Know when to declare: Smith gets it right amid Test Match feast

For cricket lovers, the period between Christmas and New Year was a veritable Test Match feast. Three Boxing Day Test matches in three time zones proved that utopia exists, in short spurts.

Early risers caught the first session of New Zealand v Sri Lanka, then after sneaking a beachside nap, devoured the bulk of the day watching India tackle Australia at the MCG. Seriously pushing their luck, some blokes even got amongst South Africa v the West Indies in the evening… but the Melbourne Test was the main caper for Aussies.

Although many Australians were incensed by Steve Smith’s decision to bat on during day five, the drawn Test in Melbourne ensured that Australia regained the Border-Gavaskar trophy from India. But the series win was muted by the great declaration debate.

Australia closed day four about 320 ahead. An early declaration was expected on day five, setting up a chase to win, or defend to draw, scenario for India.

It was supposed to be an exciting finale. A formidable and aggressive Indian batting line up were expected to chase around 350 off about 90 overs, a difficult but achievable task. However, the declaration did not come until lunch, with Australia 383 ahead.

Know when to declare

On a flat, batsman-friendly-deck I believe, give or take three or four overs, it was the correct decision.

The morning session was disrupted twice by intermittent rain. As long as showers persisted, Smith was happy to let Shaun Marsh and the tail bat India out of the match, and the series. Had Australia declared earlier, they may have bowled 2-3 overs on a wet outfield, been interrupted by rain again, then faced 80+ overs with a wet ball, seriously damaging their chances of taking 10 wickets.

All fast-bowlers will tell you that bowling with a wet cherry is not desirable, so until the showers abated, Smith sat on the fence. By then, Marsh was in the nineties, so they hung on a little longer. When Marsh ran himself out for 99, the declaration followed.

Many punters expressed outrage at Smith’s tactics. Channel Nine, Fox Sports and other agencies ran public polls and the majority believed the declaration came far too late. In ridiculously disproportionate rants, some writers even slammed Smith’s future captaincy credentials.

But far too many have neglected the conditions and the state of the series, somehow believing that the public’s desire to be entertained was, or should be, the dominant factor in Smith’s reckoning.

Nevertheless, Australia nearly pulled off a win, reducing India to 6/174 before Smith and Dhoni, with four overs remaining, shook hands and called it a day.

That decision is most baffling to me. You need four balls to take four wickets, Australia had 24 remaining. The top order was gone, Dhoni and Ashwin were resisting, but if one of those had been removed, three genuine tail-enders would have been exposed.

Where to for the West Indies?

Meanwhile in South Africa, a depleted West Indies battle for dignity against a transitioning, but still very good, Proteas side. The Caribbean collective were annihilated by an innings and 220 runs at Centurion before Christmas, then rain destroyed the latter half of their encounter in Port Elizabeth. The West Indies are 2 down, and still trail by 4 runs in the second innings of the third Test at Newlands.

While their national side struggles away in South Africa, several West Indian stars are currently playing in Australia’s Big Bash League. The clash of schedules and priorities is not new, but it’s becoming unsustainable. The ICC must act decisively or cricket risks permanently losing one of its great regions. Who is next?

The Black Caps

Things are better for the Kiwis. New Zealand have won seven, and lost only four of their last 17 Tests. Currently, the Black Caps are one nil up against Sri Lanka, but thanks to a brilliant double century by Kumar Sangakkara are under the pump in the second Test. A big innings from young gun Kane Williamson is needed; the hosts are five down and only 118 ahead in the second dig.

Fourth Test, Sydney

Tomorrow, Australia’s fourth Test begins against India in Sydney. Mitchell Johnson has been sidelined by a troublesome hamstring, replaced by Mitchell Starc.

After the resignation of MS Dhnoi – who retired immediately after the Melbourne draw – a new era hails for cricket’s biggest player. Virat Kohli will lead the Indians. He is a great batsman, but displays hints of immaturity and petulance, unbecoming of a successful leader. At 26, he has a lot to learn; Kohli promises India will be an aggressive unit, one that will meet Australia’s combative brand of cricket, front on. Sydney will be an interesting spectacle. The needle between Kohli and several Australians has been epic already, with Kohli nicknamed the “spoilt brat”.

For the Australians, emotions will be flowing as they return to the scene of Philip Hughes’ death. Will the mental and physical strain of events over the past five weeks, prove too much for Australia?

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