In sport, teams and players can prepare in all sorts of ways. From developing tactics to working on fitness, there are all sorts of things that can done, either as a group or as individuals. One of the strangest things about certain sports, though, is the fact that something important can be decided on the most random act of all: the toss of a coin. You can prepare as much as you want, but when the outcome of your event is decided by something that you can have absolutely no control over, all of that preparation can be for nought.
That isn’t to say that the winner of the coin toss in something like cricket will automatically go on to win the match, of course. Tests are played over a maximum of five days, so the result of the coin toss will only have a minor influence on the outcome. Yet it is important, just as it can be in some other sports. Being able to make the choice about whether to bowl first or which end to attack in the first-half of a football match can be the sort of marginal gains that make the difference in terms of what happens during the event.
There is no sport in which the coin toss is seen as influential as it is in cricket. It is the simple toss of a coin, which allows the captain that wins the toss to choose whether his team will go up to bat first or will take to the field. As important as the toss is the decision around what the pitch looks like, as well as what the weather conditions are. It is at that point that the final eleven players will be chosen, giving them the chance to select more spin bowlers when the ground is soft or ‘dusty’, given that the pitch will allow for more spin.
If, on the other hand, the ground is harder, then the fast bowlers will be chosen instead of the spinners. As the match approaches and is half an hour away from getting underway, the captains will come together in order to exchange team sheets, which locks their teams in for the duration of the match, unless there is an injury. The umpires join them and carry out the coin toss, putting the decision of whether to bat or to bowl first in the hands of the winning captain. Usually, a wealth of different information will have been discussed with the team before the toss.
In modern cricket, it is more common for the winning captain to choose to bet second in one-day games than it is in Test cricket. This is because the batting conditions tend to deteriorate as the Test goes on, so by the fourth innings it is much more difficult than on day one. The toss of the coin is also important in cricket because it marks the official start of the match. As a result, any delays to play, such as for weather, will not alter the result of the coin toss. The coin toss has been a part of cricket since the first ever Test match in 1877.
Why It Matters
If a team chooses to bat first in cricket then they can be seen to be taking the easy option. That is to say, a team that is uncertain about the pitch or simply wants to take the safer option will elect to bat first because it means that they won’t have to deal with a deteriorating wicket in the final innings. If opposition bowlers are thought of as being strong, batting first can be a good decision to make in order to try to catch them whilst they’re cold. By batting first, you’re also setting the opposition team a target that they need to chase.
If you bat well, this can make their task much harder as they will mentally feel as though they’ve got an uphill struggle at hand. Of course, if your team bats poorly then you give the opposition side the chance to put a number of runs on the board and put pressure on you when you head in for your second innings. Captains tend to only elect to bat second if they’re confident that no total will be insurmountable for their batsmen. This changed slightly with day-night cricket, on account of the fact that the ball sometimes collects dew at night.
This, in turn, can make it harder for the bowlers to hold the ball, meaning that it is much more challenging to add spin to the ball. A bowler that isn’t confident in their hold on the ball will be much more inaccurate in their bowling. That obviously plays into the hands of the batting team, though it is far from a lock that it will result in a win for them. It is, however, an interesting change in the way that cricketers need to think about the decision based on circumstances. Previously, the idea of playing at night would never have been a consideration.
What The Stats Say
There are some stats that we can look at in order to get a sense of how much it matters who wins the stats. Here’s a look at the 2,106 Test matches that were played up until the 13th of December 2013 and the subsequent result:
|Result Of Toss||Win Test||Lose Test||Draw Test||Tie Test|
|Win||728 (34.6%)||653 (31%)||723 (34.3%)||2 (0.1%)|
|Lose||653 (31%)||728 (34.6%)||723 (34.3%)||2 (0.1%)|
Whilst it is is marginal, there is a clear advantage to winning the toss in Test cricket. Indeed, when you add draws and ties into the numbers, the chances of you losing the Test having won the toss stands at 31%, so a favourable result comes out at 69%.
Here’s how it looks when you’re talk about One Day Internationals played up to the 27th of December 2006:
|Result Of Toss||Win Match||Lose Match||Tie Match||No Result|
Again, it is marginal. Even so, the advantage to the winner of the toss is there for all to see. If you win the toss then you are more likely to win and less likely to lose than if you lose the toss.
In a sport where marginal gains can be real difference-makers, it is no surprise that so much attention is given to the toss. Those that lose it can still go on to win, but they are already fighting an uphill battle, according to the stats.
