Mithali Raj, Toss, Charlotte Edwards
Wormsley, 2014: Mithali Raj calls, Charlotte Edwards examines © Getty Images

“The team having been picked and an initial policy decided upon, the next duty of a captain is to win the toss.” — Bob Wyatt, The Ins and Outs of Cricket.

Something had to give in somewhere, given the inability of teams to win overseas Test series for some time now. ICC is now considering doing away with the toss in Test cricket. If the change in law is sanctioned, the visiting captain will get to decide whether to bat or bowl. This has already been implemented in the County Championship; and it is only logical that this will address the problem (is it really a problem?) of doctoring pitches.

Mike Marqusee wrote in Anyone but England: “the toss in cricket is more important in determining result of matches than in any other sports.” You cannot challenge that. Almost no other sport witnesses change of conditions as vivid through the course of a match as cricket, especially Test cricket.

The decision has drawn both support and opposition from cricketers. The decision is yet to be taken, but there is really no denying that the toss adds to the romance of cricket. Decades ago, over a century before Ravi Shastri’s “MS to spin the coin” boomed across India via television sets, the toss used to be special.

The toss was the first code in the earliest Laws of Cricket, determined in 1744. It read thus: “The Pitching the first Wicket is to be determined by the Toss of a Piece of Money.” The tradition has continued, and unlike many other laws, has stood the test of time.

Like many aspects of cricket, the toss, too, invariably evokes memories of WG Grace. There are two stories, both equally worth a mention. In the first, WG apparently squeaked ‘Lady’ (he had an absurdly thin voice for a man of his frame) as the coin went up, picked it up, announced that they would be batting, and walked away.

In case you haven’t figured it out, British coins of the era had Queen Victoria on one side and Britannia on the other.

The other is more of a piece of advice than an anecdote: “When I win the toss on a good pitch, I bat. When I win the toss on a doubtful pitch, I think about it a bit and then I bat. When I win the toss on a very bad pitch, I think about it a bit longer and then I bat.” So much for astute strategising depending on pitch conditions and all that nonsense.

This list is not about tosses in famous matches. None of these tosses altered the course of history or did much of relevance. However, the tosses themselves have gone down as ‘incidents’. Some have attained cult status; some are delightful anecdotes; and some have a dubious side to them.

1. Les Darling’s wrestle-mania

The 1905 Ashes saw two ‘firsts’ at the toss: first, the captains, Stanley Jackson and Les Darling, shared the same birth date (August 21, 1870) for the first — and till now, only — time in Test cricket history; and secondly, Jackson became the first captain to win five tosses in a Test series. England won the series 2-0.

Darling was obviously miffed at this. Once the Test series was over, the Australians reached Scarborough for the traditional festival match. Much to his dismay, Darling realised that Jackson would lead the opposition.

This was too much for Darling, who arrived at the home dressing-room wrapped in a towel. He challenged Jackson to a bout of wrestling instead of a toss.

Darling agreed, on the condition that George Hirst would take his place. Darling had one look at Hirst’s imposing physique and agreed to the toss instead.

Yes, Jackson won the toss again — and batted.

2. The Richie Benaud comeback

Australia had already regained The Ashes when the sides went into the last Test of the 1958-59 series. Then, for the fifth, the selectors (Don Bradman, Jack Ryder, and Dudley Seddon) picked four fast bowlers on a pitch that seemed to hold nothing for them.

Captain Richie Benaud was obviously not happy. “You’ve left me with four fast bowlers.”

“That’s your worry,” chuckled Bradman.

Shortly afterwards, Benaud won the toss and asked England in, it was Bradman’s turn to get agitated: “No captain has ever sent England to bat in Australia and won the match.”

“Well, there is always a first time,” chuckled Benaud.

Australia won the Test by 9 wickets. Benaud scored 64 and took 5 for 57.

3. Tailspin

India came to the final Test of the 1971 West Indies tour 1-0 up, eyeing their first series victory against West Indies, home or away.

However, when they tossed at Queen’s Park Oval, Ajit Wadekar broke his pattern and called ‘tails’ the moment Sobers flipped it. Sobers, used to hearing ‘heads’ (most do that, don’t they?) assumed Wadekar had done the same.

It turned out to ‘tails’.  Both men stood out there (there was obviously no match-referee), unsure of what to do. Then Sobers asked Wadekar to choose — and Wadekar immediately decided to bat.

Exactly why Sobers relented remained unknown. Perhaps he tried to become a gracious host. Or perhaps it had to do with the fact that the men shared an excellent relationship that stretched outside the field, what with Wadekar idolising the legend.

