Saturday, March 20, 2010

Go ahead, call 'em back in

For the second time this season, Ricky Ponting has gone ahead and done a sub-500 declaration. In both cases, the first time against the West Indies at Brisbane last year and now at Wellington against New Zealand, he has done so half-way during the second day's play. In both cases, the received wisdom would have had him carrying on to a 550-plus score.

Yesterday, the Australians called it a day after 131 overs in the first innings; they had scored at 3.5 runs an over, a scoring rate which is neither tortoise nor hare (perhaps a sluggish hare). Interestingly enough, Australia declared at an eerily similar situation in the Brisbane test: 480/8 on the second day, after consuming 135 overs at a rate of 3.55 an over. The West Indies lost that test by an innings (wonders of wonders, Ponting actually enforced the follow-on).

It is perhaps too early to say if New Zealand will lose this by an innings (for the record, they've started in only marginally better fashion than the Windies and a great deal of that has to do with the presence of the bespectacled superman, Daniel Vettori). Still, a safe bet at this point would be to put a fiver (or more if you like) on Australia winning this game.

So, what are we to make of these declarations? Are they strokes of genius, reckless gestures that got lucky, or perfectly safe, pragmatically judged cricketing decisions? (Sometimes these three can be one and the same thing when everything works out).

My take on it is that these declarations were eminently sensible moves given the opposition and the pitches concerned (and given that Australia were batting first). Neither the Windies or New Zealand have particularly strong batting line-ups; one would back the Australian bowlers against them on most days. Both the Brisbane and the Wellington pitches were reckoned batter-friendly (Ponting explicitly noted the friendliness of the Gabba and, I think, implicitly, the inexperience of his bowling attack in making his declaration last year). If you'd back yourself to bowl out the opposition for even 300, you'd put yourself in a position to come back out and set a difficult chase quickly, and get on with the business of applying the classic fourth-innings stranglehold.

Carrying on for a 600 or a 550 runs the small risk of using valuable time that could be better used for taking wickets. On a batter-friendly pitch, better to use time for bowling; the cushion of the extra runs isn't as useful as the extra time you could spend bowling (Does 550 really exert that much more mental pressure than a 450?). More to the point, if there is going to be any resolution in the game, you want to get to the fourth innings as soon as possible. What better way to do that than to stop batting and start bowling?

This sort of strategy won't work against stronger batting sides obviously. They might run up a score at par; they might go past you, and then, you'd be the one worrying in the third innings. But against opposition like the Windies and New Zealand, it's a sensible strategy, especially if you are playing on a docile pitch. Ponting deservedly cops a lot of flak for his captaincy; on this count, I think he's got it right both times.

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Blogger Jaunty Quicksand said...

So, what are we to make of these declarations? Are they strokes of genius, reckless gestures that got lucky, or perfectly safe, pragmatically judged cricketing decisions?

Having watched all the action last two nights, I fear the correct answer is a lot more prosaic. The Weather Channel folks have predicted prolonged interruptions due to rain on days 4 and 5 (and even possibly day 3). The commentators were talking about the imminent threat of rain and how it will affect the declaration for about half a day (their favorite parlor game, IMHO). Ponting had one eye on the weather, for sure, along with the other things you mentioned.

I was switching between the NZ-Aus and the Ban-Eng match. What a contrast in batting styles until....(well, more on that on my blog in a couple of hours).

1:08 PM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...

JQ: If its the weather, then it's a perfectly pragmatic decision - in line with deciding to declare because the pitch is batterfriendly. You make your decision based on local playing conditions. And of course, captains must pay attention to weather conditions (unlike Dhoni last year, who decided to ignore the weather forecasts and batted on and on and on, till the lead had passed 600, and then got a draw out of it).

5:17 PM  
Blogger Jaunty Quicksand said...

I did not word my previous comment properly. I was agreeing with you that rather than a stroke of genius/reckless gesture, it was a more prosaic, pragmatic decision taken by him.

The problem for Ponting, and one that I am sure he is well aware of, is that if the weather holds up he will be skewered by the post-facto experts if the Kiwis bat their way out of the jam, which is why I was surprised that he did declare when he did.

The tactics of the Kiwis, to bat for time, played into Ponting's hands as he was able to maintain an attacking field for longer than he would have had New Zealand top order looked to score runs.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...

JQ: Gotcha. Yes, I think these sorts of declarations are always susceptible to monday morning quarterbacking but I think Ponting knew his opponents well enough - they don't really have the batting firepower to seriously challenge him (7 down as I write).


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