Back in the days of uncovered pitches and sticky wickets, following the weather patterns properly during a cricket match was extremely important.
Often a batting side would declare even when in deficit to take advantage of bowler-friendly conditions, or the batting side would start with the reverse batting order until the conditions become normal.
The modern game doesn’t provide such fun for the followers. But still, I can recall three interesting declarations that helped exciting finishes to the matches. Interestingly, out of the three, one very nearly worked, another came to close to backfiring and the other one well and truly backfired.
West Indies versus England — fourth Test, Queen’s Park Oval, 1968
The cricket for the first four and a half days was so boring that we can directly go to the middle of the final day, as the home team captain – the great Sir Garfield Sobers – declared at 2-92, setting England a target of 215 from 53 overs. Colin Cowdrey’s England took the challenge and won the Test (and the Wisden Trophy) by seven wickets.
Sobers obviously came in for harsh criticism. It seemed that he was just trying to give entertainment to the final-day crowd, perhaps neglecting the cause of his own team. But a careful observation would reveal that it was more of a calculated risk (one that didn’t work) rather than a wild gamble.
In the first innings, England had taken 175.4 overs to score 404. While the Kent duo of Colin Cowdrey (148) and Alan Knott (69*) both looked quite busy at the wicket, others like John Edrich, Geoff Boycott and Ken Barrington all took their time.
There was big criticism back in England about England’s slow batting in the first innings. The Guardian even produced the headline “A disgrace to the name of cricket” after the third day’s play. The Guardian did change their tone after the end of the match.
The second thing that caught Sobers’ attention was the fact that, late on the fourth evening, England slumped from 5-373 to 404 all out once their captain fell. Even more astonishingly the wrecker in chief was batsman Basil Butcher (5-34) with his part-time leg spin. There were plenty of spin options available for Sobers in the fourth innings. There was a specialist leggie, William Rodriguez, plus Lance Gibbs, Butcher, and the skipper himself to provide all kinds of variety.
But the most important thing probably in Sobers’ mind was how the second Test of the series at Kingston had progressed. There, the West Indies declared their second innings very late on the fifth day at 9-391, setting a target of 159. England slumped to 4-19 before the close, and after 80 minutes play on the sixth day – allocated to make up for some time lost due to crowd disturbances earlier in the match – they finished at 8-68, narrowly avoiding the ignominy of losing a match after enforcing the follow-on. There, Sobers and Gibbs had taken three wickets apiece in the fourth innings.
Back to the fourth Test, Sobers pinned all his hopes on the spinners to the extent that his only fast bowler, Charlie Griffith, bowled only three overs in the match and none in the second, but the spinners proved a big disappointment. For the record, Boycott top scored with 80* as England won by seven wickets.
But it was mainly a triumph of Cowdrey, the England skipper. More than a decade earlier, along with his captain at the time Peter May, he had tamed the threat of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine. Here he completely dominated the local slow bowlers to smash 71 in just 75 minutes to set up the victory.
India versus Pakistan — sixth Test, Calcutta, 1980
After India’s thumping ten-wicket victory in the fifth Test at Chennai, this final Test became a dead rubber. Indian captain Sunil Gavaskar took the opportunity to hand over the captaincy for the match to his friend and brother-in-law Gundappa Viswanath. And indeed, for the first three days, everything about this match seemed dead.
After India took 109 overs to score 331, the Pakistan batsmen showed even more caution in their batting, finishing the third day at 4-263. Admittedly the pitch was very slow, but there was nothing for the bowlers in the track either. In this scenario, the approach from the batsmen of both teams seemed strange. A draw seemed a certainty as the fourth day’s play resumed on Saturday after the rest day. Yet it was then that the match took a big swing.
The Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal along with the in-form all-rounder Wasim Raja came out to bat with Raja on 41*. Nine more runs were scored, all by Raja. Once Raja completed his 50, Asif surprised the 80,000 at the stadium and the millions following the game over radio by declaring the innings. The Pakistanis were still 59 runs behind.
Before discussing the reasons behind the declaration, I should mention that this was Asif’s last Test match. He had declared his retirement following the series loss. Throughout the series, his captaincy came under severe criticism. Two front-line batsmen, Majid Khan and Zaheer Abbas, badly under-performed amid rumours of lack of unity in the Pakistan camp. Even more astonishingly, Sarfraz Nawaz – who had destroyed the young Aussies early in 1979 – didn’t feature in a single Test despite being fit. Asif had no illusion about what awaited him back in Pakistan. At least he was determined to go out in style.
Two factors influenced Asif’s decision. First, Imran Khan the main fast bowler in the Pakistan camp was close to full fitness possibly for the first time in the series. Second, there were rumours that Gavaskar, India’s premier batsman, wasn’t fit to open the innings.
