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Gumption gone wrong: 5 losing gambits that made history

11th April, 2012 – Fourth day of the first Test in The Frank Worrell trophy. What was West Indies’ match for the taking, after a third day close of 248/5 with Australia 201 runs behind, was slowly developing into a drab draw after a spirited performance with the bat by the Australian tail-enders. With thirty minutes to tea on the fourth day, Australia still 43 runs behind and West Indies nowhere near to breaking the 77-run last wicket partnership between Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon, a deadlock seemed inevitable. But Michael Clarke, the Australian skipper, had other plans. Looking to capitalize on the morale boost provided by their tail-enders’ heroics with the bat, he declared the innings closed, putting West Indies to bat with a lead of 43 runs. In the 5 overs before tea, Australian bowlers struck thrice, repaying their captain’s trust in them by setting up a second innings collapse. Australia eventually wrapped up the West Indies innings by lunch the following day, setting themselves a target of 192 to be chased down in 62 overs. A quick-fire 52 by Shane Watson and a level-headed innings by Michael Hussey ensured that they reached there in fading light. Michael Clarke’s bold declaration was hailed as one of the most heroic declarations ever, and Clarke himself was lauded as one of the most dashing leaders in contemporary cricket.

But for all its glory, it could have just as easily gone south for Clarke and Australia; if instead of losing quick wickets, had the West Indies top-order garnered some quick runs and declared the next morning setting Australia a total of 250 plus. After all, Australia barely managed a win with 7 wickets down and in fading light. That is exactly what makes such a gambit a double edged sword. What could end up making you a hero and legend, could just as easily subject you to ridicule and castigation. Here’s a list of five such gambits (in no particular order) that were etched down in history for all the wrong reasons.

Michael Clarke, the hero of one bold declaration, ends up the villain in another, a year later

1. Michael Clarke’s first innings declaration at 237/9

Setting: Australian batting collapsed after some incredible spin bowling by India on the first day of the second test in The Border – Gavaskar trophy (2013). With India going into the tournament searching for some much needed confidence, the tournament forecast had spin written all over it; but the inexperienced Australian camp offered no resistance, with the exception of Michael Clarke in three spirit-sapping sessions.

Intent: Ever since Clarke was made captain he made his intent clear – “No matter what the situation, always go for the win.” With a couple of overs left before the end of the day, Clarke shrewdly calculated that testing the tired Indian batsmen would outweigh the paltry 5-10 runs that would be put up by the last pair.

Where it went wrong: Although Clarke’s strategy was theoretically sound and it was the out-of-form Indian openers on strike, there was too little play left and too meagre a total on the board when Australia declared. The Indian openers defended away at the short attacking stint that lasted 3 overs. The following morning, although Sehwag was dismissed early, Vijay and Pujara put up a mammoth 370 run stand which lifted their side to 503. Australia’s woes against quality spin bowling worsened in their second innings, before they were bundled out for 131. Clarke was widely criticized in the declaration incident, until “Homework-gate” scandal took centre-stage, sidelining everything else.

Infamy: This is the only instance in the history of Test cricket where a team lost by an innings after declaring their first innings closed.

2. Gary Sobers’ third innings declaration at 92/2

Setting: Going into the fourth and final Test of the Wisden trophy (1967/68), a series in which no result came out of the rain-marred first three matches, Sobers was determined to win the match and seal the series 1-0. In part due to bad weather and in part due to some fine batting displays by both the sides, at the end of day four it appeared that a fourth consecutive draw was on the cards.

Intent: With England 122 runs behind by the time West Indies began their second innings, and West Indies’ slow scoring pace, options that resulted in a Windies’ win were rapidly narrowing down. With about three hours of play left, setting England a barely achievable total prompting them to play aggressively was definitely a sound plan.

Where it went wrong: When Sobers declared at 92/2, setting the English a target of 215 to be chased down in two and half hours, the match was perfectly poised, with both teams having an outside chance of victory. Geoffrey Boycott and Collin Cowdrey’s high quality batting display, the main feature of which was the controlled aggression, tipped the scales in favour of England. Although Cowdrey fell when the English were still 82 short, Boycott stayed till the end, seeing England home, with just three minutes of play left. Sobers was widely criticized for his decision to declare when the Windies were in a position from where they couldn’t lose the match.

Infamy: West Indies became the first team to lose after declaring both their innings closed.

