Summer is synonymous with cricket here in Australia. From watching the Boxing Day test match to wheeling out the garbage bin to stand in as stumps on a manicured lawn as you assemble the neighbourhood crew for a friendly game of highly competitive backyard cricket, our days come to revolve around the game. But as anyone who has watched a test understands, the coin toss can be the difference between humble-bragging about the brilliance of the Aussie side or spiralling into a pit of despair.
Though some teams maintain that the coin toss doesn’t determine a team’s fate, others aren’t so blasé. For many a team who has lost a coin toss, the wicket has only dried up against their favour, making conditions for bowlers less than favourable as batters are able to amass staggering totals. As cricket.com.au reported on the Twenty20 matches played in Dubai across the month of November, “The toss bias has been widely attributed to the impact of dew in night matches, with India bowling coach Bharat Arun arguing teams winning the toss have enjoyed a “big advantage” in Dubai.”
But now, a new suggestion could transform the coin toss as we know it. Haris Aziz, associate professor at the University of New South Wales where he specialises in computational social choice and algorithmic game theory, believes that the unfair effect on the outcome of the match that largely results from the coin toss could be avoid altogether. In an interview with The Guardian, Aziz explained: “One of the overarching issues that I work on is that many decisions are being made by computers or computer algorithms and one of the overarching themes is how these decisions are made in a fair manner.” Aziz added, “And that was the angle I took when looking at this issue: fairness.”
Aziz explains that over a long sequence of games, the coin toss isn’t inherently unfair as both teams equally have the chance to win it. But on a match-by-match basis it is unfair, like a one-off ICC World Test Championship final or the last match of an Ashes series. As well as the advantage awarded to the toss-winning side by way of pitch and weather conditions, there’s also perceived advantage as the losing side can feel hard done by.
So, what’s the alternative? Aziz suggests moving the toss from a two-step formula to a three-step formula. It would go from tossing the coin and winning captain choosing, to the coin toss, proposal, and then a choice. The toss-losing captain would be afforded the choice of a run handicap to pin the more favourable option in order to equalise the two choices, before handing back to the toss-winning captain to make the final decision of whether to bat or field.
“The reason I came up with this method is that it also has really solid mathematical foundations,” Aziz explains. “It is inspired by a rule called divide and choose which has been used throughout history to make a very different kind of allocation decision about dividing a divisible resource. Steven Brams and Alan Taylor have written an excellent book on it called Fair Division. Here we don’t have a divisible resource but we do have runs, which are almost a divisible resource, and which we can use to balance things out.”
There has been some uproar in recent years as cricket comes to incorporate more data analysis into the competition. Where there used to be an honour code of batsmen walking despite an umpire calling “not out”, now the third umpire reigns supreme. But as Aziz insists, the beauty of his suggestion is that it doesn’t rely on a computer to provide analytics. “By careful analysis one can get a pretty good idea of bowling first given two teams at one ground at a certain temperature, but I feel that sports rules should be elegant and simple so my method is not dependent on any calculations on a computer. I think the beautiful rules in sport are those that are timeless and not dependent on technology.”