England drew with Sri Lanka yesterday. Maybe my mind plays tricks on me (in fact, it almost certainly does) but the test followed a similar pattern to a fair few other England tests – although not particularly recently, as the batting hadn’t been there to enable it.
When Cook opts to declare a third innings, he ensures that his side have got a lead such that it is almost certainly too high to be attained. There’s sense there – if you can’t win the game, goes the thinking, at least you won’t lose it. Fair enough – a draw is OK, a series of two tests featuring one draw means you can win the other test and win the series. Lovely old job.
Well, yes and no. In waiting to get to that impassable amount, you might well be shooting yourself in the foot. I’ve been reading a lot about timeless tests recently, as there’s a murmur that they may make the Test Championship final a timeless test. While wonderful in theory, because innings are not curtailed by time, the practice is generally that open-ended matches make for stagnant play. If you have all the time in the world to accrue runs, the thinking generally reverts to ‘let’s do it as slowly as we can, and as securely, too’ – look at the 10 day test in Durban in 1939; the scoring rate of those 1981 runs was barely a trickle, except for occasional (and peculiar) spurts.
To watch Cook’s captaincy is to put oneself in that mindset. He is neither dynamic nor particularly inventive, and seemingly prescriptive rather than reactive.
Shane Warne was chirping up over the last couple of days of this test about the notion of ‘doing what your opponent would least like’, I’m not sure I entirely agree with the concept because when you’re setting a target, there has to be a bit of give.
Perhaps because I’m a Yorkshireman, I’m familiar – very familiar – with rain-shortened matches and the need for sporting declarations. My gut feeling is that recent years, and the advent of Andy Gale’s captaincy, have seen something of a trend towards it. County Championship rewards that bravery; the points difference between a win and a draw is such that you’re as well throwing your cards in and hoping you can bowl the opposition out as hoping for rain – very much ‘Fortes fortuna iuvat’.
It’s a simple enough way of thinking. If a team goes into a fourth innings thinking they have a chance of making the runs, they’ll try to make the runs. They’ll play attacking cricket and unleash a few shots – at least in the upper order. If they wind up doing that and getting them to 65/5 chasing 250, then the shots will probably dry up. Beforehand, though, that means they’re more likely to allow chances, because a last day pitch is uneven and unreliable.
To ensure a batting team is playing only to save a match is (while obviously, sometimes, inevitable) never an ideal state to be in. It allows the mindset of the timeless test to come into play – such that runs are no longer an object, just occupation of the crease and the currency of the game changes. When that occurs, then the two teams are playing different games. One to take wickets, one to use deliveries and specifically NOT allow wickets – the two are not compatible.
Cook never served an apprenticeship at county level. He never had to choose between trying to top the table with a win, stay second with a draw or drop to third with a defeat. It’s a difficult balancing act that perhaps needs to be experienced before the lesson can be learned.
In a way, it’s a little like what we’ve seen at the World Cup. The best games have been the ones where both teams have tried to win, even if one (eventually) prevailed. For England’s test match summer to begin with a game that their captain wanted to stamp safety on, rather than desire to win, is a little bit of a worry.
All would have been forgiven if they’d claimed that last wicket but, equally, a realistic target to chase, or a little more time to do it (or both) might well have ensured it fell. I should say, this is not me slamming Cook so much as observing that his declaration went against the trend we see in the modern game, at least in the county game, and wondering whether it was wise to let Ballance get to 100, and Sri Lanka to start batting on Day 5.
Its also me wondering where the problem lies? Is it with Cook, or is it with the rankings of test cricket? Personally, I think a bit of both. Cook’s approach was one of safety rather than risk, but the fact he gets 1/2 a win for his trouble means that he can justify ensuring they don’t lose. I might have a look at some County Championship tables and see how it would pan out with draws being worth half a win. I’ll call it a Cook-table just for effect.