England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford, 4th day August 4, 2013

Declare and be damned

There is nothing like poor weather and trying to gauge a declaration to mess with a cricketer's mind - just for once Michael Clarke should have asked the journalists instead

"We always cop it here, I can't understand why it's not raining," said one expert on Old Trafford weather as he peered over his spectacles at three weather websites running simultaneously, all of them showing banks of cloud doing roughly the same things in roughly the same direction, only in different colours. He then insisted it would pour down on the final day. But if he was flummoxed, how on earth could Australia judge what constituted a decent declaration?

Nothing messes with a cricketer's mind more than trying to gauge a declaration when there is a forecast of rain. Declarations have become much more conservative than they once were - sides bat deeper, pitches generally hold together longer and these days captains get stung too often - and judging a declaration when there is no clear idea how many overs are left in the game is no job for weak men: especially when the Ashes are at stake.

Players generally respond by ignoring the weather forecast completely, parrot "You can only control the controllables" and "You have to keep focus on the job in hand", and then shrug at their ill luck when the rain predictably arrives. You can't be too critical because even the ancient Greeks needed more weather gods than England have backroom staff, but it is all a bit of a cop-out.

Australia, to their credit, approached their second innings as if they were prepared to be influenced, up to a point anyway, by forecasts that much of the final day will be washed out. If Australia would not gamble when they had to win the game to prevent England retaining the Ashes then the nation that tradition has it will gamble on two flies climbing up a wall would have abandoned its history.

But they did not dare do what the forecast insisted they should have done: play an innings of Twenty20, scramble a lead of 300 and hope to bowl throughout the final session. Instead they promoted David Warner to open the innings as a show of intent. To reach 172 for 7 at nearly five runs an over carried a general recognition that time was against them, but it hardly offered a solution.

There were even conspiracy theories around that the Met Office was fiddling the weather forecast just to persuade Australia to declare too early and hand England victory. That would certainly take match-fixing to a whole new level.

It was a strange innings, as if Australia were aware of the necessity but could not quite come to terms with it. According to Warner, instructions did not go much further than play positively and see how it goes. There again, that is all you need to tell Warner. They probably waited until he took guard before they got the pie charts out.

If Warner, suitably, was promoted to opener, there was little advantage in Usman Khawaja remaining at No. 3. He was bowled around his legs by Graeme Swann, flicking weakly when he could have been forgiven for falling to a full-blooded mow; Shane Watson's appearance down at No. 4 was sadly understated, as if the task had made him a little mournful; and Steven Smith's enthusiasm for a dashed second run brought about his run-out as he found that his captain, Michael Clarke, was content to amble for a single.

England's mood in the field was even stranger. They were not averse to gamesmanship. They lacked intensity, as if they could not quite settle to a Test that was no longer programmed to accepted rhythms but which had suddenly turned a little unpredictable. The mood seemed more light-hearted than usual, as if they were displaying a confidence that Australia's scurrying was not about to put them in any real danger of defeat, but underneath felt uncomfortable at a game that was no longer quantifiable.

It is a fair bet that within seconds of the first internet weather forecast being available, a crowd of cricket writers were gathered around it, shouting 'It's raining in Oswestry' and 'We'll be back on by four'

Dressing rooms have so much statistical data at their fingertips these days but introducing weather forecasts into the equation is regarded as essentially unprofessional. They are regarded basically as false data.

A computer programme knows what percentage of Watson's dismissals have been lbw, but the Met Office cannot guarantee the rain. The danger for Australia was that if they slogged for 20 overs in anticipation of bad weather which never arrived, and then lost the match, they would have looked altogether too clever by half. You would struggle to find a professional cricketer, past or present, who would advocate such a move.

But cricket captains have to try to read pitches so why not read weather forecasts? F1 teams can spend forever analysing when to switch to wet weather tyres and often profit as a result. A cricket team which seeks to play naturally, while blocking out a weather forecast, even if that forecast is only 80% reliable, is not playing the odds. But when it rains, professionals can just observe back-to-back Ashes series and routinely retreat into talk of "momentum" and "taking the positives".

The one area where it can be brazenly stated that the media is better qualified than players and coaches to manage the game is when a weather forecast is iffy. It is a fair bet that within seconds of the first internet weather forecast being available that a crowd of cricket writers were gathered around it, shouting: "It's raining in Oswestry" and "We'll be back on by four".

Debates sound about whether itschuckingitdown.com is more reliable than rainstoppedplay.co.uk. The efficacy of rival cloud graphics is routinely analysed. People have opinions on whether purple is a better colour for heavy rain than green. The only good thing about journalists talking about the weather in cricket press boxes is it stops them talking about golf.

When it comes to the weather, it has to be said it is the media, not the players, that knows its altocumulus from its altostratus. The players might well maintain the belief that this Test is not yet over. But the journalists have already awarded the Ashes to England.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on August 6, 2013, 8:01 GMT

    I do agree agree with the thrust of the article. Decision makers in all walks of life have to use all information available, including weather forecasts. To always work on the basis that not a single over will be lost to rain is absurd and means that over time, a captain will enjoy less success than he would if he took a realistic outlook.

