Beware the Sporting Declaration

As Australia swept to an eight wicket victory and fans and the media alike reached a state of euphoria over the deeds of Ricky Ponting and record run chases, it should not be forgotten that this match was gifted to Australia. That’s no criticism of Smith – he did what he had to do – and Australia did have some work to do, but Australia should not be lulled into a false sense of security.

Graeme Smith had nothing to lose from making a sporting declaration on Friday. A 0-2 margin is not a lot worse than a 0-1 margin, given there was a chance to make it 1-1. Looking into my crystal ball, I think there may have been a subtle advantage to the Boks in the longer term. In winning the match, and the series, seemingly convincingly, the Aussie’s may feel that things are going more swimmingly than they are. The truth is that they got through the summer on three batsmen (Hayden, Ponting and Hussey) with occasional support and two and a half bowlers. By the end of this series, the Australian attack was struggling – granted, the SCG was not the traditional spinners paradise, as has been the case in recent years.

I can’t think of too many sporting declarations in recent years, but all of them were doomed. What is a “sporting declaration”? It is a declaration that is made, due to time constraints, in order to give your own team a chance to win, but also allows the opposition a chance of winning. One of the finer points is making the target difficult for the side batting last, but making it tempting enough to be chased, in the hope that risks will be taken that will result in wickets. Some may say that Smith declared too early on Friday – but I don’t think so. Australia did not need to win the match and were very unlikely to chase 340 at say 5 runs per over. Smith had to leave his team time to bowl Australia out. Classifying a declaration is a little subjective. In 1969, Bill Lawry set the West Indies 735 for victory. I think that can be ruled out.

The three matches I am thinking of are the test just ended, the fourth Ashes test in 2001, which England won on the back of Butcher’s 173 and the 1st Test between Australia and New Zealand in November 2001. The match was drawn but only after Glenn McGrath bowled over after accurate over of balls three feet outside off stump. I wonder how many wides would have been called if Billy and Aleem were umpiring?

Perhaps the tied Test in Madras in 1986 was the result of a sporting declaration. Border set India 348 from 87 overs. The Australians declared in both innings and with only five second innings down. That was probably more a case of Border thinking that 347 in front was enough, and he needed the time to bowl India out. Nonetheless, he opened the door when he could have batted on, making the game safe first and then seeing if a victory could be forced.

The chasing team is favoured when a sporting declaration is made for a few reasons:

1. There is a momentum swing in their favour. The simple act of being given a chance to win is a large psychological boost.

2. Sporting declarations are often made in rain shortened matches. The prevailing conditions often mean that the pitch hasn’t deteriorated as much as would be expected. Last test was a perfect point. Australia achieved the highest successful fourth innings run chase. One shouldn’t get too excited as the pitch was more like a third day pitch as it was freshened by cool, humid conditions and the occasional shower. We should also remember that the SCG is getting friendlier. Just three years ago, Australia scored well over 350 in the fourth innings in drawing with India.

3. While the batting team has a new lease of life, the bowling team is inevitably under time pressure to take wickets. If early wickets are not taken, the bowling actions start to tighten. If the runs start to leak, the captain is under pressure to make the field settings more defensive. And if some chances are missed….

A gifted win from a sporting declaration is fairly meaningless. Sporting declarations are rare in Test cricket but quite common in domestic first class cricket. But across the board the chaser prevails more than the declarer. Australia has some problems to sort out. The selectors are persisting with who they want in the team, not necessarily what it needs to be. They need to forget preconceived ideas of balance, all rounders etc and choose the best six batters, four bowlers and the best keeper batsman. The up-coming Test series in South Africa might see the Aussies caught short.

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