In yesterday’s ODI between England and India, India won the toss, and chose to bat second. This proved to be a good call on the day – they won the match with 5 overs to spare. But exactly how much of an advantage is winning the toss?
We looked at 100 ODIs between the “Top 5” (Australia, England, India, New Zealand & South Africa) since 2017 to find out what the data tells us*.
Intuitively, winning the toss feels like it ought to be A Good Thing™ – it’s called “winning” for a reason… right?
But surprisingly, the first thing that leaps out is that the team that wins the toss usually loses the match.
If your instant reaction to this is that I must have got my numbers wrong… welcome to the club – that’s what I thought too!
So let’s take England. They played 45 of the matches in the dataset, winning 25 of them – i.e. a win percentage of 56%. Across those matches, England won the toss on 26 occasions, winning just 12 and losing 14 of those games – i.e. a win percentage of 46% when winning the toss.
So it’s true – England are 10% less likely to win the match when they win the toss.
What’s going on then?
The toss is obviously a binary choice between batting and bowling; but these choices aren’t equal.
WG Grace is alleged to have said: “When you win the toss – bat. If you are in doubt, think about it, then bat. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague then bat.”
But this definitely isn’t correct for modern women’s ODIs between the top sides, where the team batting second are much more likely to win the game.
This only applies to women’s ODIs between the top sides. In the RHF Trophy for example, there is a small (54%/ 46%) advantage to batting first.
So the numbers tell you that in Women’s ODIs, if you win the toss you “should” bowl, as indeed most captains do – 63% of the time, the winner of the toss chooses to bowl.
What appears to be happening is a very human thing – captains know the data, but they frequently think they are smarter than the data.. and they aren’t: when they defy the data and chose to bat, they lose almost ¾ of the time!
Interestingly, there is another way of “proving” (in inverted commas) that this is correct. Australia are the most data-driven side, and Meg Lanning is the most data-driven captain, and they almost always choose to bowl when they win the toss. On the 16 occasions they won the toss, they chose to bat on all-bar-three occasions – opting to bowl 81% of the time – THEY KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING! (And the only two matches they lost out of the 16 games where they won the toss were two of the three occasions where they chose to defy the data and bat!)
So the bottom line (literally in this case) is that winning the toss is only an advantage if you make a sensible choice… and that choice is: When you win the toss – bowl. If you are in doubt, think about it, then bowl. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague then bowl.
* Data includes almost… but not quite “all”… of the matches played between the Top 5, 2017-22 – thanks, as always, to cricsheet.org for the data!