Test Cricket is often a game of gambles. A small gamble can often be the difference between a draw and a win or loss. These gambles are the ones which separate good teams from the great ones, good players from the great ones.
The just concluded test match between India and Australia was a story of two gambles. One from a captain who has been known for these calculated bravados since he took over reigns from Ponting, and one from a player captaining his first test match. One paid off, one didn’t. A team, which deserved to win, won. A player, who didn’t deserve to lose, lost.
A prelude like never before
This test match started on nervy, uncertain terms. It had been an emotional two weeks for cricket, especially Australian cricket. The fateful circumstances revolving around Phil Hughes’ unfortunate death, most Australian cricketers were not mentally and emotionally ready for the grind of Test cricket. The first Test was postponed and moved from Brisbane to Adelaide.
And on Dec 9th, the series finally did start. It was different. Somber, Tentative, Vague. It seemed like a new beginning to Test match cricket, with the bouncer question hanging over like a dark, menacing cloud.
Michael Clarke won the toss and didn’t have much hesitation in opting to bat first on a fantastic looking drop-in pitch. Australia dominated proceedings from the onset. Ishant and Karn Sharma bowled well in patches, the pacey duo of Shami and Aaron were disappointing.
Australia amassed 517 for the loss of seven wickets, with centuries for Warner, Clarke and Smith, and declared overnight on Day 2. Things were looking familiar for Indians, but it wasn’t. A confident reply from the Indians in their first dig, with half-centuries for Vijay, Pujara and Rahane, and a ton for Kohli, left them all out for 444.
A lead of 73, Australia was looking to force the issue in the second innings and build a big enough lead, preferably 400. Warner continued his liking for the Indian bowling unit, helping himself to another century.
However, a decent bowling effort from the Indians didn’t let the Aussies go away with the game, and they ended the day on 290/5. A lead of 363 and 97 overs to play in the final day, declaration wasn’t going to be a complicated decision. And then there was the first gamble.
Rationale behind Clarke’s gamble
Day 5 started with an overnight declaration by Michael Clarke, setting the Indians a target of 364. Yes, I call it a gamble. Most captains would have looked to bat on for a bit and push the target to the “psychological advantage” figure of 400, whilst decreasing the numbers of overs available. A safety first mindset has been the prevailing line of thought for a majority of the captains in world cricket.
But not Michael Clarke. The Indian batsmen were in reasonable form and batting out the day for a draw, or forcing a win, on a pitch, with not much demons, could perhaps have been a realistic risk. But, Clarke was ready to risk losing the match, to force a win. He was confident or perhaps he hoped that Lyon, along with the three pacers, could get the job done.
For a good part of Day 5, it looked liked Clarke’s gamble may not pay off though. Virat Kohli and Murali Vijay were stitching together a partnership for the ages, and were harboring hopes of drawing, or maybe even win the match. At tea, India were sitting pretty on 205-2, needing a further 159 runs in 37 overs. Could India pull it off? Can India do a 2003? They certainly had their noses in front.
Drama in final session and forcing of Kohli’s hand
But what is a bout of test cricket without some Final session drama. In his 90s, Murali Vijay didn’t quite lie true to the adage of him being the monk, had a brain fade or two, and was dismissed lbw for 99 of Lyon. An umpiring howler for Rahane, an atrocious Rohit Sharma innings, and a Wriddhiman Saha inexperienced hoick later, India were 299-6 with 64 runs left for victory.
With only the tail left for company, Kohli knew he had to chase the target down on his own, he knew he had to do it quick. With Lyon at his menacing best, Kohli knew he had to gamble.
And it came in Lyon’s very next over. Kohli was looking to be the aggressor and unleashed yet another of his sweep shot for a boundary. The next ball was a half tracker from Lyon.
If it were a Vijay or a Rahane, Kohli might have dabbled the ball down to square leg for one. On another day, the ball might have sailed over the fielders head into the hands of an expectant spectator. Or maybe, he might have got an inside edge onto the pads, punctuated with ooohs from the close-in fielders. But not today, Kohli packed a punch with the shot, the ball hit the lower half of his bat, and sailed high.
Mitchell Marsh lay in wait, the Australian team waited in anticipation, Kohli lay in hope, and so did millions of fans. And then Marsh managed to gobble it up in his hands.
The Aussies mobbed the youngest Marsh. Virat Kohli was distraught. His gamble to go for the big one, bring the lead down by 6 valuable runs, and go for the win in spite of losing wickets, didn’t quite come off. He stood at the crease in utter disbelief before dragging himself back to the pavilion.
The Adelaide Oval gave him a standing ovation, a richly deserved one. But Kohli was in near tears. He did the best he could to win India the test match, to win his first match as a captain. But, his amazing counterpunching innings had gone in vain.
The two gambles brought the Test match alive
Things could have gone differently for Australia had Clarke not declared overnight. Things could have been different for India had Kohli not gone for that pull. But both these champions chose the positive approach, they went for the win. Sadly, the game of cricket affords just one winner.
Clarke may not have been present on the field to overlook proceedings, but the culture he has cultivated in his team, of not giving up till the very end, was clearly visible. Kohli may not have won the match for his team, but his performance in this test match will go down as one of the greatest in the history of the game. It isn’t always the result, but the fight, the process, and the ideology that touches hearts.
Test Match will continue to thrive, provide nerve-wracking drama, and be the best breed of cricket as long as we have such gamblers embracing the sport. Yes, ‘Gambling’ can also be a good thing for Cricket.