Clarke's declaration was a 'match-breaking moment' in the Barbados Test

Michael Hussey reinforced his reputation as one of the great finishers under pressure. His cameo innings in deteriorating light was flawless © AFP

By Justin Langer

 

It is no secret that I am an unadulterated fan of Test cricket. Anyone who has heard me speak, or read any of my writings, would be well aware of my fascination with the longest and most challenging form of the game.

 

Over five days so much can happen, and like a strategic game of chess, or a vein-popping arm wrestle, the ebbs and flows just add to the intrigue of the contest. Nothing can be taken for granted, as the players are tested physically, mentally, technically and tactically.

 

The first Test in Barbados only confirmed my attraction, as the game unfolded and developed into another enthralling Test match.

 

On an incredibly flat pitch, with less grass than a bitumen roadway, the first three days were a predictably hard slog. After winning the toss and batting, the West Indies, powered by Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s experience, batted and batted and batted. With well over 400 runs on the board, they would have felt in control of the game by stumps on Day Two. This confidence would have been heightened with Australia six wickets down and still over 200 runs behind, at the end of Day Three.

 

Despite the numbers on the scoreboard, something interesting was growing within the walls of the Australian changing room. Although we were behind, we kept talking about how we were going to win the game. At no point was the word ‘survive’ used and there was a sense that we would conjure a break, if we could keep hanging in on the contest.

 

That break came in two forms on Day Four. Firstly, the tail was stubborn; very stubborn. Led by Ryan Harris, our last three batsmen put on over 150 runs. With Ben Hilfenhaus and Nathan Lyon, Ryan not only frustrated the West Indians, but also took us closer to their first innings target.

 

Then, we witnessed a match-breaking moment. Still 43 runs behind, captain Michael Clarke decided to declare the innings. Rarely in the modern game will a captain declare behind, but through his actions he confirmed our belief that a game was there to be won.

 

With an inexperienced batting line-up and a slowly deteriorating pitch, Clarke took the bold decision to put the pressure straight back onto the West Indians.

 

Obviously, the final outcome of the match suggests his decision was the right one, but like so many moments and decisions in cricket, it was the execution of the plan that was as important as the plan itself.

 

Charged with a positive energy, Hilfenhaus bowled brilliantly with the new ball to have the West Indians three wickets down in no time. By stumps they had lost six wickets and were only 114 runs ahead.

 

Although the pitch was spinning, and a little uneven in bounce, we felt there could only be one winner in the game.

 

To his credit, there was boldness in Clarke’s decision, but in the end, it was the way his players supported his judgment, through their actions, that would have pleased him the most. Just as pleasing, was the way his team went about the run chase, after securing a target of 191.

 

It is my long held view that chasing runs to win a Test match is one of the toughest challenges in the longest form of cricket. On a fifth day wearing pitch, finishing off the job is never easy.

 

At times on the last day there were a few jitters, but at no time did we feel like we could lose the game. With a middle order of Ricky Ponting, Clarke and Michael Hussey, there is always a sense of security but even with their experience, the job had to completed.

 

Shane Watson’s dominant style set the scene, while Ed Cowan played his part in the victory. He was stoic in his defense and despite some heckling from the crowd, set a strong platform for our surge in the last session of play.

 

After losing a couple of wickets, there was never any panic. We had a clear plan for how we were going to win the first Test and again it was the execution that was most pleasing.

 

Hussey reinforced his reputation as one of the great finishers under pressure. His cameo innings in deteriorating light was flawless. In a lot of ways it was a shame to see him dismissed with only four runs to win, as he deserved to share the moment by hitting the winning runs. Thankfully, he made up for his brief disappointment by leading a rousing rendition of the team song a couple of hours later.

 

Winning the first Test of a series has its benefits. Not only does it add confidence to the group but it heightens the pressure on the opposition.

 

Sitting here looking out of my hotel window in Trinidad, the tropical rain is falling heavily and I can imagine the West Indies are ruing a missed opportunity.

 

With preparations likely to be hampered before the start of play on Sunday morning, the wet conditions give us a chance to reflect on what was another entertaining Test match in Barbados.

 

During the past week our team hotel in Barbados has been filled with American tourists who have asked all manner of questions about Test cricket.

 

Some of them make perfect sense, but it is not until Test cricket is deeply ingrained in your bones that you get to a point where you just smile and think ‘if only they knew.’

 

‘If only they knew’ just how great this Test cricket caper really is, and the best thing is that it all starts again in Trinidad on Sunday. 

 

(Justin Langer was an integral part of the all-conquering Australian cricket team and formed one of the greatest opening partnerships in the game with Mathew Hayden. Langer played 105 Tests and scored 7,696 runs, including 23 Test centuries. In 2009, he surpassed Sir Donald Bradman as the most prolific batsman in Australian cricket with a total of 28,068 first-class runs. In November 2009, he was appointed as Batting/Mentoring Coach for the Australian cricket team and in May 2011 was appointed to the full-time role as Assistant Coach. Langer espouses the philosophy of encouraging excellence which incorporates his belief in the power of passion, vision, leadership, mentoring and developing a winning mentality. He is a keynote speaker, performance consultant, mentor, philanthropist and author. Read all about Langer on his website http://www.justinlanger.com.au/)