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Rob Steen

How dared they?

An appreciation of captains' innovative declarations, bowlers' bold tactics, and batting feats that no one expected

Rob Steen
Rob Steen
D is for 'Doom, what doom?' Ian Botham, scriptwriter, 1981  •  Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

D is for 'Doom, what doom?' Ian Botham, scriptwriter, 1981  •  Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

In a week when we celebrate two notable anniversaries, one word unites them: daring. Daring is being Don Bradman, who in Melbourne 80 years ago, reversed Australia's batting order against England, entered the fray at 97 for 5, shared a Test-high sixth-wicket partnership of 346 with Jack Fingleton that lasted 72 years and not only wound up with 270, the innings rated all-time No. 1 by Wisden, but kick-started what remains the only comeback from a 2-0 series deficit in Test annals. Daring is also being Shane Warne, who made his Test debut 25 years ago.
In truth, Bradman's decision was more pragmatic than daring. Faced with a second innings on a "gluepot" pitch after 12 wickets had already fallen in a day for just 95, he doubtless recalled Jackie Grant and Bob Wyatt reversing their orders in similar circumstances in Bridgetown in 1935 - why not save the best until the pitch eases? All the same, despite losing Chuck Fleetwood-Smith immediately and the pitch easing markedly overnight, Bradman maintained the experiment until he was absolutely convinced the conditions were beyond reproach. Bill Brown was demoted from No. 2 to No. 5, Stan McCabe from 5 to 8, Fingleton from 1 to 6 and the captain from 3 to 7.
Fleetwood-Smith, facing his first innings against England, was aghast at his promotion. "Why me?" he asked upon receiving the news. "Well, the point is this," reasoned the Don. "You can't get out unless you hit the ball. Now you can't hit the ball on a good wicket, so you've got no chance of hitting it out there."
First impressions are always a precarious matter, and never more so than in Sydney in 1992. Given that, of the two debutants, one dismissed Mark Taylor, Mark Waugh and Geoff Marsh cheaply while the other wound up with 1 for 150, one might be forgiven for suspecting that Subroto Banerjee would be the name now celebrated globally. Yet Banerjee never played another Test, while Warne symbolises the embrace of risk that underpins the very best sport has to offer.
To dare is to wade fearlessly into the fists of odds and logic, knowing that a knockout is a distinct possibility yet convinced you have the wherewithal to outwit and/or batter the opposition. Warne dared to be both innovative and aggressive, confounding those convinced that the legspinner was a dying species. What also makes him so unusual is that daring is a word rarely applied to bowlers, with Abdul Qadir the only other who consistently receives such a plaudit. That said, Arthur Mailey's apparent indifference to conceding runs suggests he was on a similar wavelength, and Richie Benaud's last-ditch decision to bowl round the wicket at Old Trafford in 1961 not only conjured up victory but secured the Ashes.
But are we fair to deny the bowlers their due? The most startling stat to emerge from 2016 was ten: the number of times teams were dismissed for fewer than 125. Not since 1888 - when there were just four Tests - have there been more. Throw in the 11 occasions on which a side lost ten wickets for fewer than 100 and, for all the purported dominance of the bat, the conclusion is hard to resist: bowlers are being more creative. Broader palettes and a greater trust in variation are playing their part, likewise innovations such as the doosra and the slower yorker. Does that denote daring? Why not? Anything that defies the norm and the orthodox surely qualifies. That Warne was prepared to experiment in the heat of a Test was the very personification of daring.
"Daring" and "declaration" are words that have seldom been spotted in the same sentence, and only partly because "generous" is usually employed as the adjective. In a world where enforcing the follow-on is now seen as daring, even reckless, it seems salutary to note that only 11 times in 2245 Tests has a team chased down a target set by a declaration (provided, that is, that we don't drag H***** C***** into the discussion). Of those closures, in terms of bravado, we can further discount five on the ground that two were made with eight wickets down and three with nine.
Of the truly daring declarations, context dictates that the heart should bleed far less for Adam Gilchrist - who in Leeds in 2001 closed on 176 for 4, emboldened by already having the Ashes safely stowed and the knowledge that England had never once threatened to dominate with the bat all series - than either Garry Sobers (92 for 2 in Trinidad, 1967-68) or Graeme Smith (194 for 6 in Sydney, 2005-06). The former was trying to wrest the series lead, the latter to square the rubber, hence their mutual decision to set gettable tasks, especially Smith, who asked Australia to score at under four an over. Sobers, though, had a separate motive: infuriated by England's slovenly over rate, he wanted to make a statement. In addition, he found it hard to picture England, that particular England, relishing the challenge. In the event, Colin Cowdrey, England's captain and match-winning batsman, had to be persuaded to go for the runs.
