In March 1968, Garfield Sobers, the great, captain of the West Indies cricket team, hero of every West Indian boy who dreamt of one day donning the maroon cap, and the Caribbean’s most popular personality at the time, tossed away a test match in Trinidad by making an ill-advised declaration against England.
After England romped to victory Caribbean cricket fans went berserk, mercilessly slaughtering the name of their most highly decorated warrior, going as far as to hang him in effigy in Independence Park, Port of Spain.
Batting first, the West Indies had scored 526, to which England replied with 404. The match was cruising to a tame draw with the West Indies two wickets down for 92 and batting without undue trouble, when Sobers beckoned Michael Carew and Rohan Kanhai to return to the pavilion. Like a “bolt out of the blue,” as Clive Lloyd reported, Sobers had closed the innings, leaving England with 215 runs to make in two hours and forty-five minutes.
This they did without breaking sweat. England had in their line-up, John Edrich, Geoffrey Boycott, Colin Cowdrey, Ken Barrington, Tom Graveney, Basil D’Oliveira. And the West Indies’ bowling attack was weakened to the extent that Sobers had to share the new ball with Lance Gibbs, the off-spinner. The cricketing genius had expected too much from his side. It was a reckless declaration.
On the final day of the fifth Ashes Test of the 2013 Investec series at the Oval, Australian captain Michael Clarke closed his side’s second innings at 111 for six, leaving England to chase 227 to win in 44 overs. Fortunately for Australia, bad light curtailed play with England at 206 for five, preventing them from sailing to victory. With four overs remaining and only 21 more runs to get, it was almost a certainty the hosts would have won.
Clarke was widely lauded for injecting life into a game that seemed headed for a dreary draw. And he did; the spurt of scoring to set up the declaration and the run-chase that followed was probably the most exciting passage of cricket for the summer.
Taking everything into consideration, however, Clarke’s declaration was as reckless as the one Sobers made 45 years earlier.
Realistically, only two results were possible: a draw or an England victory. On a reasonably straightforward batting surface there was no reason to think that Australia would have been able to dismiss England in the 44 overs that were available. And in this age of T20 cricket, scoring at just over five runs per over for such a relatively short period, was not that daunting a task, especially with a player like Kevin Pietersen within the ranks. As it turned out, Kevin Pietersen’s 62 from 55 deliveries lit up the afternoon and was largely responsible for bringing England within sight of a finish-line that only the intervention of darkness prevented them from crossing.
Shortly before the end, as the gloom descended and as the umpires peered into their light meter, Clarke could be seen vigorously bickering with the officials. This was understandable behaviour under the circumstances, but it is still ironic that having dared the England batsmen to take up his challenge, he was now pleading for the game to be brought to a premature end.
Clarke has rightly earned a reputation for being an aggressive and innovative captain. A little over 17 months ago in Barbados, he surprised the West Indies and the cricket world by closing Australia’s first innings at 409 for six, thirty-five minutes before tea on the fourth day, and 43 runs adrift of the West Indies total.
Seizing on the Caribbean team’s high level of frustration, which grew with every run of an eventual 77-run union between Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon, the Australian captain took a bold an unusual step that was stunningly rewarded when three wickets were ripped out before tea and the West Indies were flattened for 148 by lunch on the last day.
Australia went on to win by just three wickets. The regular loss of Australian wickets kept the West Indies interested, but the result was hardly ever in doubt. This was Michael Clarke at his imaginative and assertive best; the heir of Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell; shunning the usual safety-first approach to Test cricket in favour of a more attacking and thoughtful style.
But the West Indies side that Australia met in Barbados was a weak side that was weakened even further by some of its senior members choosing to play the lucrative Indian Premier League instead of the Australian series. Clarke could therefore have been confident that his side had the firepower to prevail.
In contrast, the England side had players like Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook, some of the most adhesive batsmen in the cricket. In addition, they had Pietersen, a batting genius capable of totally overwhelming any attack in the world, and Ian Bell, in the form of his life. Australia was never going to be able scythe through such a line-up in the short time that was left in the game.
You could argue that there was little difference in losing 0-3 as opposed to 0-4. That is basically true. Yet Clarke’s effort to regain some ground in a series that was already lost was unnecessarily rash; Test matches are not to be given away in such a cavalier manner.
This is not to say that the Australian captain should eschew his innovative method. The need is for more inventiveness in test cricket — not less. But the line between aggression and recklessness is sometimes a thin one. At The Oval Clarke crossed that line.
(Garfield Robinson is a huge fan of West Indies cricket, but attributes VVS Laxman as the reason behind taking to writing. You can follow him on Facebook)