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By Suresh Menon
Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead begins with the protagonists tossing a coin, and teasing out a whole philosophy based on the fact that Rosencrantz calls ‘heads’ and wins 92 times in a row. No cricket captain has quite managed that rate of success, and however fondly cricketers talk of the law of averages, the fact remains that the probability of a coin falling one way or the other is exactly 50-50 regardless of what went before.
Perhaps, suggests Guildenstern after losing the toss, such an event is due to “un-, sub- or supernatural forces.”
India’s captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni might feel, like Guildenstern, that there are malignant forces at work. He has lost 12 of the last 13 tosses, and in South Africa could be forgiven for believing that to lose the toss is to lose the match, so why not evolve another method of deciding who gets choice of innings.
That thought occurred to the losing captain over a century ago. Australia’s Joe Darling lost the toss in four Test matches and two tour games to England’s Stanley Jackson. For the final Test Darling suggested that the captains think out of the box (not in those exact words because the phrase was not in use then) and engage in a bout of Greco-Roman wrestling. There was a certain poetry in that suggestion because whoever was tossed out, literally, would lose the toss. Somehow Darling's suggestion was not accepted with the seriousness it deserved.
Sadly for Indian batsmen, however, I cannot see Dhoni tossing Graeme Smith over in Greco-Roman wrestling – the India captain’s best bet would be to challenge the South African to a motorbike race.
Most captains carry with them lucky coins while others accept any antidote that will change their luck. I don’t know how superstitious Dhoni is (a toss losing streak like his is bound to make any captain superstitious), and to what lengths he is willing to go to give his team a good start. Perhaps he ought to start walking under ladders (placed 13 in a row) while a black cat crosses his path on the principle that bad luck cancels out bad luck.
Another option would be to ask a ‘lucky’ member of the side to deputise for him at the toss. There is nothing in the laws of the game which says a captain cannot have a substitute at the toss. But who is the luckiest member of the Indian side?
It has to be Harbhajan Singh, who was expected to be the spearhead of the attack but plays as an off spinner on the basis of two centuries at home against New Zealand. Sunil Gavaskar once claimed on television that you could practice tossing the coin to win. He could tell Harbhajan the secret.
The toss, or a variation, is an essential part of most sports but in no other does it play as important a role as in cricket. You can choose the ‘wrong’ end in football and score goals, or choose to serve first (or not) in tennis and still lead, but cricketing gods are often ruthless with those who call wrongly.
Still, that is the way it ought to be. The toss is a tribute to the element of luck that is at the base of cricket. Even those who are in control of their destiny – the great batsman, the successful bowler – know the role of chance in their performance. The toss merely acknowledges this.
But philosophy is for those outside the playing area. Dhoni might be happier arm wrestling Smith at the start of the third Test. By then it might not matter anyway.