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 12: Graeme Smith of South Africa and Michael Clarke of Australia toss the coin before day one of the First Test match between South Africa and Australia on February 12, 2014 in Centurion, South Africa.  (Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)
Morne de Klerk/Getty Images
Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2014

"Win the toss and bat."

It's a phrase so embedded into the fabric of cricket that even the captains of Under-12 suburban teams wouldn't dare to send the opposition in on a brisk Saturday morning.

Sure, the ball might move around a little early on. A couple of quick wickets might even fall. But runs on the board win matches. Chasing teams wilt. For cricketers, the weight of scoreboard pressure is an all-powerful quantity; the hardened veterans around local clubs speaking almost mythically about the power of batting first.

But it's not just at club cricket. At Test level, the importance of that iconic cricketing phrase appears to be increasing. 

"Win the toss and bat."

Take South Africa's ongoing dominance of Australia in the second Test at Port Elizabeth, for example. The hosts are cruising with a 369-run lead, thanks largely to a defiant but unspectacular effort with the bat and a clinical showing with the ball. 

In fact, the match is essentially a mirror image of what occurred in the first Test at Centurion. It's just the teams that have exchanged places. 

PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 21: Ryan Harris of Australia reacts as AB de Villiers of South Africa scores from his bowling during day two of the Second Test match between South Africa and Australia at AXXESS St George's Cricket Stadium on Febru
Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

Certainly, South Africa's recapture of their identity and supremacy has helped to change the dynamic of the series. But what has happened at the toss in each match can't be ignored.

Graeme Smith was widely and justly criticised for his decision to send Australia in at Centurion, given that both the numbers and Dale Steyn's gastro-stricken body were imploring the South African captain to put his pads on. The rest of the match was a disaster.

So when Smith picked correctly when the coin was thrown into the air on the first morning at Port Elizabeth, he didn't dare commit the same error. His side has essentially disposed of the threat of defeat in the three days since. 

Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

A trend developed across 2013: It seems that winning the toss and electing to bat when playing at home is a recipe for invincibility.

Of course, it's overly simplistic to suggest that doing exactly that guarantees success. Yet the numbers tell a compelling story: You have to go back 15 months to India's defeat to England in Kolkata to find a Test side that lost at home after winning the toss and electing to bat.

 

Test Results Summary When Home Team Wins Toss and Bats First From 14 Dec 2012:

MatchesHome Team WinsDrawsAway Team Wins
151320

While those numbers highlight the difficulty of chasing the game while on foreign soil, it's the colossal margins of victory that are perhaps most telling.

Across the 13 home wins, the visiting side only got within 100 runs of their hosts on three occasions, with two triumphs by an innings and countless other one-sided affairs littering the results.

 

Detailed Test Results When Home Team Wins Toss and Bats First From 14 Dec 2012:

Start DateHome TeamOpponentResult
14 Dec 2012AustraliaSri LankaAustralia won by 137 runs
11 Jan 2013South AfricaNew ZealandSouth Africa won by inns & 193 runs
1 Feb 2013South AfricaPakistanSouth Africa won by 211 runs
22 Feb 2013South AfricaPakistanSouth Africa won by inns & 18 runs
8 March 2013Sri LankaBangladeshDraw
16 May 2013EnglandNew ZealandEngland won by 170 runs
24 May 2013EnglandNew ZealandEngland won by 247 runs
10 July 2013EnglandAustraliaEngland won by 14 runs
18 July 2013EnglandAustraliaEngland won by 347 runs
9 Aug 2013EnglandAustraliaEngland won by 74 runs
10 Sep 2013ZimbabwePakistanZimbabwe won by 24 runs
21 Oct 2013BangladeshNew ZealandDraw
21 Nov 2013AustraliaEnglandAustralia won by 381 runs
5 Dec 2013AustraliaEnglandAustralia won by 218 runs
13 Dec 2013AustraliaEnglandAustralia won by 150 runs

Yet it hasn't always been this way. Yes, winning the toss and batting first at home has eternally been viewed as a decisive advantage. But until this latest stretch, doing so resulted in a more diverse array of outcomes. 

 

Test Results Summary When Home Team Wins Toss and Bats First From 3 Jan 2010 to 14 Dec 2012:

MatchesHome Team WinsDrawsAway Team Wins
3514714

It is, of course, distinctly possible that the recent 15-month stretch represents an anomaly that will be rectified with time.

However, it's hard to ignore the fact that a definitive trend has established itself within the Test arena, whereby visiting teams are finding it increasingly difficult to chase the game. 

The second Test between South Africa and Australia at Port Elizabeth is just the latest example.

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