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Hindsight the only weapon as Ashes captains cop misplaced criticism

Dec 06, 2017
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Updated December 07, 2017 07:03:07

If you spent the last few days listening to various intellects of the internet, outer, columns and airwaves, you’d conclude that both Ashes captains are blithering idiots who have never heard of cricket, much less played it.

After the first two days of the Adelaide Test, England’s Joe Root was variously portrayed as reckless, stupid, arrogant, ignorant, and cowardly for deciding to bowl first after winning the toss.

By the third evening and into the fourth, the same adjectives were applied to Australia’s Steve Smith for declining to enforce the follow-on, having bowled out England 215 runs behind.

Smith was also criticised for declaring too early, for not reviewing one decision, and for reviewing two others. Apparently he was supposed to be umpiring the game, as well as playing it and annoying Jimmy Anderson.

In the end, Smith won by a comfortable 120 runs, and Root was a decent partnership away from a win himself. The factor wasn’t his decision at the toss, it was the poor decisions made by his players throughout.

The funniest part of the whole sideshow was the level of hindsight genius from the sidelines.

When Root chose to bowl, people said it was daring and risky. After Australia batted for two days, people said it was idiotic. Most of the latter hadn’t been willing to be anywhere near as loud at the start.

In other words, when there was still a chance it might work, they waited to see. Only after it failed did they claim to have known so all along.

Ditto Smith, slammed after Australia limped to stumps on the third day at 4 for 53, even though a lot of those people had been more circumspect when the innings started at 0 for 0.

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People are obsessed with the supposed pitfalls of bowling first. Apparently this surrenders the initiative and guarantees defeat.

Yet the win-loss rate for Test teams batting first is just over 52 per cent. Really, it’s as much of a coin flip as the one we overemphasise.

So the conditions only need to offer a slight bowling advantage, and that should be enough to offset the historical skew towards batting.

Certainly on pitches that fall apart, you don’t want to be chasing in the fourth innings. But you can also bat yourself into a strong position in the second, with good conditions across the second or third days.

Mostly it makes little difference. What matters is the strength of the teams.

The myth of the toss remains just that

People still carry on about Nasser Hussain at the Gabba in 2002. A weak English side was playing one of the must ruthless Australian teams in history. Had he opted to bat first, what would have changed?

England might have been bowled out for 79 on the first day rather than the last, Australia would have piled up runs batting second, and a thumping loss would have been delivered in a variant form.

But no one would still be bagging Hussain about making the ‘wrong’ call, because he would have done the expected thing.

Or take India in home games this century. Lost the toss? Won 28 Tests and lost 6. Bowling first? Won 30 and lost 6. None of that stuff matters when you have a massive advantage.

Root’s problem wasn’t bowling first, it was bowling badly. The captain saw a pitch with some grass and freshness, cloud cover, and a new ball. He backed his bowlers to make an incision.

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But where they needed to pitch up and look for wickets, they bowled short and defensively, negating the chance for swing and seam, and allowing Australia’s batsmen to work runs off the back foot.

Even then, it could have been salvaged but for poor batting. Had that happened on the first day rather than the third, we’d be blaming batsmen rather than captain.

As for Smith, we’re told it was obvious the new ball would swing outrageously under lights, so he should have made England bat again instead of sacrificing his own players to the evening’s wild threshing machine.

Except again, most of this supposed insight came after the event.

Beforehand, Smith didn’t know that England would bowl so well, nor the ball respond so much. There had been dangerous bowling during daylight, and nothing outrageous at night.

“It probably does a little bit more [at night], but I think a lot of the time it’s the ball you choose,” explained Smith to ABC Grandstand. “As we saw from the ball we had [the following afternoon], it swung around from ball one.”

Again, hindsight merchants said the carnage was predictable, but that session could as easily have seen Australia bat through to 1 for 70, ready to plough on the next day.

Humiliation comes in many forms

This is exactly the attitude of Australian captains when choosing to bat on tricky pitches at the toss. You back your batsmen to fight through and prosper.

Doing otherwise is seen as weak.

In this game last year Usman Khawaja batted through the night session twice in a row against South Africa’s quality seamers. It was hard work, but not impossible.

You can’t hide from seam and swing forever. We’ve long known that Australia has a problem with the moving ball. That far ahead in the game, why not take the chance to improve?

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The main argument for enforcing the follow-on was to utterly demolish England. Humiliation in three and a bit days.

But from a purely practical standpoint, in terms of winning in comfortable fashion, it makes more sense not to enforce. Conditions might be spicy, but you back your team to stay on top.

You don’t need a huge score — Australia’s 138 still set a target beyond England. But if it works, you give your batsmen the chance to pad their stats and refine their approach, while giving your bowlers rest.

In the meantime, you make their bowlers warm up and bowl in the evening. Warm up and bowl the next day. Add three sessions to their workload. Wear out their batsmen in the field.

Declare with four sessions to go. Two night sessions, two new balls, fresh bowlers, and a depressingly theoretical run chase for a dispirited opponent.

From where I’m looking, that’s an even better way to grind down a team.

Tactical debates are part of cricket’s fabric. They’ll go on forever. Thank the stars, because it means we have something to talk about.

We make our calls based on what we know at the time. Just because something works, doesn’t mean the decision was sound. And just because it fails doesn’t mean the decision was wrong.

So if you do want to smash someone for their approach, do it before you have a chance to see if they’re right.

Hindsight can make you accurate, but it’s never going to make you look good.

Topics: ashes, cricket, sport, adelaide-5000, sa, australia

First posted December 07, 2017 07:01:01

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