Cricket World Cup: Heads you win? How the coin toss affects your money

MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli.
MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli both prefer to chase when given the choice.

Every ODI starts with a coin toss but why is it so important and more importantly, to what extent should it affect your betting decisions? Jamie Pacheco explains all...

"Recently, it’s gone the other way with most captains deciding that they’d rather have a target in front of them so they know what they need to do. Bigger bats and more powerful players has also meant that chasing teams never feel like they’re completely out of the game and can make up for a slow start with some late big-hitting."

It's one of cricket's great quirks that having spent hundreds of hours honing your skills, talking tactics, and mulling over team selection, arguably the most important aspect of any cricket match is the outcome of a coin toss.

Some will argue that it's absurd that such a random act should affect the match so much and one such party is the ECB, who from the 2016 season onwards gave visiting captains the chance to bowl first if they wished in County Championship (four day) matches. Only if the away skipper declined the offer would the toss go ahead as normal.

Either way, a coin toss is still very much a part of the ODI game so let's look at why it's so crucial ahead of the Cricket World Cup.

Why does it matter?

The captain winning the toss decides whether he wants his side to bat or bowl first. Going back a few years just about any captain would opt to bat first following the rationale that most cricket pitches are easier to bat on at the beginning of a match and that 'scoreboard pressure' (worrying about run rates and wickets lost) does funny things to chasing teams.

Recently, it's gone the other way with most captains deciding that they'd rather have a target in front of them so they know what they need to do. Bigger bats and more powerful players has also meant that chasing teams never feel like they're completely out of the game and can make up for a slow start with some late big-hitting.

In any case, it's hard to argue that having the choice as to what to do isn't a big advantage.

Captains will be well aware of what the stats say about the win percentage batting first or second at a particular ground and will take those stats into consideration when deciding what to do.

A 'good toss to lose'

You'll hear players and commentators use that phrase when there seems to be no big advantage to batting or bowling first. You could make a case for either one so the captain who loses the toss is more than happy for his opposite number to be in charge of making that tough decision. That way, at least if the captain who loses the toss loses the match, he can't be accused of having made the wrong decision!

Batting first

Floodlit ground - 1280.jpg

We've mentioned the two main reasons for batting first already: the wicket being at its best early on and scoreboard pressure.

A further one would be if it's a day-nighter because at certain grounds batting under lights is hard work.

That could be because it's harder to see the ball or because of how the lights can make the ball move around more when being bowled.

Some skippers will feel that if their teams' strength is in their batting, the best thing to do is to bat first and put on a big score rather than conceding plenty and being demoralised at the break.

Fielding first

The main reason why you'd want to field first is if conditions are ripe for bowling when the game begins. Maybe the wicket has a lot of grass on it or it's overcast and the ball should swing, meaning you can take early wickets.

Captains will also prefer to chase if there's rain in the air and the match could be affected by Duckworth-Lewis-Stern; the theory is that it's easier to chase a reduced total because you'll have ten wickets in hand to do so, meaning that as long as you score quickly enough, you're not fussed about losing wickets along the way.

A further reason could be dew. In the likes of India and Sri Lanka it can become very hard to grip the ball in the evening when there's dew, particularly for spinners, so you can avoid that handicap by bowling first. Admittedly, it doesn't happen so much in England.

Some skippers will just feel their batsmen are better suited to chasing totals than setting them because they don't have to worry about what a par score is and are good at pacing an innings based on what they need to get.

How does it affect the betting?

If you know that there's a big bias towards a side batting first, you can choose to back the side having 'first digs' post-toss. For example, if Bangladesh were 5.04/1 pre-toss against India at a ground where the team batting first won 70% of matches, you might be tempted to back them at around 4.03/1 after winning the toss and deciding to have a bat. At least the stats would be in your favour. The opposite would also work at a ground where it's bowling first that boasts a 70% win rate.

You can also take a pre-toss gamble. If historical results in your research show there's a big edge to winning the toss (whether it's batting or fielding first) you can do worse than backing the pre-match outsider and hoping the toss goes their way. For example, you could back Sri Lanka at 3.55/2 pre-toss against New Zealand and lay off your bet at around 2.77/4 if they win the toss and are seen to have gained an edge by deciding what to do; securing yourself a guaranteed profit before a ball is bowled in anger.

Finally, it's worth remembering that winning the toss helps (those 'good tosses to lose' aside) but isn't a guarantee of success. The waters are further muddied by the occasional skipper who wins the toss and does the opposite to what all the stats suggest he should do.

And just because teams batting first at that ground win 70% of matches, that's not the same as winning 100% of them! 30% of teams overcame that handicap and won anyway.

As ever, the coin toss is just one of any factors to consider before getting your wallet out.

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