Sankaran Krishna

When is a poor decision a masterstroke?

In sport, luck plays a big role in determining whether a tactical move on the field will pay off or not

Sankaran Krishna
One that got away: had Graham Gooch been caught on 36 at Lord's in 1990, would Azharuddin's decision at the toss been questioned as much?  •  Getty Images

One that got away: had Graham Gooch been caught on 36 at Lord's in 1990, would Azharuddin's decision at the toss been questioned as much?  •  Getty Images

Sports fans are constantly reminded that it's easy to talk from the comfort of their armchairs while it's very difficult out there on the field. No doubt, that's true. However, there are occasions when it seems that players, either wittingly or otherwise, are unable to see things that are obvious to those watching the game. I'd like to mull on a few such instances - not to score points one way or another, but just to air them and evoke some reactions.
Way back in 1990, India were touring England during one of the warmest summers on record. Batsmen were plundering runs all across the land. When Mohammad Azharuddin won the toss in the first Test, at Lord's, on a featherbed, no one expected him to put England in to bat. With fast bowlers Manoj Prabhakar, Sanjeev Sharma, and spinners Narendra Hirwani and Ravi Shastri as the support cast for Kapil Dev, it was hardly an attack that could run through opponents even if conditions had been ideal for bowling.
What followed was utter carnage as England rattled up over 650 runs for the loss of just four wickets at four runs an over - unheard of then - before declaring. Gooch made 333 and Allan Lamb and Robin Smith helped themselves to hundreds as well. Though much splendid batting followed throughout the Test, including an incandescent hundred by Azhar himself and Kapil Dev's four sixes off Eddie Hemmings to avert the follow-on, India lost by 247 runs.
Bishan Bedi, then the team manager, not one to mince words at any time, abandoned his own captain's decision in the press conference that ensued, and former England captain Mike Brearley speculated that Azhar's choice must have been born of fear. Even as a forlorn Azhar pointed out that had Kiran More held a sitter offered by Gooch (off Sanjeev Sharma) when he was on 36, England would have been two down for 60-odd in the first session, no one could fathom why anyone would choose to bowl first that day.
My second example is a bit more controversial. There were a number of times in Test matches when Sachin Tendulkar would get into an ultra-defensive mindset and just keep blocking ball after ball, irrespective of their merits. These were often when India were faced with an improbable fourth-innings target and needed to play out many sessions to achieve a draw. As you watched him go into this catatonic mode, you knew it was only a matter of time before he got out, that his chances of surviving would be far higher if he played his natural game. Commentators would say exactly that, as would various keyboard warriors from all over. Everyone seemed to sense his impending dismissal, except, it would seem, Tendulkar himself.
There was one such incident that I remember vividly. It was the first Test at Lord's in July 2011 and India were faced with the small matter of chasing 458 runs in the fourth innings - or playing out a day and some to grind out a draw. Tendulkar walked in with India three down for 131 and around five overs to go before lunch on the fifth day. He began scratchily and was soon utterly becalmed. At one stage he played out 36 dot balls in a row (including a couple of no-balls from Chris Tremlett) before finally managing a single.
What made Tendulkar's overly defensive approach inexplicable was the fact that the conditions were actually still good for batting (VVS Laxman had just made 56 off 113 balls with eight boundaries, and even Suresh Raina would make 78 off 136, while Tendulkar ended with 12 runs off 68 balls). And while a Rahul Dravid could stonewall for hours, it went against the grain of Tendulkar's style. By this point it was obvious to anyone watching that if he did not start scoring and rotating the strike, he was a goner. Tendulkar then played out four dot balls off James Anderson, one of which was a dropped catch, and two balls later he was out: lbw to an inswinger.
My third example bucks the trend of the armchair expert scoring over the man on the field. The Champions Trophy final at Edgbaston in 2013 looked all but rained out when the clouds cleared, leaving just enough time for a T20 quickie to decide the winner. England needed 130 runs to overhaul India but the spinners, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, not only kept it very tight but kept getting wickets as well, reducing England to four down for 46 at the end of ten overs. But with three overs to go, and Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan belting the ball to all corners, England needed just 28 runs. MS Dhoni tossed the ball to Ishant Sharma - the most expensive bowler on either side, having by then conceded 27 off three overs - and you could hear the groans of millions of Indian fans the world over.
Their worst nightmare seemed to be coming true as Ishant was tonked for six off the second ball, followed by two successive wides, one of them barely landing on the strip. And then, out of the blue, Morgan cross-batted a poorly disguised slower one to midwicket and Bopara pulled a bouncer off his grille, straight into Ashwin's hands at square leg. (When you watch the replay of that dismissal, you realise that Ishant's delivery came within a whisker of being a no-ball for height.) Two wickets in two balls and the pressure got to England: they subsided in a shambolic mess, leaving India champions by five runs.
I am sure there's little doubt among most cricket fans even today that bringing on Ishant for that over was a daft idea, especially when the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, and Raina - not to mention Jadeja or Ashwin - had all bowled far better and each still had at least an over left to bowl. Yet Dhoni's dubious masterstroke reminds us that in sport all too often the line separating a hero from a goat, or the glory of victory from the ignominy of defeat, remains thin and impossible to discern, let alone to predict. As in so many other ventures in life, whether you're a pundit or a player, it's definitely better to be lucky than to be smart.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu. @SankaranKrishn