Cricket is a peculiar sport. Despite being team-orientated, it relies almost entirely on the performances of individuals. It also gives captains the ability to manipulate the game to a much greater extent than any other sport. Michael Clarke has been collectively worshipped by the cricketing world for his sporting declarations in order to give Australia a chance at victory, but at times a skipper’s entrepreneurial risk can come horribly unstuck – and in the fifth Ashes test at The Oval, it almost did. Clarke narrowly escaped defeat, but the legendary Garfield Sobers was not so fortunate.
The match in question was in Port-of-Spain in 1968, the fourth of a five-match series between the West Indies and England. The first three tests had finished in draws and after the first day was marred by rain, the chances of a result were once again doubtful. Sobers was a captain at the peak of his powers, in charge of a dangerous side at home which featured batting talents such as Rohan Kanhai, Seymour Nurse and a bespectacled young Clive Lloyd. His bowling lineup was weakened, losing spearhead Wes Hall after the third test and his partner Charlie Griffith to a leg injury mid-game.
Kanhai and Nurse hit centuries after rain had ruined the first two days of play, taking the West Indies to 526 before Sobers declared on the third. The plump gentleman Colin Cowdrey then conspired with spritely wicketkeeper Alan Knott to post a reply total of 404, Cowdrey himself playing an artful hand of 148. The surprise packet was Basil Butcher, a man who wielded willow like a sledgehammer but had stunned England by taking 5/34 with his part-time legspin. Sobers’ eyes lit up at the prospect of a turning sixth-day wicket.
The match looked set to meander to another stalemate, but almost immediately after Kanhai had joined opener Joey Carew at the crease at 2/88, the pair were trudging back to the pavilion – Sobers had declared after only four more runs had been scored. With the series yet to break the deadlock, Sobers had been tempted by his inner gambler, believing that Gibbs and Butcher would be able to exploit England’s supposed weakness to spin.
The task was 215 runs in two and three-quarter hours. Though quiet to start proceedings, Cowdrey broke his shackles and took England from 73 to 173 before his wicket fell. 42 runs were needed in 35 minutes, and it surprised all present that it was the dour Geoffrey Boycott who pushed England forward. He had paced his innings of 80 to perfection, hitting the winning runs with three minutes to spare.
The fifth and final test ended in a nail-biting draw that saw England’s Jeff Jones survive a fearsome over of spitting off-breaks from the lanky Lance Gibbs, needing only to take his wicket to win. His heroics denied the West Indies a drawn series, going down 1-0. Sobers had hit 545 runs at an average of 90.83, but the series loss was entirely blamed on him. Although he claimed to have consulted with his players and tour manager Everton Weekes about his decision, they denied him ever doing so. The people of the Caribbean reacted angrily and Sobers was forced endure strident criticism for the rest of his days as captain. The West Indies failed to win another test series until Kanhai took the reigns in 1973, though in an ironic twist it was Sobers himself who played the hero, pivotal with both bat and ball.
Michael Clarke took a risk in a match that had no consequence, but his attacking intent is not always well directed. Had bad light not extinguished Alistair Cook’s hopes of finishing the series a dominant 4-0, he may have been left red-faced – 21 runs from four overs was all that England needed. Clarke was seen eagerly pestering the on-field umpires to call off play as the match approached what should have been a thrilling finale. If you make a bold declaration, you must back your decision to the hilt.
Cook himself has been attacked from all angles for his often defensive-minded tactics, but he has delivered three sterling victories despite not being an aggressive field-setter or taking chances with declarations. Before Clarke is yet again drowned with praise for his ambitious and daring captaincy, do remember that it sometimes goes very wrong.