The fourth innings of a Test match can be a pretty complicated business. Besides the target (which is sometimes only a “target”), you’ve got to factor in the state of the pitch, whether the fielding side has the attack to exploit conditions, whether the chasing side has the maverick talent to upend the odds, the history of the ground, the forecast for the weather, who’s sitting where in the dressing room, and the manifold opinions of former players, armchair pundits and the social media hordes.
We all know instinctively that chasing over 300 is going to be hard (or do we?) but now there are the data wonks and their gizmos to contend with, too, bespoke algorithms pumping out gobbets of win probability throughout the game. It can all get a little bit “60% of the time they win every time”, to draw on the wisdom of Brian Fantana.
Anyway, the corollary of ordinary lay cricket folk having to engage with a bit of maths is that the back end of the third innings, with its mandatory declaration speculation, can trigger some baffling behaviour – cricket’s equivalent of “silly season“, if you will. The devil makes work for idle fingers, and that is never more apparent than in the case of certain ex-internationals with access to a smartphone and a Twitter account.
Take Shane Warne, for instance. Warne has form for continuing to sledge from the commentary box, and he was quick to call out England’s “cautious and timid” approach on the fourth day of the first Chennai Test (a Test which, for reference, England went on to win by 227 runs with a session and a half to spare). Those who can remember as far back as, erm, last month, might recall Warne also demanding Australia get on with it and declare at the Gabba, roughly 24 hours before Rishabh Pant and India’s third XI forcibly retired the ground’s cherished nickname for the foreseeable.
Warne’s fellow outspoken hair-replacement advocate Michael Vaughan was of the same view, foghorning into the ether about Joe Root’s non-declaration and suggesting it could affect England for the rest of the series. Luckily, with Vaughan having predicted India would lose 4-0 in Australia only a few weeks ago, this one barely needs to go down as a gaffe.
Amid the nonsense, we were able to enjoy some genuine fourth-innings magic courtesy of West Indies and debutant Kyle Mayers, who could barely find a swag bag big enough for all the records he made off with in Chattogram (after a Bangladesh declaration, lest we forget). A reminder that, as William Goldman once said of Hollywood, “nobody knows anything” – and Test cricket is all the better for it.
Rumbling emerging from Australia, where it seems a few of the players have let slip that they don’t class Justin Langer‘s coaching methods – how shall we put this? – in the elite bracket. Now, it’s easy to mock Langer for his many foibles – it’s practically a raison d’etre for some of us. But with the gnomic one describing such reports as “a wake-up call” on these pages and vowing to use the feedback positively, it was hard not to feel sympathetic, particularly given one of the items on the charge sheet. As Langer put it: “Now I’m the grumpiest p***k in the world because I told Marnus [Labuschagne] not to take a toasted ham and cheese sandwich after his 40-minute lunch break.” You’d think Australians might be glad that a toastie is the worst thing Langer’s players are trying to smuggle on to the field these days.
It not’s unusual for the Light Roller to sit down and consider whether it would be wise to delete the contents of our hard drive. After all, what could be more X-rated than archive footage of Wasim Akram delivering unplayable reverse-swinging rockets (possibly achieved with a little assistance from the dark arts)? News that Facebook had recently blocked pictures of an England team huddle for being “overtly sexual” raised the stakes, however. What else should we now be concerned about? Could classic images of Andrew Flintoff and Sourav Ganguly baring their emotions (and their chests) fall foul of the filters? Are motivational bum pats in danger of being reclassified as erotica? On the flip side, we know there’s nothing more effective at catching the interest of kids than banning it. Maybe cricket as pornography can help inspire that much sought-after new generation of fans…
Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick