The 500th Test match for India finished with the best result possible for Virat Kohli’s team, a thumping 197-run win. Over the past week, all sorts of numbers have been thrown around about India’s Test history. There is one statistic, though, which is quite interesting. There have only ever been two occasions when a touring team has scored more than 200 runs in the fourth innings to win a Test match in India.
Considering the notoriety of Indian pitches on the fourth and fifth days, that number is not very surprising. Yet, despite that, most Indian captains in the recent past have not taken confidence from that and have chosen to play safe when it comes to setting up a match with an aggressive declaration. Even in Kanpur, Kohli continued the trend, waiting for the lead to cross 400 before finally declaring, all while commentators around wondered aloud why he was delaying the declaration.
A tactical opportunity or a nightmare?
As set out in Law 14 of the Marylebone Cricket Club’s Laws of Cricket, the ability to prematurely declare or even forfeit an innings sets Test cricket apart in terms of tactical moves available to a captain. Forfeiture has only happened once, when South Africa’s tainted Hansie Cronje offered England’s Nasser Hussain to forfeit two innings of a Test in 2000, sadly at the behest of a bookmaker as it emerged later. The ability to choose not to “make the play” and invite the opposition when it is least expecting or least comfortable, opens the game to fascinating possibilities.
In the days of uncovered wickets, rain interruptions would seriously affect the nature of the pitch and give captains a chance to show some real creativity. On one occasion in 1937, the great Sir Donald Bradman reversed the batting order in a match against England to wait for the pitch to dry out and made 270 batting at No. 7.
It was not uncommon in those days for captains to declare while still behind to give their bowlers the best chance of picking up wickets. In the first Test in Brisbane in the 1950-‘51 Ashes, the rain came in after Australia had scored 228 in their first innings. England batting on a sticky nightmare of a wicket, declared their first innings at 68/6 to allow their bowlers another crack at the Aussies. Put into bat, Australia sank to 32/6 before deciding they have had enough and asked England to bat again and went on to win the match, dismissing England for 122.
Captains are in general more conservative these days in choosing the right time to declare. A long list of factors goes into making the decision. Do the bowlers need more rest? Do you want to tire down the opposition batsman some more? Are there any chances of rain on the fifth day? Does your batsman want to get a personal landmark? All this under intense scrutiny from the media, and at times, unforgiving fans.
Despite India being one of the toughest places to bat last, Indian captains tend to be conservative in setting up a fourth-innings chase. When India scripted its most famous win at Kolkata in 2001, many experts were baffled at captain Sourav Ganguly’s decision to bat on well into the first session of the fifth day, taking the lead to 383, instead of putting Australia in. At the end, 75 overs turned out to be just enough to score a win, but with a bit more resistance Australia could have denied India a chance to write history.
Kohli on Sunday waited for a declaration till New Zealand were looking at a world record chase. He has already made it clear in his short stint as a captain that he likes to rule out the possibility of a loss before declaring an innings. He had showed a different intent when he went for a steep fourth-innings chase in Adelaide in 2014 in his first Test match as captain and in the process, lost the game when he could have played safe for a draw. Perhaps it just indicates that he trusts his batsmen and his own batting more than his bowlers.
A cultural reflection
While most of us analyse the game in terms of tactics, statistics, and technique, there is often a culture angle to appreciate when international teams compete. Even when the odds are stacked in favour of their team, Indian captains often tend to take the safe route. With an insurmountable target facing the opposition batsmen in the fourth innings, captains say they can set aggressive fields and go for wickets all the time, a respectable tactical course by all means.
In terms of mindset, though, it also reveals a more conservative approach to playing the game. A bit like how we as Indians are often taught to save enough for our retirement first before venturing out to take any risks in our career.
A team like Australia, which has conceded 10 matches to touring teams chasing more than 200 in the fourth innings, often tends to make more sporting declarations. Michael Clarke in recent times was the most adventurous of all international captains when it came to declaring an innings. His predecessors were also known to challenge their bowling units with a sporty declaration. They felt giving the opposition batsmen a sniff at victory gave them a better chance at getting them out instead of letting them go into their shells chasing an impossible target.
Perhaps, it is a cultural thing for Australia to chase that thrill of going into the final day and knowing all three results are possible. Maybe, it helps their bowlers stay honest and keen and make them run in all day. As in day-to-life, even cricket has its share of cultural differences.