In cricket, the fairness of the pre-match coin toss is the subject of perennial debate. And rightly so.
The toss is random but its impact is not. Over a long series of games, the impact of the toss is neutral, but if it is meant to offer both sides an equal shot at winning any one game, it fails. Our analysis of more than 40,000 professional matches suggests as much: the team that wins the toss wins the game 2.8 percentage points more often. And if that were not sobering enough, in day-night one-day matches, the advantage of winning the toss is a whopping 5.9%.
The sizeable impact of the toss on who wins the game leads to a lot of grumbling about the role of fate. You may say that's what cricket fans do - they grumble. But, the fact is, the toss makes each game less competitive and less enjoyable.
How could we do better? The best choice is an auction, with the teams bidding on the number of runs that should be added to the opposing team's total for the right to decide who bats or bowls first. But first, let's consider the alternatives.
We could institute a baseball-like system of multiple short innings. For one-day matches, for instance, we could have five innings of ten overs each. With this arrangement, teams would get a chance to calibrate their approach based on how the other team handles the previous "session". It works in baseball; it could work in cricket. But such a system radically alters the nature of the game. It no longer feels like cricket, where the norm has been to let one team finish its innings before the other team gets a crack. And it slows cricket matches further. Worse, it still leaves the toss in place.
Another option is to give visiting captains the option to choose to bowl first. This idea was instituted in England for county cricket in 2016 and kept for 2017. But the goal of this proposal was not to make the toss fairer. Rather, it was to "improve the standard of wickets" and help with the development of spin bowlers. Both are reasonable aims. But neither is directly about redressing the imbalance generated by the toss. The cost of switching to such a system is neutered pitches, which could be seen by some as "improving the standard of wickets" and by others as another nail in the coffin when it comes to balance between bat and ball.
Rather than ultimately end up neutering pitches by giving the visiting captain the chance to bowl first, we could simply mandate more sedate pitches across the board, reducing the impact of at least one aspect of the imbalance generated by the toss: the impact of a fresh or a wearing pitch, as the case may be. We have known how to build roads for at least a millennium; delivering flat tracks is within our reach.
But the deterioration of the pitch isn't the only finger tipping the scales. Changing outfield conditions, light and weather matter too. So does standing in the sun for a few hours before going in to bat. Neutering pitches will also take another pound of flesh. Test cricket, in particular, would be drained of early match excitement. The spectacle of watching batters toil to survive on a fresh wicket offering movement and bounce is intrinsic to cricket. Robbing the game of that will leave it poorer.
Another idea is to give the team that loses the toss the ability to choose their playing XI after the toss. This is technically allowed under the laws of cricket, as long as the other captain consents, but that veto power would need to be removed for this idea to work. This approach does acknowledge that winning the toss has value, but it goes too far in trying to compensate for it. Permitting one captain to choose the side after knowing both the opposition's line-up and the toss decision could wind up penalising the toss-winning team as often as not. We should want an approach that requires input from both teams, not simply one that rewards one side based on a random coin flip.
Auctioning off the ability to choose whether to bat or bowl first is a better idea. Instead of awarding the decision to the captain who correctly calls the face of the coin left staring at the sky after landing on the ground, we should ask teams to use their knowledge and experience to price the value of getting to pick whether to bowl or bat first.
After giving the teams time to inspect the playing surface, each team should simultaneously bid the number of runs that should be added to the other team's score. The team that puts in the higher bid - proposes more runs be added to the other team's score - wins the right to choose whether to bowl or bat. (If the bids are tied, which suggests that teams price the ability to choose the same, an actual coin toss can be used to decide which team chooses and the runs would be added to the other team's score.)
Let's take an example. Say, India and Pakistan are playing a match in Dubai in the evening, when the dew is supposed to set in. Say India bid seven runs while Pakistan bid ten. Pakistan win the auction and decide to bat first. Now whatever total Pakistan make, India begin their chase with ten runs on the board. If Pakistan instead opt to chase, they would need to make ten more runs than India actually made to beat India.
The solution is generic and could apply to other sports. Take chess, for instance. Rather than use a random draw to decide who goes first, the players could bid how much time should be added to the opponent's clock for the privilege of playing white (or making the first move). In swimming, people could bid how much time should be shaved off opponents' times for the right to swim in a particular lane.
The idea has several advantages. First, it uses the market to price the advantage of making the call of bowling or batting first. Second, it does not disrupt the basics of how a cricket match is played. Third, it will likely lead to more competitive matches, where skill rather than fate dictates the result. It also nips in the bud conversations about how one team won because they had, entirely through chance, access to better conditions.
Would teams be able to bid optimally?
They would learn to do so. As soon as the ICC makes the change, cricket analytics companies will start offering advice about optimal bids for various conditions. (This is also why we propose a single-round auction. The information gain from a multiple-round auction will likely be minimal. But if the powers that be think a multi-round auction is preferable, so be it.)
Does an auction not favour teams with more money to buy better analytics?
Cricket teams already heavily use data to help guide decisions on who they draft, what to pay for each player, what tactics to use against each bowler and batter. And the decision on what to do when a team wins a toss is probably already guided by the analytics companies. So yes, teams with more money and better analytics obviously have a leg up. But we do not anticipate the imbalance becoming worse. If, however, that is a worry, the bids could be made public after each auction, so that everyone - including fans - could see and evaluate teams' choices and learn from them.
A final virtue of auctions - one that we should not overlook - is that they will stir debate, engagement, and analysis. Instead of thanking good fortune or lamenting bad luck, we expect passionate debates and sharp analysis about the optimal bid, the judgment of the captain, and the backroom team, and more.