Graeme Smith declares
Graeme Smith’s Test career ended in defeat and South Africa’s first series loss in five years and 15 series. He must have drawn satisfaction from his final, albeit unsuccessful, day of Test cricket as his middle and lower order battled and came so close to eking a draw from a game in which they were profoundly outplayed.
Smith’s records as captain – most matches, most victories – have been celebrated. There’s another record he holds, less well known, but which makes the denouement of his final Test ironic. Australia won at Cape Town with time almost, but not quite, up after declaring in the third innings. Smith is the most prolific declarer in Test history, having called time on South Africa batting in the third innings of a match 25 times. Yet, only eight of those declarations were converted into victories – producing a success ratio of 32%, below the average for the game and a long way short of the proportion achieved in recent years of Test cricket.
South Africa have become known for being a team hard to beat and one that finds it hard to speculate to accumulate if the victory isn’t coming comfortably their way. Smith’s statistic of only converting 32% of declarations – made when ahead in the game – into victories gives fuel to this notion of a risk averse South African side. The purpose of this post is to assess whether, from the perspective of the target-setting declarations, this is a fair assessment of Smith’s career, which in so many respects deserves to be remembered for the effectiveness of his leadership.
Smith’s third innings declarations spanned from his third Test as captain (v England at Edgbaston in July 2003) to his 107th and penultimate Test (v Australia at Port Elizabeth). In total, these declarations yielded eight victories, 16 draws and a single defeat. How many of the draws were likely victories spurned through over-caution?
Three of the draws can be discounted immediately. These weren’t ‘target-setting’ declarations, but decisions to close the innings to end a match that hadn’t progressed beyond the third innings. Adjusting for these, Smith’s win rate increases to 36%. A further adjustment, to take out two games where the fourth innings was prevented by rain from running its course, lifts the success rate to 40%.
The chart below shows the target set and estimated number of overs remaining in the match for each of the 22 ‘live’ declarations (including the two rain-affected games). Matches that were won by South Africa are green, defeats in red and draws in blue. The dotted turquoise line indicates the current record fourth innings chase in Test cricket (418). On ten occasions, Smith has challenged opponents to set a new Test fourth innings record.
Smith’s teams have won each of the matches where they have given themselves over 150 overs (five sessions) to bowl out the opposition. They have won only one-third of the nine games when they had 100-150 overs. Not a single game has been won with the declaration leaving a day’s play (90 overs) or less.
To test for examples of over-cautious captaincy, it makes sense to start with the four matches where Smith set a target of over 400 and gave his team over 100 overs to secure the victory (a fifth, when the final day was rain affected is excluded). Should he have declared earlier?
In only one of the matches (v England, Cape Town – Jan 2010) does it appear, with the benefit of hindsight, that more overs could have delivered a victory. England were nine wickets down and 170 short of the target after the 141 overs were delivered. In the other matches, the opposition were three, four and five wickets down at the close of play. In each case, bringing forward the declaration by an hour would not have substantially increased the chance of a South African defeat, but may have helped a victory push, although that seems unlikely given the position of the game at the end of day five.
Teams batting third create time to bowl the opposition out by batting, if not aggressively, then enterprisingly. The chart below shows the run rate per over achieved by South Africa for each of the 22 ‘live’ declarations. The colour of the bar indicates the match result: green – win; blue – draw; red – defeat.
The picture is mixed. Three of the four third innings with run rates below 3 per over presaged draws. But three of the five third innings with the highest run rates were also in matches that concluded in draws.
Smith has earned praise for several of his declarations. The defeat against Australia at Sydney in 2006, when South Africa were 1-0 down in the final Test of the series, came about following a “sporting declaration” by Smith – and tremendous attacking innings by Ponting. His next declaration, against India at Durban in December 2006, showed no signs of being scarred by defeat. Smith set the visitors 354 at a rate of almost one run per over slower than his team had amassed their third innings total. He was rewarded with a comfortable victory and a squared series. At Headingley six years later, Smith was credited with “happy daring” when 1-0 up in the series with two to play, he set England 253 in 39 overs.
Taken together, these observations point to criticism of Smith’s negative approach as a captain when setting the opposition a target being overstated. There are examples where he could have ventured more in pursuit of victory. But there are also examples of bold declarations, just as there are of frustration in the face of stubborn, unanticipated fourth innings salvage jobs.
Where Smith’s team appears to vary from the norm in Test cricket declarations is the failure to convert the majority of situations where 100-150 overs remain in the game into victories. In an earlier analysis of target-setting declarations in Tests between 2009-11, All the time in the world, I found that only four of 17 (24%) declarations made with 100-150 overs left in the game resulted in draws. Smith’s career record is 67% (six of nine).
The key to Smith’s apparently low conversion of declarations into victories has not been the timing of his declarations, nor has it been the urgency with which his side has batted in the third innings of the match. If there is a deficiency it lies with the concoction of factors that have made South Africa relatively ineffective at dismissing sides in the fourth innings. In that mix may be: the lack of top quality spin bowling, unhelpful wickets, unadventurous captaincy in the field and, of course, ill-fortune. What do you think accounts for Smith’s mediocre record of driving home match advantage into victory?