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Win the toss, think hard and bat first

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18th October, 2019

As a silver coin spun in the early September London air, Tim Paine correctly guessed the side on which it would land.

Then, when he decided to field first, he got it all wrong – if history prior to The Oval Test is any guide. Data for The Oval Cricket Ground only confirms the age old adage, ‘think hard and bat first.’

There’s close to nine per cent excess wins for the team batting first, which is why, of the 102 Tests played at The Oval, only 14 times have toss-winning captains opted to field. Fielding first has not had any advantage.

Well, perhaps these are all just characteristics of small samples and there’s no larger pattern at play. Or is there?

What if one were to look at all matches played in England. Well, of the 516 Test matches played in England, captains chose nearly 80 per cent per cent of the time to bat first and enjoyed an excess 11 per cent wins compared to the team that batted second – or 47 additional Test wins in aggregate.

The remaining 109 Tests, where captains opted to field, they won an excess of three Tests compared to the team that batted first. That’s slightly less than three per cent.

What if we look at Australian grounds? Does it say anything different? Well, every ground in Australia (with a minimum of ten matches) shows greater chances of winning for batting first.


And, no surprise, the aggregate picture across all Australian grounds reflects this advantage. There’s a 17 per cent excess winrate for captains winning the toss and batting first compared to 23 per cent excess losses when fielding first. This is over all Tests played in Australia – about 318, with captains choosing 227 times to bat first and 91 times, including as Nasser Hussain most famously did, to bat second.

To illustrate the consistency, across time, of the advantages that have historically accrued to the team that chose to bat first, we can look at the cumulative wins less the losses from the decision to bat first. Of the approximately 1150 Test matches where the toss winner chose to bat and with a result (no draws), there was an additional 108 wins, about 9.2 per cent to the team that chose to bat. The chart seems to suggest a steady advantage that accumulates and with one noticeable period of decline.

To compare, we can examine a similar chart for the nearly 440 instances where there was a result after the toss winning captain chose to field. There’s an additional 15 wins, or 3.4 per cent, to the toss-winning captain that fielded first and this chart does not show as steadily accruing advantages as the previous one did.

So why is this relevant?


In an earlier post, I proposed an alternative scheme for the toss. Here, we examine the systematic bias in the outcome of Test matches and show that there’s a relatively consistent advantage of 9 per cent that captains have enjoyed when they decided to bat first.

With less consistency, they derived a benefit from fielding first.

In forthcoming articles, I hope to show how the historical data referred to above may guide how to bid for runs for the right to bat or field first.