    It's not as if cricketers are not interested in the weather. In my experience, they are all but obsessed by it and generally have an encyclopedic knowledge of where the weather comes from at each ground and what the ominous signs are. They are forever looking at where clouds are, wondering when the rain will arrive, how long it will last etc and I can't help but feeling that England's strange performance on Sunday and Monday was influenced by a strong but unspoken conviction that the game would die a watery death.

  • John on August 6, 2013, 7:14 GMT

    unbelievable - Clarke who played aggressively the whole game get's criticised for what would have been a crazy declaration while Cook's negative tactics that somewhere down the track may see him miss a game for time wasting are labelled as "gamesmanship"? Moreover Clark declaring 50 runs earlier would not have altered the final result one bit. England may have been a couple more down when the rain came, but it was 50 mins of play not two sessions. Yes he could have batted on in innings one and he could have referred the Bell decision - there's always a lot of what ifs in cricket. That's the way it goes - this is just bad luck and not bad captaincy. You can't pre-guess the weather or the oppositions total 3 days out.

  • Ash on August 6, 2013, 5:36 GMT

    @atique.sa that's the kind of thinking Clarke is apparently renowned for and would've looked like a statement of intent... we might lose but hell a loss is as bad as a draw so let's go for it! And that justifies it for me (if you gotta win you gotta go for it) moan about the weather all you like now but England have the urn and rain was forecast. To me this looks much much sillier than OZ declaring too early and England winning in a canter... I have heard all the talk about how this test shows the Aussies have heart and are here to fight.... Well I think they woulda much rather had a longshot at the urn instead or at the very least it would have been nice for them to be able to say we did everything we could to set us up for the longshot. Do you think that's how they feel now?

  • Jay on August 5, 2013, 21:18 GMT

    I think Clarke missed a trick here. I know its saying everything in hindsight but it is surprising that a person like Clarke did not consider the fact that losing the game was better than drawing like this if it gave them a chance of winning the game. Rain was going to happen. If it was forecasted, it was going to happen. It's England afterall! And that too Old Trafford! He should have risked losing the game. Shoot up 150 odd runs in 20 overs or so and give it to England. If it had not rained, they would have lost the game. So what?

  • atique on August 5, 2013, 13:39 GMT

    Clarke missed a risky trick yesterday that cudhave hand australia defeat aswell.........he cudhave declare when umpires called off game as a result of bad light...and bring lyon and himself as spin bowlers and try to get wickets.....but still clarke and his guys have chance of winning IT....best of luck ausies

  • GeoffreysMother on August 5, 2013, 10:28 GMT

    I think the decision on a declaration was a committee decision, not just Clarke's (they tend to be these days). Despite what they say about winning this test, I think they were more fearful of risking losing another and getting that record of seven successive defeats. Finishing the game, saying how unlucky they were and how they were the better team they hope will build more long term belief in a fragile side; but one which might just be getting better.

  • Chris on August 5, 2013, 7:28 GMT

    Australia has been strangely conservative in this Test with their declarations.

    Considering winning is the only way for them to have any hope of winning back the Ashes, you'd think they'd be a lot bolder and ruthless in their declarations.

    The first innings they should have either declared at 400 to 450 and tried for a second innings shoot out - which they would have had a good chance of doing well with England having to bat last.

    Alternatively, and my preferred option, they should have batted England out of the match in the first innings, going for at least 600. Starc and Haddin were crusing so it wasn't unreasonable. That would have allowed them the best chance of gaining a follow-on from England. Which means Poms would already be deep into their second innigs and likely struggling.

    But they took the wishy-washy, hedge-your-bets option of 527.

    Thirdly, last night they should've declared at a 300 lead, and got a fair few overs in, and kept going with 2 spinners after it got dark.

  • Dummy4 on August 5, 2013, 5:25 GMT

    Warner looks like a crisp, positive batsmen opening the innings. His punch shots; whilst very effective also look controlled.He seemed to play quite intelligently without any foolhardy flashes outside offstump and after warming up against the pacers where he readily felt bat on ball; he also played the spinners well and was quite nimble on his feet.Should Warner of had more time to construct an innings there is no telling what kind of score he could of got.Watson is becoming more and more a bowling allrounder with every test.His tight spells give Clarke the all important option of playing an attacking bowler the likes of Starc, Pattinson(when fit)or dare I say it;even Johnson.This alone is worth his place in the side as there are no other bowlers we have that can match his control whilst averageing 35 with the bat.Faulkner is no where near as yet a like for like replacement for Watson and it appears that Watsons ideal role for the team is as a 4th bowling allrounder at 6.

  • rob on August 5, 2013, 3:24 GMT

    I think they went as fast as they dared. .. Collapsing for 80 or so would open the door wide for England IF there's any play tomorrow and not even the journo's can say for sure there won't be. Given the attack, the pitch, the weather etc I think they did quite well. .. Don't forget, this is the worst batting side to ever leave Aussie shores up against one the best ever England attacks .. Besides, if Clarke hadn't torched Smith in that run-out we have seen some real fire works. Smith is a different player these days. He's matured as a cricketer and may not be the 'butt of all jokes loser' many English people remember.