Test cricket is increasingly considered to be endangered and opportunities to trump up its virtues generally do not go missed. One measure of its excellence is a more considered enjoyment of how a game unfolds over five days, and whether that is a satisfaction that is to be cherished over many others is up to the viewer to decide. While that may be so, Test crickets very length combined with the possibility of an indecisive outcome makes it seem unwieldy and even pointless in the eyes of those who consider the format increasingly irrelevant. The arguments outlined are of course broad.
The nature of wickets, the competitiveness of fixtures and the frequency of matches, among a few other factors, can lend more texture to each proposal. Irrespective of where one stands with respect to the debate, it cannot be denied that Test cricket (as much as the other formats) is not without its quirks, endearing or otherwise. One of these is the power vested with the skippers to alter the length of an innings in the pursuit of a result.
The decision to curtail an innings has been used wisely, indiscreetly and even abused. The cavalier captain who declares his innings prematurely in the hope of forcing a result only to find the opposition run the target down at a canter is left feeling sheepish, if nothing else. There has been at least one instance where the declaration was not so nave.
Hansie Cronjes South Africa had already claimed the Test series against England 2-0 at home when rain intervened in the final Test at Centurion, a dead rubber. South Africa had made 248 for eight in the only innings that was possible until the final days play and almost incredibly, Cronje offered to declare the South African innings early on the fifth day and forfeit the second, effectively making the match a one-inning shoot out. England, under Nasser Hussain, managed to chase the target down with two wickets to spare and the crowd simply loved it. Four months later it was revealed that Cronje had thrown the Test for a leather jacket and 5,000 pounds.
In more typical cases, the captain declares when in a position of strength, which by extension means the batsmen have enough on the board and the declaration will free up sufficient time for the bowlers to get the opposition dismissed. It is of course, not as simple as it sounds and a few declarations have greatly divided opinion on what exactly is enough. Rahul Dravid declared India's first innings close at a mammoth 675 for five against Pakistan during the historic away series in 2004. Subsequently, the bowlers shot the home side out twice to give India its first win in Pakistan in a few decades. But even amidst all the celebrations, it was not forgotten that Dravids declaration had left Sachin Tendulkar hanging six short of a double hundred.
These are of course not the only incidence of controversy, concern or congratulations surrounding declarations. The most recent came last week when Michael Clarke declared Australia's first innings just 115 runs ahead of South Africa in the first Test at Brisbane. At that stage, his bowlers had a little more than two sessions to bowl out South Africa, who themselves had made a healthy 450 batting first, for the win. The limited time available and the strength of the South African batting unit meant that Australia only had an outside chance of winning the match against the number one side in the world.
However, there was traditional wisdom and some incidental fortune too that would have pushed Clarke towards the declaration. The final day pitch, after five days of wear and tear, usually offers the most assistance to the bowlers. This was the first Test of a series that could see the number one rank change hands, and even if the win was out of hand, it would do almost as well to land a psychological blow so early in the contest. Also, South Africas JP Duminy had injured himself during the first innings and had pulled out of the Test, leaving the side a batsman short in the second innings. Despite all that, Australia had South Africa pretty anxious when they were down five wickets with just a slender lead before time ran out on the home side. There is one other fact to add to the tale too.
Clarke was unbeaten on 259 when he called the innings close, and had he pushed on to make a treble, it is fair to say there would not have been too many questions raised, considering the match was almost dead by then. What was at stake, if Clarke chose to look at things that way, was not just the land mark. In the history of the game, only four cricketers (Brian Lara, Don Bradman, Chris Gayle and Virender Sehwag) have scored two triple hundreds and Clarke was on the brink of adding his name to the list that Tuesday. What was more, he would have been the only cricketer to have hit two 300s in the same year. He didnt. And Australia didn't register the win either. Maybe it was just as well that it was Clarke himself who called off the innings. Or so Dravid would say.