By SB Tang
In Friday Night Lights — the greatest television show most Britons have never seen — Coach Eric Taylor tells Matt Saracen, the under-sized, moderately talented high school sophomore quarterback on whose mediocre arm rests the hopes (and abundant fears) of a mildly deranged west Texan town where high school football is a religion: “This is within your reach, but not if you don’t attack the opportunity”.
Saracen takes the advice to heart and together, coach and quarterback lead the Dillon Panthers to the greatest sporting prize in Texas — the state high school football championship.
Going into the second Test against South Africa at Headingley, England were already 1-0 down in a three Test series that they had to, at minimum, draw in order to retain their world number one Test ranking.
After tea on the final day at Headingley, South Africa declared at 9 for 258 in their second innings. England were presented with the target of 253 in 39 overs for victory.
That sounds imposing.
But, in this modern era of flat pitches and T20 cricket, it’s well within reach.
To put the target of 253 into perspective, consider this: thus far in this season’s English domestic 40-over competition, there have been 31 team scores of 250 or greater. Five of those scores were racked up in less than 39 overs.
Accordingly, I hoped that England captain Andrew Strauss would heed Eric Taylor’s words of wisdom and “attack the opportunity” to win the Test match. After all, a win was the one and only result which would have kept alive the possibility of a series victory over England’s primary challengers for the world number one Test ranking.
Instead, Strauss — perhaps fittingly for a man who nearly chose a career in the City over professional cricket — hedged the opportunity.
Yes, he promoted Kevin Pietersen to open the batting alongside Cook with an apparent brief to blast away. But, he also covered off any increased risk from that attacking move: after KP spliced an attempted slog to mid-on to be dismissed for 12 off 8 balls, Strauss sent himself in at number three and, when he got out for 22 off 33 balls, he sent Jonathan Trott in at four.
Trott is an effective and unfairly maligned ODI batsman and Strauss, before his ODI retirement following the 2011 World Cup, was in the ODI form of his life. But, neither of them can time the ball like Ian Bell and Matt Prior — two of the most fluent natural strokemakers in the world — nor can they smash the ball like James Taylor, one of the most savage leg-side hitters on the county circuit.
As a result, after KP’s dismissal, England started falling behind the required run rate of 6.5 per over. The run rate in the Cook and Strauss second wicket partnership of 54 was 4.98. The run rate in the Cook and Trott third wicket partnership of 15 was even worse: 4.09. After Cook got a leading edge to short extra cover, England were 3 for 90 after 17.4 overs and the required run rate for victory had jumped to 7.6 an over.
So Strauss rolled the dice for the second and, as it turned out, final time that innings, sending Prior in ahead of both Bell and Taylor in an attempt to lift the scoring rate. However, even then, Strauss could be said to have covered off any increased risk from this play by keeping Bell, the most technically solid of England’s middle-order batsmen, in reserve.
Prior never got a chance to supercharge England’s run rate — a mix-up with Trott resulted in him being run out for 7 off 5 balls in the 20th over.
And that was that — with nearly 20 overs still to play, Strauss shut up England’s shop with a four foot thick titanium door, dispatching Bell to join Trott at the crease with instructions to block. And block they did — the pair combined for an unbeaten partnership of 24 at an anaemic run rate of 1.8 per over to see out the draw. James Taylor, one of the most aggressive limited-overs batsmen on the county circuit, didn’t even get a bat.
To be fair, Strauss certainly cannot be accused of fumbling the opportunity to go for the win, but neither can he be said to have truly attacked it in the manner that Steve Waugh, Clive Lloyd, or indeed, Eric Taylor, would have.
It’s hard to imagine either Waugh or Lloyd ever declining to have a proper go at winning the second Test of a three match series with their team already 1-0 down. Waugh’s Australia and Lloyd’s West Indies would have thrown the kitchen sink, the team bus and their empty sponsors’ chewing gum wrappers at a target of 253 for victory. That’s what made them truly great, era-defining sides — they went for the win whenever it was within their reach, at times, heedless of the risk.
Waugh’s finest hour as Australia’s Test captain was the 2001 tour of India. After a crushing 10 wicket win in the first Test, Australia could easily have opted to draw the second and third Tests, thereby winning the three Test series 1-0 and conquering, arithmetically at least, their final frontier. Instead, they went all out for the win in both the second and third Tests — in the second Test at Eden Gardens, Australia scored at more than three an over in trying to chase down 384 in 75 overs for victory on a wearing, turning final day pitch; in the third Test at MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, Waugh set attacking fields in defence of the paltry 155 India were chasing for victory.
That’s the Australian way. Of course, they famously ended up losing both the second and third Tests, and the series 2-1. But, as an Australian, I’ve never been prouder of that team. Not when they won a world record 16 Tests in a row on two separate occasions. Not when they whitewashed England 5-0 in a home Ashes series. Not when they won three consecutive World Cups.
It’s easy to espouse and follow a set of highfalutin principles — such as scoring at four an over, aiming to win Test matches that mere mortals would be happy to draw, and revolutionising Test cricket for the better — when positive results are flowing in. It’s not so easy to do so when you’re losing. That is the real test of a man and his principles. Waugh and his team passed it with flying colours.
Waugh never did get to conquer the final frontier of a Test series victory in India — that was left to his successor, Ricky Ponting, who, in 2004, achieved what no Australian captain had done for 35 years. But Waugh’s legacy is enhanced, not diminished, by that 2-1 series defeat in India in 2001. The result may have been superficially bad for his own win-loss percentage as captain, but it was emphatically good for the game of Test cricket.
The great West Indies sides (circa 1976 to 1995) were no different. At Sabina Park in February 1983, Clive Lloyd’s West Indies successfully chased down a final day target of 172 in 26 overs, with four balls to spare, to win a Test match against India. Viv Richards, batting at four because of a shoulder injury, slammed his first ball for six and proceeded to hammer 61 off just 36 balls.
The contrast with Strauss’s captaincy could not be more stark — Strauss hedged, rather than attacked, a clear-cut opportunity to go all-out for a Test match win with a world champion deciding series in the balance. That, more than any bare statistic, sums up why the Strauss-Flower administration’s England unit will forever be remembered as a very good Test side, but not a great one.
[Postscript: This piece was written and posted before Strauss announced his retirement on 29 August 2012. Strauss seems like a thoroughly decent fellow and deserves to be remembered for his four series-defining Ashes hundreds and being the first England captain in 24 years to both retain the Ashes and win an Ashes series on Australian soil. However, for me, having grown up in Australia in the ’90s watching Taylor’s and Waugh’s Australian sides, Strauss’s occasional bouts of tactical conservatism mean that he will be regarded as a very good Test captain, but not a great one.]