Captaining a cricket team is a tricky business. There are no guarantees, except maybe the fact that you will end up with a good many grey hairs sooner than you expected. While making decisions you have to be as careful as a giraffe jumping over sleeping alligators on the Nile, there is a fine line between brilliant and brainless, daring and desperate, inspired and plain idiotic. But the real clincher is this; your decisions aren’t judged on the soundness of the decision itself, but on the outcome.
It isn’t the means employed, but the end itself that matters. The same decision can be lauded as a brilliant piece of innovation and be condemned as a desperate clutching of straws.
The first bit of captaincy I’d like to discuss was by that prince among paupers, Michael Clarke. Actually, this took place before the retirements of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey so he did have a couple of kings with him as well.
The first Test of Australia’s tour of the West Indies was played at the Kensington Oval, Bridgetown, Barbados. Australia trailed West Indies by 43 runs in the first innings, with Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon batting steadily on 68 and 40 respectively.
Instead of overhauling the West Indies first innings total, Michael Clarke declared. It did not matter that they trailed by 43, all that mattered was making something happen. Instead of letting the match meander on at its own pace, Clarke decided to take matters into his own hands.
Yes, it was a risk, but it wasn’t a desperate throw of the dice. In a match in which the run rate had not inched above 3 runs an over, this was a declaration of intent. They say you make your own luck, he did just that. West Indies lost 5 wickets that day itself and were bowled out for 148. The message was very clear, we’re coming to get you, you can’t run and you can’t hide. They ended up winning by 3 wickets on the fifth day, completing a tricky chase.
The numbers say that the West Indies had an advantage with a handy but unspectacular first innings lead, but Australia held the psychological advantage. Strange as it may seem, they held that fabled and mythical quality that all sportsmen speak of, momentum.
It was their call; the West Indies did not bowl them out. Their best chance of getting ahead in the match and ultimately winning it lay in bowling and nipping out some early wickets, not in batting on and taking time out of the game. They were the calling the shots, go ahead punk, make my day.
Clarke was criticized when he made basically the same decision on Australia’s disastrous, dysfunctional and at times derisive tour of India in early 2013. The scene was Hyderabad, the second Test of the series. 1-0 down, he declared Australia’s first innings on 237-9, and was slammed.
India racked up 503 and went on to win by the small matter of an innings and 135 runs, in 3 and a half days. They called his decision stupid, egomaniacal even. Who was he to presume that a mere 237 would be enough?
I for one thought it was a positive declaration. 237 sure wasn’t enough, but given Australia’s complete and utter ineptitude in playing the turning ball, they looked so clueless that a case could be made to compare them to monkeys learning to play the cello, and the fact that number 10 and 11 were in the middle, they weren’t going to get much more.
The intent was right, get in a quick burst before stumps, bowl at full tilt and try to get one if not both of the openers out. Here, as in Bridgetown, their best chance lay in bowling, not prolonging their misery while batting. Ultimately, it is remembered as the first time a team has lost by an innings after declaring their first innings.
The intent in both situations was the same, the thinking was spot on. There is absolutely no point batting on for the sake of it. MS Dhoni’s strange tactics in the Nagpur Test against England in late 2012 proved just that.
England were 2-1 up in the series with 1 game to play. They were happy to sit on the series lead; they would rather win 2-1 than risking having a drawn series. India were facing their first home series loss to England in 28 years, the move had to come from the Indian camp. The surface was docile, the scoring rate a boon to insomniacs. Both teams drudged along at under 2.3 runs per over in the first innings, for England it was about preserving a series lead, for India it might well have been the death by a thousand cuts.
England were bowled out for 330 in their first innings. India were rescued from a precarious position in their first innings by an unusually restrained Virat Kohli and a stubborn and stoic MS Dhoni. They ended day 3 on 297-8, they had lost all their recognized batsmen and the surface was as dead as Darren Pattinson’s international career.
It was a situation that screamed for an overnight declaration, India were only 33 runs behind and they needed a crack at England as soon as possible if they were to force a result on that surface. They batted on.
Very well, we thought. Dhoni wants them to do their best Grim Reaper impersonations and slog a few quick runs. Instead, they scratched and moped around, wasting a crucial 62 minutes scoring just 29 runs.
Had someone just arrived at the ground having missed every other day’s play in the series, he would have been confused as to which team was sitting on a series lead. India achieved absolutely nothing by batting on, nothing that helped them, that is.
India’s best chance of getting ahead in the match lay in bowling, not batting on. The match ended as draw. I’m not suggesting that had Dhoni declared overnight India would have won. It would have just given them a better chance of doing so.
Let us compare the Hyderabad declaration to the other 2 matches. The intent in Hyderabad was the same as it was in Bridgetown. The fundamentals behind both decisions were the same, don’t wait for something to happen, take the fight to the opposition. One was lauded and the other lambasted, only because the results differed.
If Michael Clarke should have batted on in Hyderabad, why was Dhoni’s Nagpur nonsense not acceptable? Then again the logic is the same, bat on even though you know that you will not achieve much, even when you know your best chance lies in bowling. Convention says that you don’t declare your first innings while still trailing, so that is what should happen, even if it means losing precious time. The Americans may not understand why, but five days isn’t always enough time to push for a result.
How can the same decision be amazing in one situation and awful in another? Isn’t there certain hypocrisy about the whole thing?
On second thoughts, those giraffes might just have it easier.