Another sport in which the toss can be influential is football. There is less decided by the toss in a football match, with the captain choosing whether to take kick-off or to choose which end to attack. In most football grounds around the world, there is a clear area of the crowd that is favoured by the home supporters. In some grounds, such as Liverpool Football Club’s home of Anfield, this is obvious and comes in the form of the Kop. The home side tends to like to attack this section of the stadium in the second-half.
At Anfield, the idea was always that the Kop could ‘suck the ball into the back of the net’. It was never true, but it did seem to be fairly clear that the home support would give their players encouragement to get the goals that it needed to win. As a result, opposition teams will often make Liverpool attack towards the Kop in the first-half rather than the second, with the idea being that this will take the wind out of their sails slightly. The question is, do the stats back up that thinking when it comes to Liverpool playing at home?
Between the start of the 1986-1987 season and the end of the 2018-2019 campaign, Liverpool played 827 games at Anfield. Of those, 578 of them saw the Reds kick towards the Kop in the second-half, with 249 resulting in the home side kicking towards the Kop in the first-half. Here is how those results breakdown:
|Towards Kop First-Half||154 (62%)||38 (15%)||57 (23%)|
|Towards Kop Second-Half||372 (65%)||81 (12%)||125 (23%)|
Once again, the word ‘marginal’ comes into play. Even so, Liverpool were more likely to win and less likely to lose when they played towards the Kop in the second-half. When it came to goals, 917 were scored at the Kop end during that period and 698 of them came in the second-half at the Kop end and 217 of them at the Kop end during the first-half. In other words, Liverpool were more likely to score at the Kop end in the second period of play than in the first. The Reds scored 1,704 goals in total, with 787 scored at the Anfield Road end; 130 fewer goals.
In World Cups in years gone by, the result of a match that was being drawn at the end of 90 minutes was decided by the toss of a coin. Obviously that makes the coin toss about as influential as it’s possible for it to be, though the practice has thankfully been abandoned since. Even so, it is clear from the statistics at Anfield that the coin toss matters in football matches. It is likely to be the same at other venues with influential stands, though it is harder to come across the stats for the likes of Old Trafford and the Stretford End.
The Coin Toss Matters A Lot For Penalties
One area in football where the coin toss really does make a difference is when games go to penalties. A coin toss is used to decide who takes the first penalty and this does matter as the team that takes the first penalty wins around 60% of the time. Meaning, the team that goes second win only around 4 in 10 shootouts.
The principle reason for this is the team that goes second is often under more pressure as they know the result of the opponents effort. If the other team just scored their penalty and now you are up to take yours you know you have to score it or else be behind.
Still, despite the obvious advantage only just over half (56%) of captains will opt to go first. This may seem paradoxical, maybe they just don’t know how big a difference it can make, or maybe they are just really confident in their keeper making the first save and giving them an edge.
There is a different type of ‘football’ if you speak to people from North America, with most people referring to the National Football League as ‘American football’. When games go into overtime, something needs to be done to decide which team will start on the offence and which will start in defence. That is decided according to a coin toss, which can then have a massive influence on the overall outcome of the match being played. Though the coin toss is statistically fair, with each side having the same chance of winning, the victors definitely gain an advantage.
According to statistics, between 1994 and 2011 the team that was on the receiving end first won the game 60% of the time. Of that, 34% of wins game with their opening drive, showing just how important it was to win the toss. The rules changed slightly in 2012, with 23 games going to overtime in the 2012-2013 season. Of those, 16 were won by the team that received first, which was two-thirds of the total games. Once again, the importance of winning the toss is plain for all to see.
Betting On The Coin Toss
It is worth mentioning here that most big bookies will now let you bet on the result of the coin toss in pretty much every sport it is used in. A piece of advice, though, don’t bet on these markets. The result of a coin toss is completely even money, 50:50, however the odds offered won’t be evens, meaning the bookmaker has a guaranteed edge.
No knowledge in the world is going to help you guess the correct result of a coin toss and so if you bet on this market regularly you will lose money over time. The margins for these bets are often around 10%, meaning on average for every £100 staked on a coin toss a bookie can pretty much guarantee to earn £10.
Betting on a coin toss is no better than betting on a fixed odds casino game, the house always wins and the odds are not in your favour. There is no way you can find an edge through research or knowledge. In fact, you would be better off putting that money on a single spin at the roulette table rather than betting on a coin toss result as the odds margins are lower.