Word of caution
Dave Fulton shares his thoughts on another controversial declaration from Andrew Strauss.
Last Updated: 18/08/09 5:08pm
There was distinct incredulity in Charles Colville's voice after Andrew Strauss had revealed to former England captain David Gower at his post match interview that he had originally intended to bat for 10 more overs before declaring in Trinidad.
Studio guest and former England captain Alec Stewart thought England should have pulled out at the fall of Matt Prior's wicket so as to have had a crack at the West Indies before lunch. Former England captain Sir Ian Botham agreed, wading in about England's cautious mindset.
Each of them was correct in their assessment that Strauss had waited too long, but the salient point came from another former England captain Nasser Hussain, who observed that it's easier to sit in judgement as a commentator than make the calls as a captain.
England cricket captain is one of the toughest jobs in sport at the best of times. Look at the toll it took on one as successful as Michael Vaughan. Strauss, moreover, inherited a team in crisis after Pietersengate, a team which then found itself bowled out for 51 in the first Test.
Since that low point Strauss has rolled up his sleeves and sought to re-build the team brick by brick. With the bat he scored three hundreds in the series. He has now scored five hundreds in the nine full Tests he has captained.
Yes, his captaincy was cautious in Antigua and Trinidad but is it any wonder. Just as a good football manager shores up his new team's defence before adding attacking flair, Strauss was reluctant to throw caution completely to the wind when setting the West Indies a target.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but what would those same England captains - not to mention the throng of journalists in the press box - have said if he'd set the West Indies 200 in 65 overs and Chris Gayle's team galloped to victory? Strauss' grip on the captaincy might well have been loosened by a thumping defeat and a 2-0 series reverse.
Remember when Gower set the West Indies (admittedly a team in its pomp) 342 to win at Lord's in 1984? Gordon Greenidge cracked 214 not out as the Windies won in 66.1 overs by nine wickets. The declaration was actually a very fair one, especially considering England were 1-0 down in the series, but no one remembers that, just the fact the West Indies 'blackwashed' England 5-0.
Sadly these days setting a target has become a lost art. In the days of three day county cricket captains had to be creative to conjure results. Mike Brearley and Keith Fletcher were masters at 'dangling the carrot'. They would want to encourage the opposition to take risks in chasing a total.
Assessing conditions, the strength of the two sets of players and the opposition's mindset was a skill both acquired and instinctive.
In 1977 Brearley famously declared at 0-0 so Surrey, already bowled out cheaply on a green damp surface in their first innings, would have to face the same testing conditions immediately. Surrey were knocked over cheaply again and with the pitch easing, Brearley then steered his team to victory with the bat.
Four day cricket has benefitted the county championship in numerous ways but it has taken some of the flair out of captaincy. Collect your bonus points, establish a position of strength, then, with the game safe try to win. It is a standard formula.
In the championship's top flight where the trapdoor to division two is never far away, captains are reluctant to dangle too big a carrot. Walking away with a full hoard of bonus points and four points for a draw is usually considered a good week's work.
It's an attitude which needs to change. Disgrace is found not in losing but in not giving yourself the best chance to win. When county players are putting themselves under pressure week in week out trying to win games rather than just accumulate points, those that graduate to England will know how to turn the key moments to their advantage.
As for Strauss there are signs he has the ability to be a very fine captain but to fully grasp the nettle he will need to feel like he is being backed rather than badgered. The Ashes are around the corner whereupon we will need Strauss the captain to show the same aggressive intent as Strauss the batsman.