Not that any of this should suggest we lack daring captaincy. Witness Steven Smith's (admittedly risk-free) insistence that Australia pursue quick runs against Pakistan on the final day at the MCG, turning a sure draw into the launching pad for a comfortable innings win. That this marked one of three instances in a few weeks of teams conceding 400 and still winning by an innings - hitherto there had only been four such outcomes in Test history - also suggests captains are becoming less prone to watching the scoreboard and lowering their ambitions.
Teams losing by innings after scoring 400+ in their 1st innings
Team Bat Total Defeat margin Opposition Ground Year
 England  1st  405  inns & 39 runs  Australia  The Oval  1930
 England  2nd  432  inns & 25 runs  Australia  The Oval  2001
 Pakistan  2nd  407  inns & 52 runs  India  Multan  2004
 Sri Lanka  1st  400  inns & 14 runs  England  Cardiff  2011
 England  1st  400  inns & 36 runs  India  Mumbai  2016
 England  1st  477  inns & 75 runs  India  Chennai  2016
 Pakistan  1st  443/9d  inns & 18 runs  Australia  Melbourne  2016
But back to the willow wonders. D is for Daring and also for Dev, De Villiers, Dhoni, Dexter and Duleepsinjhi. D is also for Davy, he of the Warner clan, whose hundred before lunch last week was as audacious a way to kick off a Test as any in the format's nigh on 140-year history, though it lags behind more magical efforts once you contextualise. Australia were dormie two in the series, the pitch was a carpet and the opposition demoralised. Compare that to a brace of Caribbean counterattacks, by Clive Lloyd after West Indies lost early wickets in the 1975 World Cup final, and by Viv Richards at Old Trafford in 1984, making murderously merry while the rest of the order collapsed in a heap. Ben Stokes' pre-lunch assault at Newlands in 2016 was no less staggering, though none of these quite makes this column's top three.
Bronze goes to Kapil himself, who at Tunbridge Wells in the 1983 World Cup strode in with India tottering at 9 for 4 against Zimbabwe yet mistook crisis for opportunity and lashed 175 not out. Silver, too, goes to that same colossus, for flinging caution even further to the wind at Lord's in 1990. There India were, nine down and 24 shy of saving the follow-on, and our boy decides to treat Eddie Hemmings like a part-timer: four successive sixes, job done with cold, brutal, fearless efficiency. In a match that had already featured 333 by Graham Gooch and a sublime century from Mohammad Azharuddin, it says everything about the daring behind Kapil's dazzling starburst that it has lingered much the stronger in this particular memory bank.
And yet one exposition of batsmanship still shines even brighter. Hate to be predictable, but what else could a Pom nominate if not His Beefiness' Headingley hurricane in 1981. That curiously glorious amalgam of the desperate and the divine, littered with braces-pinging, blacksmithy heaves and carves, ferocious drives and terrifying edges, comical, helmet-free mishooks and pulverising pulls; the innings that by common consensus lags behind his subsequent 118 at Old Trafford on both aesthetic and technical grounds and yet one that far outstripped its successor in terms of impact. Here, after all, was a case where context was all.
Of all the cricket reporting clichés, this column's least favourite is the dread phrase "not a flawless performance". That anything can be flawless is open to intense debate is one major objection, but to criticise someone for not being flawless merely compounds the crime. Botham's 149 not out was as far from a flawless knock of numerical substance as it is possible to conceive, yet it even outdid Bradman's 270 in 1937 for counterpunching magnificence. After all, as predicaments go, 221 runs on with five wickets standing - the point out at which the Don entered the second-innings fray at the MCG - was vastly preferable to being 92 behind with three bodies left.
Yes, there was nothing to lose. Yes, Graham Dilley had been the one to set wheels in motion and Chris Old did his bit too, but the result was an innings that transformed a day, a match and a series. Before the contest began, England had been one down in the rubber, Botham had been dumped as captain, and a depressing summer for the nation was showing no signs whatsoever of finding a panacea on the field. Yet by stumps on day four, despite having followed on, England, thanks primarily to Botham's daring, had a lead worth dreaming about.
It all ended happily, of course, if not quite ever after.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book is Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport