I was the top wicket taker in my first year at college. I bowled filthy, loopy slow lobs. Early the next season, we were knocked out of the Cup when a potentially close game was blown open by three consecutive sixes hit off my bowling and out of the ground. Bowling and I have never really been reconciled. Nets can be a torture, either side of the intense pleasure of a turn batting. So, there’s lots I don’t understand about bowling.
For example: Why can’t professional bowlers deliver a consistent line and length? Why do quick bowlers pitch short when conditions are favourable to seam and swing? What words would a bowler find helpful to hear from a teammate when he or she is struggling to direct the ball? How can a bowler carry on playing after being hit for six sixes in an over (three did for me)?
I also don’t really understand what ‘bowling as a unit’ means. Ian Smith said it of the New Zealand attack that has kept such pressure on the England batsmen in recent tests. I’m not clear how bowling as a unit is any different to all the bowlers bowling well.
To act as a unit means to co-ordinate efforts to work together. I infer from it that the sum is greater than the parts. It’s a familiar phenomenon in sport. A football team, say, when defending will combine to deny the opponents space and to pressurise the man on the ball. To some extent, it’s apparent in fielding as players back-up and support each other to deny the batsman opportunities for runs.
In these examples, the activity of the players making up the unit is happening simultaneously. They are interacting in real time to exert a combined influence on the game. Bowling is different to this: it is asynchronous, or more simply, each bowler takes their turn to deliver an over.
I understand well that bowlers have different roles. A stock bowler may be tasked with keeping an end tight, while strike bowlers attack from the other end. Alex of Lines on Grass has pointed out to me that some bowlers appear to have the ability to get wickets for the bowler at the other end. He cited Gavin Larsen; I would name Andrew Flintoff.
I can also see a bowler having a more specific role at a particular moment. For example, denying a front-line batsman a single towards the end of an over, to expose his partner, a tail-ender, to his fast bowling team-mate.
These practices seem to me more about all bowlers bowling well, than any heightened teamwork. Is there more to it than this? There could well be and I would like to be informed.
If there isn’t, I think we are in the territory of the tactical post-hoc rationalisation that Ed Smith wrote about recently. In trying to explain an outcome in sport, as in other areas of life, we seek a cause. Taking England’s lean spell in the 1990s, and the multitude of aspects of the game and society blamed for the national sport’s predicament, Smith notes:
The point, of course, is that causes are being manipulated to fit outcomes. They weren’t causes at all, merely things that happened before the defeat.
I speculate that the ‘bowling as a unit’ causal explanation arises when the bowling team has gained an advantage, without one of the bowlers ending up with an outstanding analysis – say, a five-for. Our personality-led preference for a ‘hero narrative’ isn’t available. In its stead, perhaps influenced by the culture of management and performance improvement, commentators and cricket fans may identify the ‘bowling as a unit’ cause. It’s much more purposeful and, superficially, more constructive than saying, “all the bowlers bowled well.”
But, I reiterate, I don’t know a great deal about bowling.
Alex at Lines on Grass has written a response to this piece, Hunting as a Pack, which I recommend.
Test cricket can be construed as a game of scarce resources: wickets, time (in playable conditions), overs, new balls, fresh bowlers and in recent years, unsuccessful DRS reviews. The captain’s job is to eke out the greatest return from those resources. He is competing in a sport where, as in warfare and chess, it’s not enough to gain a position superior to the opponent, one has to defeat the opponent by exhausting their resources (or their ability to call on those resources).
My interest in the third innings declaration stems from it being a juncture where one captain has to weigh up, from a position of superiority, how much to risk, sacrificing one scarce resource to make the most of another, in order to increase their chance of victory. I have presented evidence that captains sometimes err towards caution, costing their team victories. This is the first of two posts which looks at the captains whose experience helps persuade the majority to keep batting for a few more overs, to extend their lead. These are the captains who declared and lost.
Jackie (George Copeland) Grant: West Indies v England, Kensington Oval, Bridgetown – January 1935
Grant was the first captain to have surrendered the scarce resource of third innings wickets in a losing cause. Wisden records he was “a sound tactician and an admirable captain.” So what went wrong? Grant’s declaration is the most unusual of this odd bunch. He declared when his champion bat, George Headley was the sixth man out, setting England a total of 71. Seventy-one. At 7-2, 29-4, 48-6, it was, as surely no-one at the match said, game on. Wally Hammond though, ensured England prevailed, making 29*.