In the end it did not matter. West Indies secured a 166-run lead despite batting second, but Sunil Gavaskar saved the Test (and helped seal the series) with 124 and 220.

4. It didn’t quite matter

Mike Brearley a curious instance in The Art of Captaincy when both Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Brearley claimed that they had won the toss, at Lord’s in 1979. A discussion prevented any controversy: while Brearley informed that he wanted to field, Venkat announced he wanted to bat first.

So India batted — and were shot out for 96. England declared with a 323-run lead, but a rookie Dilip Vengsarkar and a senior Gundappa Viswanath saved the Test.

As for the official entry, Venkat is credited with the toss.

5. Viswanath Asif

Viswanath flipped the coin and Asif Iqbal called in his farewell Test, in 1979-80 at Calcutta. Immediately after the coin landed, Asif picked it up and congratulated Viswanath, asking the latter to decide. Viswanath obviously batted, the Test was drawn, and India claimed the series 2-0.

Two decades later, the toss was mentioned in the Justice Qayyum Report. Asif was accused of fixing the toss.

6. Sledging at the toss

England were in complete disarray in the summer of 1988. They had to appoint four captains in the home series against West Indies, of whom Chris Cowdrey was one, at Headingley.

Cowdrey was made to wait in national blazers for twenty minutes before Viv Richards emerged in a t-shirt, tracksuit bottoms, and Rastafarian wristbands. Cowdrey went through the custom of reading out the team list when Richards stopped him after three or four names: “Play whoever you want, maan, that ain’t going to change anything.”

Richards won the toss and immediately asked Cowdrey: “What do you want to do, maan?”

“Bat…?”

“Okay maan, you bat.”

England batted and lost by ten wickets. Cowdrey never played another Test.

Footnote: Cowdrey later denied the first part of the incident in a conversation with Mark Peel. In other words, Viv did ask Cowdrey to choose, but the team-list bit of it is probably a myth.

7. The bird

Trust Saleem Malik to do something like this. When they tossed at Harare in 1995, Saleem Malik muttered ‘bird’ at the toss, referring to the Zimbabwean eagle on one side and goodness-knows-what on the other.

It was confusing, and Malik tried to pick up the coin and claim his triumph, but match referee Jackie Hendriks could not be fooled. Andy Flower won the re-toss, and Zimbabwe batted first and won by the innings.

8. The most ‘trolled’ toss

How many tosses make to jingles? How many of them are made fun of — the toss, mind you, not what followed — well over a decade and a half later?

Australia, asked to bat by Nasser Hussain, romped to 125 for 1 at lunch, 233 for 1 at tea, and 364 for 2. The first of the two wickets had fallen to Simon Jones, who ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament and was ruled out of the series on the same day after bowling 7 overs.

Wisden labelled it “one of the costliest decisions in Test history”. It remains probably the only toss to attain cult status.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EG4qL7qMXHQ

9. Head-Tail!

Boria Majumdar has credited Michael Clarke with an anecdote in Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians (the match, in all probability, was in the 2003-04 VB Series). Let me quote Clarke in verbatim: “[Ricky] Ponting had the coin in hand. Just as he flipped the coin, [Sourav] Ganguly … said ‘Head-Tail’.

“It had taken Ricky a second or two to come to grips with the situation and by that time the coin had come down. Ganguly just picked it up and said to Ricky, “We’ll bat” and walked off. India had won the toss and were batting. Ricky did not really know what to do or say and all he did was tell us in the dressing room exactly what happened at the toss.’”

Smooth, our Dada, as always.

10. The final one

The last of the lot is reserved for a World Cup final. MS Dhoni flipped the coin in a jam-packed Wankhede Stadium that afternoon. Kumar Sangakkara called ‘heads’, a call confirmed by the broadcasters. However, MS Dhoni, having heard Sanga call ‘tails’, informed presenter Ravi Shastri that he would like to bat.

The cheering crowd had drowned Sanga’s voice to the extent that neither Shastri nor match referee Jeff Crowe (nor Dhoni) had heard the call properly.

They should probably have referred to the audio feed, but they asked for a re-toss. Sanga won again and batted, and everyone was happy.

One person who was not happy at all this was Vic Marks: “So had Sangakkara pulled a fast one? One snippet for the prosecution: if Sangakkara had called heads the first time around surely he would have made much more of a fuss when there was the suggestion of another toss? … Being a lawyer, Sangakkara will have an articulate defence, albeit a soft-spoken one, I suppose.”