Joe Root reacts during the second Test vs West Indies © Getty Images
Joe Root reacts during the second Test vs West Indies © Getty Images

On being appointed as India’s skipper across formats, Virat Kohli had hailed his predecessor MS Dhoni for his smart decision-making over years. Kohli told BCCI, “Decision-making is very hard at times and it takes a lot of courage to do that. I learnt a lot from Dhoni, seeing the way he made decisions. They might have been right or wrong, but to convince yourself to make one decision and go forward with it; I think that is the essence of being a captain.”

There is no right or wrong decision in cricket. If it clicks they laud the man, they call it a masterstroke. If it falls flat, he is thrashed left, right and centre. In cricket, captaincy is a taxing job. He, or she, is a wounded general calling shots and taking the blame selflessly.

On similar lines, England Test skipper Joe Root was criticised for a ‘premature’ declaration against West Indies. Root set West Indies 322 in a maximum of 96 overs — a target the visitors eventually surpassed in the just-concluded second Test of the Wisden Trophy in Headingley. So, what was Root thinking?

What did Root have in store? He had James Anderson and Stuart Broad (883 Tests scalps between them) to share the new ball. He had an ‘enforcer’ in Ben Stokes. He also had Moeen Ali, who picks wickets without a lot of people noticing. If that does not give a captain the licence to attack, what does?

Root had the resources, but……

Unlike its limited-overs counterparts, 322 is not an easy target in red-ball cricket. To add to it, the conditions were overcast, the ball was seaming around and the pitch provided awkward bounce. Nonetheless, West Indies’ approach and self-belief sailed them past all hurdles. Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope matched their resilience from previous innings, played on the back foot with soft hands, ran hard between wickets and looked to score when bowlers erred in length.

Neither Anderson nor Broad was poor. It was just that the West Indian batsmen were too good on the day. Anderson was handled with caution. Two catches fell off Broad. Stokes looked out of ideas and resorted to chin music. And Moeen did not get assistance from the turf. More than their bowling, it was England’s dismal fielding that cost them the match. In all there were more than 10 dropped chances in the match. England were guilty of dropping, approximately, half a dozen of these. So, can you really blame Root?

Bold decisions — something that drives purest format. Need of hour, again?

During the 2012-13 Border-Gavaskar Trophy Michael Clarke had declared at 237 for 9 in the first innings of the second Test. Why? Many on air opined that Australia could have easily added another 20-30 runs: India, after all, have famously been unable to wrap up the tail.

But Clarke’s was a practical declaration. With only 3 overs remaining in the day, he wanted his bowlers to have a go at the tired openers. Nothing of that sort happened, and Australia were mauled in the Test. Nonetheless, it was Clarke’s intent that added spice to the contest.

Again, in the 2015-16 Border-Gavaskar Trophy opener, Clarke’s declaration instilled competition in the Test. With a lead of 73, Australia declared at 290 for 5, setting India 364 with a day to play. This gave ample time to both sides to go for a win. Australia won in the end, but not before India accepted the challenge and went for the chase when they could have settled for a draw.

In recent times, Faf du Plessis has shown how to keep the game wide open and utilise conditions. This was the day-night Test against Australia in 2016-17, Faf declared at 259 for 9 with 12 overs left in the day. Just like Clarke, du Plessis wanted to have a go. Australia fought a gruelling 12 overs to end at 14 for no loss.

There were other instances as well. In the Sydney Test of 2005-06, for example, Graeme Smith had set Australia 287 in two-and-a-half sessions. Australia, too, rose to the challenge: Ricky Ponting scored his second hundred of the Test and sealed the match.

There have been instances, decades ago, when revenue from cricket depended on footfall. Captains have, in the past, forfeited an innings each to produce results for the sake of spectators. They declared behind. They set challenging targets, much more challenging than what Root did.

Root’s declaration was in the right intent. Cricket is about sustained aggression and making optimal use of resources. It is more essential in Test cricket, where you have to maintain the balance over five days of gruelling battle. Test cricket pushes players to the limit. It tests mental strength and character along with endurance levels for — a skill not as relevant in ODIs and T20Is.

What produces intense cricket? Cricket, or any sport, becomes worth a watch only if it keeps spectators hooked. The biggest purpose of sport, let us not forget, is entertainment — and it is ultimately the spectators who run the sport.

The Headingley Test between England and West Indies kept spectators glued till the end. A chunk of credit for that should go to Root. Obviously he did not expect (or want) the Test to come down to this. After the third day’s play at Edgbaston he would have expected to wrap things up by tea, and you can hardly blame him for that.

What about the counterargument? Given that England were 1-0 up in the series, a delayed declaration would have helped them retain the Wisden Trophy. But Root chose to go for the kill, and rightly so…

There was not much wrong with the declaration. If anything, it was as good an advertisement Test cricket can have in an era when cricket in whites is attracting fewer and fewer people to the ground.

“If decision-making is a science, judgement is also an art,” they say. What do you think?