The Test match (the international version of the five-day game of cricket) offers a fascinating, strategic option for captains: the declaration. As Ron Kaplan notes of India’s current game against Australia : “Isn’t there the chance that India could have come up big and taken the match, or were their players that inferior? There’s a difference between running up the score and being aggressive in the pursuit of victory.” Well, the match isn’t over, but Ron’s question and points are very suggestive. Thus this blog.
In this game, India batted first and scored 191 runs. Australia then batted and racked up an enormous 659 for the loss of only four wickets before the Australian captain Michael Clarke felt that his side had scored enough runs (and he still had enough time—a full two days) to take ten more Indian wickets and win the game. And not just win the game, but do so without having to bat again! When they began their second (and final) innings, India were 468 runs behind the Australians. Even if the Indians managed to score 500 runs, Australia would still need only thirty-odd runs to win the game—assuming there was enough time in the match. So, Clarke’s team are currently in a very strong position. As it turns out, at the end of the third day India are 114 for 2 wickets in their second innings, still 354 runs behind. It will take a feat of extraordinary discipline and resilience for the Indians to avoid losing eight wickets or score enough runs or take so long doing it that Australia cannot force a victory.
For Graeme Smith, the South African captain, the situation is even rosier. The South African side scored 580 for 4 wickets in their first innings before Smith declared. The total wasn’t an overwhelming one, but Smith took a risk and calculated that he had enough runs (and good enough bowlers) to put the Sri Lankans immediately under pressure. He was right. Sri Lanka scored only 239 in their first innings, leaving them adrift by 341 runs. If a side is over 200 runs behind the other following the completion of both side’s first innings, then the team that batted first has the option of “enforcing the follow on.” Smith did this. He effectively told the Sri Lankans, “We don’t think you’ll be able to make 341 runs in your second innings. Why should we bat again, when we can beat you by an innings?” Currently, at the end of the third day’s play in Cape Town, Sri Lanka is a dismal 138 for the loss of four wickets, still 203 runs behind making South Africa bat again. Smith’s bet looks like a good one.
Now, as Ron Kaplan has surmised, declarations can go spectacularly wrong—as can enforcing the follow on. In 1984, the England captain David Gower declared his team’s second innings with nine wickets down, setting the West Indies a formidable 344 runs to win in only one day. He guessed that the West Indies would go for victory and in doing so play risky shots and lose. He miscalculated spectacularly. He was correct in thinking the West Indies team would play their shots—but they played them brilliantly! The West Indies romped to victory for the loss of only 9 wickets and with plenty of time to spare, causing huge embarrassment to the English. In Eden Gardens, Kolkata in March 2001, Steve Waugh‘s Australian team amassed 445 in their first innings and bowled out the Indian team for 212. Waugh asked the Indians to follow on, and the team promptly compiled an enormous 657 for 7, and then declared. The Australians were then bowled out for 171 in their second innings, which meant the Indians won by 171 runs. Waugh’s over-confidence had backfired: he should have decided not to enforce the follow on and batted India out of the game.
Such a result is very rare. Eden Gardens was only the third time in Test history that a team had won after following on, and it hasn’t happened since. In short, both Clarke and Smith can be fairly confident that they have their victories sewn up. But, this is cricket, and the unpredictable could happen: after all, Sachin Tendulkar is 8 not out overnight. Is he due for a match-saving double hundred?