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England’s “Declaration”

Ben Jones analyses how England managed the third innings.

For a session, England batted brightly. This afternoon in Chennai, they scuttled around for 30 overs of strike rotation and attacking intent; their lead, 241 after India’s first innings came to an end, was swelling. Joe Root in particular showed that England were determined to hit through any dismissals and keep the scoreboard ticking, sweeping and reversing, hitting gaps and ropes. England played 31% attacking strokes before the Tea interval, the highest figure they have recorded in a Test innings in India since records began in 2006. Having felt very much like New England in the first innings, methodically piling up a massive total, this was a return to the England of recent times, bringing the good times; Silverwood in the streets, Bayliss in the sheets.

And then, after Tea, it all kicked off. Ollie Pope was dismissed through the standard switch-hit to cover – again, on a day England were criticised for batting too defensively – bringing together the partnership of Jos Buttler and Dom Bess, who subsequently dropped anchor. From the 30th over to the 37th, England attacked only five deliveries out of the 49 bowled to them. That’s 10% attacking strokes, well down on the average England had maintained in the innings up until that point. It was a period of 14 runs in 50 balls which was examined, examined again, then thrown under another microscope for another.

Everyone began to wail, either into a microphone or a keyboard, about how England needed to get on with it, about how England were piling pressure on themselves, and making their own victory less likely. Much of the close competition involved in recent Test cricket has meant that we’ve been deprived of this particular tooth-gnasher, but the return of “declaration speculation” was emphatic.

The case was made for both sides. England needed all the hours God would give them, if they were going to force a result on this pitch, so they should declare; but England needed to rest their bowlers, so should bat on. The recent history of the Gabba suggests that India now “know” how to chase 300+, so they should bat on; but you have to show killer instinct, to keep your foot on the opposition’s throat, so you declare.

The specifics were different to usual, but the premise remained extremely familiar. It is easier to gamble when you have nothing to lose. You’re always going to be more free-spending with someone else’s money, than you are with your own. 

As Bess and Buttler slowed the rate to almost a standstill, former captains lined up to offer their view, broadly erring on the side of aggression, of risking the silver for a shot at the gold. Some softened their approach; Alastair Cook, in the armchair back at Channel 4 HQ, was reticent to criticise the England side, recognising that he could have gambled more when in the same position, at Rajkot, on the last tour. Fans demanded that England “get on with it”. There was a general atmosphere of impatience.

And yet, for all this intensity of feeling, what was actually at stake in this passage of play, was very little. The highest that England’s WinViz reached in the course of their innings was 54%, in the very early stages of the Buttler-Bess partnership; the lowest it reached after that, through all the ensuing hand-wringing and drama, was 50%. 

There’s a tendency, when watching a Test that you are invested in emotionally, to read too much into every moment. “Huge sessions” and “Big First Hours” can be decisive but, just as often, they are not. A lot of Test cricket is just, well, waiting. Tense stasis is the default state of the longest format. 

Really, declarations are funny old things. There aren’t many obvious equivalents in other mainstream sports, where a team so obviously stops playing against the opposition, and starts playing against the clock. They place the captain in such a straightforwardly controlling, dictatorial spot, that it’s hard not to read something into their character, their personality, from the way they respond.

And yet – we should try harder. Is it “attacking” to set 300 to win, then take the slips out and spread the field, because the new ball missed its own target? Is it “conservative” to get into a position where your premier fast bowlers can bowl four spells at the absolute peak of their pace, and your spinners can hoard men around the bat for hours on end? Yet again cricket’s vocabulary – around which the game has significantly misplaced pride – is strategically imprecise to the point of actively limiting discussion. Attacking, or defensive. The two colours.

Michael Clarke gained a reputation as an “attacking” captain, yet as Andrew Samson uncovered today, the average score on which Clarke declared was the fourth highest of any captain to do so 10 times. Alastair Cook, reliably, stands second on the list. Two captains who could not be more different in reputation, and yet their declaration patterns trend in the same direction. 

At the start of the game, England had a 20% chance of victory according to WinViz. They have scrapped, and fought their way into this position, against a world-class side in conditions where they do not lose. It’s happened slowly, like a frog gradually heating up in a pan of water who doesn’t know he’s being boiled, but England have dominated this Test. The 15 wickets and 19% false shots we saw today were the highest figure we’ve seen in this game, and the pitch is clearly becoming more amenable to bowlers. But in a climate where chases feel gettable (six in the last four years), at the start of a four-Test series, and against a side containing the best ODI chaser in history and a No.6 who has masterminded this exact sort of heist within the last month, pragmatism makes sense. It’s not sexy, but it makes sense, and it works. Which is rapidly becoming this England side’s mantra.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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