Such abnormal tactics were a response to an abnormal, rain-affected pitch. The two captains took turns hurrying the opponents to the crease in the hope of finding more benign conditions for their batsmen. Wyatt declared England’s first innings 21 runs behind. Batting again, Grant altered his batting order, but when Headley, down the order at seven, failed, the declaration came.
Modern captains may think there is nothing to learn from Grant and Wyatt’s battle of wits, so anachronistic the conditions in which the game was played. I think everyone can learn from the series result: 2-1 victory for the West Indies. Everyone except the modern captains playing two-off tests, where resources are so scarce that ground lost cannot be made up.
Norman Yardley: England v Australia, Headingley – July 1948 (see header picture)
I cannot resist the cliche that Yorkshiremen aren’t known for their generosity, yet Yardley lost a match in front of his home crowd, England having scored 496 in the first innings. The match is rightly known for Bradman, in his penultimate game, making an unbeaten 173 and batting with Arthur Morris in a partnership of 301 on day five. So, was Yardley at fault, 2-0 down, with two to play, to set Australia 404 in five minutes under a day’s play? I don’t think so, although the top six: Morris, Hassett, Bradman, Miller, Harvey, Loxton are amongst the best ever.
The contemporary account, in Wisden, is clear: England made ‘a succession of blunders’. Pre-match: selection (omitting Young, a left-arm spin bowler); and fifth day: poor leadership from Yardley, poor bowling that didn’t make the most of the wicket taking turn, and sloppy fielding. But it’s not the declaration that’s criticised, although many were surprised to see England’s ninth wicket pair bat for two overs on the fifth morning. Hindsight has been kinder to Yardley and England, as Australia’s achievement is recognised. It remains the fourth highest fourth innings total made to win a Test match.
Dudley Nourse: South Africa v England, Port Elizabeth – March 1949
This match had the tempo of a track cycling race. Three and three-quarter days of steady accumulation, scoring at around two runs per over, and then a burst of activity in the final 95 minutes as England accepted the challenge of chasing 172. Crapp hit ten from three successive balls and the game was won with a minute to spare.
Nourse’s declaration came as a surprise and appears as an afterthought. Trailling in the final test of the series, his team had an 85 run lead before losing the first wicket of their second innings. But they batted on, slowly, into the final session of the match. If a lesson is to be drawn from Nourse’s experience at Port Elizabeth, maybe it is that a single, isolated bold move only serves to make a team vulnerable. However, England lost seven wickets in their chase, so Nourse was not far from conjuring a victory from very little, if any, match advantage.
Gary Sobers: West Indies v England, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad – March 1968
It was another 300 tests before the error was repeated and it has become the decision that is most associated with the captaincy of cricket’s finest ever all-rounder. Sobers lost the match, but only nine West Indies wickets fell in the game. Their first innings total topped 500 and they led England by over 100 as they began their second innings. The declaration set England 215 in two and three-quarter hours. Weighed against Sobers’ men was the injury to Charlie Griffith.
To have had a meaningful chance of victory, Sobers could not have delayed the declaration. But it showed a little too much leg to the England batsmen who won for the loss of just three wickets and with three minutes to spare. Wisden records that Sobers had been “fatally persuaded” that England would be vulnerable to Butcher’s occasional leg-spin, as they had been in the first innings. It was the only positive result of the series, with England’s tailenders twice hanging on at the end of a match for a draw.
Graham Dowling: New Zealand v West Indies, Auckland – February/March 1969
Sobers, fewer than 12 months later, became the first of only two captains to have been on both sides of an unsuccessful third innings declaration. Sobers and Dowling both lost matches they might easily have drawn – although Dowling sacrificed fewer third innings resources, declaring eight down. Neither lost when behind in the series. Indeed, this was the first of a three test series.
Dowling gave the West Indies five and a quarter hours to chase 345. A third innings partnership between Nurse, who scored 168, and Butcher accounted for half of the requirement. The victory was achieved deep into the final hour – a very fine batting performance on a final day that lacked the excitement of three (or four) possible results as New Zealand did not threaten. One week later, they won the second test, which was followed by a drawn match, leaving the series tied.
Declarations six to eleven will follow in a future post. The first five feature two captains chasing victory when behind in a series, two setting inviting targets that were expertly chased down and one captain who saw sacrifice as the only road to success in extreme conditions. All the matches happened long before I was aware of cricket and I have relied on Wisden accounts. I would be fascinated to hear of other perspectives on these matches.
My series of articles on test match declarations are now found together under the menu title ‘declarations’ at the top of this page.