Truii data visualization, analysis and management Scoreboard from the First Test in Brisbane 1928 crop

Cricket: Should you bat first? Part 1: Winning the toss

The Australian summer of cricket is about to get underway with Australia taking on New Zealand starting at the Gabba cricket ground in Brisbane. I’m a regular attendee for the first day of the first test of the Australian summer. After we get drinks in hand and wait for the coin toss our mob eagerly debates if Australia should bat first or send the opposition in on the juicy Gabba greentop.


The short answer is – In my opinion, at the Gabba you should send the opposition in to bat first. Teams who have done this have won 15% more of the time!

The long answer is spread over three posts:

  1. How important is winning the toss? – this post
  2. Should you bat or field first? – data from all teams across all time.
  3. Bat first in Australia (accept the Gabba) and field first on the sub-continent – regional differences.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. H.L Mencken

I started this analysis assuming that it would be a quick check of the record, but alas, these three blogs show how a superficial scan of the data can tell a different story to when you analyse it more critically.

Bat or field first debate

If you win the coin toss in cricket, should you have a bat or send the opposition in to face your seem attack? To most cricket tragics this is a no brainer; best summed up by the quote variously credited to Don Bradman, Greg Chappel and Shane Warne “If 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”.

The basic argument for batting first is to avoid batting last on a deteriorating wicket. For non-tragics, the cricket pitch isn’t allowed to be maintained during a match, save for a pass of the roller between innings. So the surface tends to deteriorate from a rock hard surface on day one to a pitted, cracked and dusty goat track over the duration of the test match.

You play for five days and get a draw?!

Yes this always seems weird when I try and explain test match cricket. For the non-tragics, test match cricket goes for five days, both teams get two opportunities (innings) to bat and bowl (in alternating order). If at the end of the two innings the last batting team has not beaten the other teams score, or they are not all out, then the game is called a draw. Yes you can play for five days and get a draw. In fact this is very common. Over the history of the game, a draw is about as likely as a win or loss (34% see Figure 1), although in recent decades with the advent of a more daring style of game the chances of a draw have dropped to about 22% (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Percentage of test matches ending in a draw through time. Data grouped into 100 games.

(source ESPN Cricket)

How important is winning the toss?

Before we get into the discussion of whether you should bat first. How important is winning the toss? If these debates about deteriorating wickets, or getting runs on the board if you are a strong batting side, or taking early wickets if you have a killer bowling attack are true, then there should be a distinct advantage in winning the toss. This is because you can dictate the order of play to suit your strengths.

The inclusion of the draw as a result option, and how variable the draw result is through time (Figure 1) makes the straight comparison of win vs loss ratios through time a little confounded. To keep it simple for Figure 2 (and the subsequent posts) I have simply presented the difference between the number of games won or lost as a percentage of games played. A 10% ‘advantage’ in Figure 2 simply means that teams that won the toss, won the match 10% more often than lost.

Up to the mid 1990s winning the toss looks to have given you some advantage (Figure 2) but since then it seems pretty marginal (Figure 2). For the statistically minded, I used the Truii trend analysis functionality to test for a trend in the data. Nothing significant to report.

Figure 2: Advantage through winning the toss through time (groups based on 100 sequential test matches).

(source ESPN Cricket)

Well that’s all stitched up then, I have just rained on the bat vs field debate. If there is no advantage in winning the toss, then the whole angst about batting or fielding is a moot point.

Not so fast… even when you win the toss, you need to make a decision about what to do. Maybe Figure 2 just shows that on balance we are simply choosing to bat first all the time without thinking about the conditions.

Find out about what happens once you win the toss – does your choice to bat or field make a difference? The bating or fielding first preferences of different teams and if it makes a difference is covered in the next post…you can subscribe to Data Curio via email – on the top right to be notified when new blogs are posted.

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