Indeed the rumors were true. To compound the matters for the home team, their regular and reliable number three Duleep Vengsarkar was missing the match. All-rounder Roger Binny had batted at number three in the first innings, and here he was promoted to the opening slot. Wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani was promoted to number three.
For the first part of the day, everything worked for Asif and his men. Irman, bowling at his fastest, dismissed both Binny and Kirmani for ducks. And then he bowled Vishy, the acting captain, for 13. And when Ehteshamuddin dismissed the regular opener Chetan Chauhan for 21, India was tottering at 4-48. For the first time in the match, the crowd was at the edge of their seats. Gavaskar came at number six and joined his Bombay teammate Sandeep Patil.
For young Patil, this was his second Test. A natural stroke-maker, he decided to play his natural game despite the situation of the match and the slow nature of the wicket. His 31 from 44 balls – including five fours – was the most entertaining innings of the match. But then it ended as he was run out following a bad mix-up with his skipper. The score of 5-88 quickly became 6-92 when Imran produced the big breakthrough. A ball from a short length rose sharply, and surprised the Indian captain and Javed Miandad took a simple catch.
Yet, the Indian lower order defied the Pakistani plans. In fact, this was the story for most of the series. While the Pakistan bowlers did well against the Indian top order, the Indian lower order made significant contributions at Bombay (third Test) and Kanpur (fourth Test). Here, they managed to take the score up to 205, but more importantly they managed to waste valuable time.
Even the normally flamboyant Kapil Dev curbed his natural stroke-play, taking 72 deliveries to score his 30 runs. The last two batsmen, Shivlal Yadav and Dilip Doshi, contributed only nine runs together, but combined together they faced 62 deliveries. From the Pakistan perspective, the most irritating experience was the last-wicket stand between Dilip Doshi, a real rabbit with the bat, and all-rounder Karsan Ghavri. Coming together at 9-172 late on the fourth day, they frustrated the opposition bowlers for an hour before Irman dismissed Doshi on the fifth morning.
So the equation became that Pakistan needed 265 runs for victory in roughly 65 overs. In the modern day, most teams would give it a go. But in those days the safety-first approach always dominated, and on this slow wicket a required run rate of around four seemed improbable. Also, the two Indian spinners, Doshi and Yadav, were ideal defensive bowlers more suited to containing runs than taking wickets.
At the end Pakistan finished at 6-179. The only bright spot was the 43-run fifth-wicket stand between Javed and Asif highlighted by some brilliant running between the wickets. Sadly it ended when Asif slipped and was run out. An 80,000-strong crowd gave him a standing ovation for his brave declaration, but in the back of his mind Asif was ruing the fact that it was a case of so close yet so far for his team.
Australia versus New Zealand — first Test, Brisbane, November 2001
In this case it wasn’t one declaration but a double declaration, probably pre-arranged, which led to a dramatic finish. Unlike the previous two Tests, there wasn’t any boring cricket at the beginning. In fact, there was action right from the start. After putting the opposition in, Kiwi captain Stephen Fleming saw Australia’s newly established opening partnership of Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer both score tons on their way to an opening partnership of 224.
Yet, Australia finished the day at 6-329 as Craig McMillan with his long hops and half volleys ran through the Aussie middle order.
An Adam Gilchrist hundred meant that Australia finished at 9-486 declared, but inclement weather badly interfered with their push for victory. A draw looked a certainty when play resumed on the final day with the Kiwis at 5-186 still in their first innings. Some sensible lower-order batting saw them reach 8-287. With the follow-on avoided it seemed that the Test was over as a meaningful contest. Actually, the drama was just about to start.
After NZ declared, the Aussies raced to 2-84 from 14 overs and threw a challenging target of 284 runs to their neighbours in little over four hours. Given that the Aussies have pretty much dominated this rivalry since the days of Richard Hadlee, one expected the Kiwis to use this opportunity for some much needed batting practice. Yet they produced a bold chase that brought them within ten runs of a remarkable victory.
They planned their chase well. Things started fairly slowly as opener David Bell fell cheaply. But it was the 100-run fourth-wicket partnership in less than 20 overs between skipper Fleming and Nathan Astle that really gave the innings the required momentum. Shane Warne dismissed Astle for 49, then Fleming was run out but the charge went on. Both McMillan and Chris Cairns lofted a couple of sixes each for the final push but at the end they finished at 6-274 off 57 overs.
Of course the home side came in for some criticism for their wide-of-the-stumps bowling and some defensive field-setting in the last few overs. But they were doing everything within the rules of Test match cricket, which are different from the limited-over game rules. And surely Steve Waugh was aware of these options when he had made the sporting declaration.
Brett Lee was awarded the man of the match award. He scored 61 with the bat and took six wickets in the match, but I think the two captains deserved it more.
So the result remained inconclusive, but the final-day crowd got their money’s worth. And at the end, as the cliché goes, cricket was the real winner.