A brilliant plan to rid sport of useless tossers

21st March, 2009

“Useless tosser” is a popular epithet for cricket captains with a knack for losing the coin toss and thus allowing their opponents to decide whether to bat or to bowl first. Winning the toss is not always an advantage but, depending on the weather conditions, it can give the winner a significant edge.

Language barriers have prevented the phrase “useless tosser” from crossing the Atlantic, but the problem is familiar. When an American football game goes into overtime, it is a distinct advantage to win the coin toss. The coaches know it: when they win, they almost invariably choose to receive possession of the ball. In 2008, lucky callers won 10 overtime games and unlucky ones only four.

The very existence of the coin toss is an admission of defeat – that there is something irreducibly unbalanced about these games, some advantage that cannot be divided but can only be surrendered to the gods of chance. Chess players cannot both play “grey” – one must play white. Cricket teams cannot bowl simultaneously.

The obvious solution is to take turns to enjoy the advantage. This works perfectly well for chess, where a series of games can go on almost indefinitely, but not so well for cricket and even less well for American football, where TV schedules make it difficult to allow overtime to continue too long.

Economics has a natural answer: against the indivisible advantage of winning the toss, trade something that can be more finely divided. In chess, white could be granted less time on the clock. (Tyler Cowen, an economist and chess expert, tells me this has been known to happen, but is regarded as unnecessary because it is so easy to take turns to play white.)

In cricket, the team with the advantage of choosing whether to bat first could give its opponent a head start in the form of extra runs – “bid byes”. In American football, the team with possession is already penalised by having to start far back on the field; the trouble is that they don’t start far back enough.

This exemplifies a second problem. Once we agree that one team must be compensated (in time, runs, or field position), how large should the compensation be? Here, again, economics has the answer. The advantage should be auctioned off to whoever is willing to concede the most compensation to the opposition. The idea is absolutely equitable, intrinsically more exciting than a coin toss, and puts the emphasis on the judgment of the captains. Thankfully, since not all coin tosses are equally important – especially in cricket – the auction price reflects conditions on the day.

Having once written a thesis on sequential auctions with budget constraints (translation: the kind of auctions you get in a game of Monopoly), I am embarrassed to admit that applying auctions to cricket is not my idea – nor that of my fellow professional economists. Creative sports fans are the trailblazers here.

Two brothers, Chris and Andy Quanbeck – both engineers – proposed the auction idea to America’s football authorities in 2003 with, alas, no success. (I have written about their idea in more detail in Slate magazine.) But they were not the first.

To the best of my knowledge, the brilliant idea of replacing a coin toss with an auction had previously been suggested in these very pages. Warren Edwardes, a serial entrepreneur based in London, proposed using an auction in cricket, in a letter to the Financial Times in 1999. As so often, FT readers were the first to know. Alas, the MCC informs me that the proposal was considered by a sub-committee last summer, and “found no enthusiasm”. That is a shame. The idea may not be cricket, but it is excellent economics.

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