BradmanAllenToss

An unwitting Gubby Allen looks on, not knowing how much this toss would go on to affect the result of the game

3. Gubby Allen’s second innings declaration at 76/9

Setting: This was not only Don Bradman’s first series as a captain, but also the very next edition of the Ashes (1937) in Australia, following the infamous “Bodyline” series. After losing the first two matches, Australia had much to fight for going into the third. After a valiant effort from the English bowlers despite very little assistance from the pitch, Australia were reduced to 130/6 before the rain set in. If the skiddy pitch was trouble for the batsmen, bowlers had their share trying to grip the wet ball. At 200/9, Bradman made a bold decision to declare the Australian innings and test the English batting in difficult conditions. Bradman’s gambit immediately paid off as wickets fell in a hurry.

Intent: Before long, England were reduced to 76/9, at which point Gubby Allen, the English captain, decided to declare and exploit the conditions to dismiss the Aussies to an even lower total.

Where it went wrong: Allen was a hint too late in his declaration, which came almost at the end of second day’s play. The following day, which was a rest day, was completely dry; which meant improved batting conditions when the play resumed on day three. An awe-inspiring 270 by the Don, while battling influenza, saw to it that England’s plan back-fired. Australia, in their second innings, amassed a colossal 564 runs, added to their first innings lead meant that England required a mammoth 689 to win. In reply, England only managed 323 runs, thus losing by a huge margin of 365 runs. Allen was not really criticized for his decision on this one as he led the team brilliantly, not giving in until the final wicket went down. If there was anything to be blamed, it probably would have been Allen’s luck, for seeing one of the most extreme cases of nature-playing-favourites.

Infamy: 365 runs is the largest loss margin following a declaration in the first innings.

4. Brian Rose’s declaration

Setting: Going into their final match of Benson & Hedges zonals (a limited over county tournament), Somerset needed only to avoid loss by a huge margin to qualify for the quarter-finals.

Somerset’s captain, Brian Rose (right), may have been a little too smart for his own good in ensuring their qualification

Intent: Somerset’s captain, Brian Rose, wanted to be extra careful and decided to eliminate that possibility. He chalked up a plan to declare after the first over without scoring any runs. That way, even if Worcester won, Somerset would safely qualify as this match would not really affect the strike-rate (which was the metric that was used to distinguish between teams with equal number of points).

Where it went wrong: Brian Rose won the toss and batted for one over without scoring any runs off the bat. The one no-ball bowled was the only run on the board when Rose’s declaration came. Worcester took 10 balls to achieve the target set. The decision immediately came under immense heat. There was a huge public uproar at the stadium, when the spectators, who were just about getting settled, learnt that the match, that lasted 18 minutes including the statutory 10-minute break, was already over. Rose was widely ridiculed and censured for his decision throughout England. Soon after, an emergency meeting of the disciplinary committee was convened and Somerset was barred from the tournament for acting against the spirit of the game. And so, Brian Rose’s plan backfired and Somerset was punished for violating a rule that did not exist.

Infamy: 1/0 is the lowest total at which an innings was declared closed in any format of the game.

5. The 77-run over

Setting: Wellington needed a win in the final match of the season to ensure that they win the Shell trophy (1990), New Zealand’s first-class cricket championship. Wellington declared their second innings on the morning of the final day, setting Canterbury a target of 291 runs to be chased down in 59 overs. Canterbury needed to simply bat out 59 overs on the final day to deny Wellington the trophy. With two overs left before the close of the play, Canterbury needed 95 more to win and Wellington needed 2 more wickets.

Intent: Wellington’s skipper Erve McSweeney devised a clever stratagem that could prompt Canterbury to attack and maybe lose their last two wickets in the process. The idea was to “give-away” as many runs as required for Canterbury to think that they have a winning chance in the penultimate over.

Where it went wrong: Bert Vance, a veteran batsman who had hardly ever bowled before, was tasked with the “give-away”. However, Bert overplayed his hand, giving away 77 runs in 22 balls, of which there were only 5 legal deliveries, before the dumbfounded umpires put a stop to his plight. The scorers were unable to keep up with the pace at which the score was ticking, and lost track half-way through. They even resorted (unsuccessfully) to taking the help of the spectators present. So, when Ewan Gray came to bowl the final over, no one was really sure of what the score was. Lee Germon, Canterbury’s wicketkeeper, smashed 17 off the first 5 balls, which made the scores level. And when the last delivery of the over was defended by Roger Ford, everyone walked off the field unaware that the match had been tied.

Infamy: 77-run over gained the (unofficial) record in terms of most runs scored (“given” would perhaps be a better choice of a word here) in an over in any format of the game.

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