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AUSTRALIA V WEST INDIES TESTS

Windies opt to play safe, not for keeps

07 January 2016
Our voices

Steve Smith had a plan to add excitement to a fruitless final day, but the Windies had other ideas

About the Writer:
 @ARamseyCricket

Andrew Ramsey is the senior writer for cricket.com.au. He previously wrote for the Guardian, The Australian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Hindu and Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and the author of The Wrong Line.

In an era when Test cricket continues to struggle for relevance and breath, approaching the death throes of a match that had been deluged by rain and inconsequence, Steve Smith waded into the final phase with a plan that he thought might bring resuscitation.

Upon arriving at the Sydney Cricket Ground this morning where – for the fifth day in succession – it sat cloaked beneath thick cloud and drenched by unstinting mizzle, the first thought from both competing camps was to work out a way by which the match could be abandoned sooner rather than later.

The word from ground staff was that so much water had soaked into the non-covered parts of the outfield that even if the drizzle abated it would have been an hour, probably more, before an inspection of the playing surface could be reasonably conducted by match officials.

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And even then it was unlikely it would be deemed sufficiently safe for a troup of highly paid professional athletes to be let loose upon it.

But then in one of those episodes that encourages worshippers and discredits meteorologists, not only did the rain clouds blow over but the sun appeared and the umpires announced that a game that had been seemingly dead for days would be brought back to life at 11.45am.

Albeit in a vegetative state, given the weather had put paid to so much game time that barely 86 of the 360 overs prescribed for the first four days had been delivered, and the West Indies had yet to complete their first innings having opted on Sunday to bat first.

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However, with the lure of free admission attracting a crowd that eventually swelled to 6,865 – the sort of numbers that would cause many Test match hosts around the globe to salivate - and the judgement that 80 overs could be bowled on an extended final day, Smith put his plan into action.

The 26-year-old in his first summer as a fully-fledged Test skipper had discussed the idea with coach Darren Lehmann and some of his more senior teammates, and believed he saw a way by which a potentially fruitless final day could be nurtured to bear something.

Provided the other team held a similar view that after four days of stalemate and storm water the long-suffering fans and the not-exactly-sprightly game of Test cricket could do with a bit of a pick-me-up.

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Smith met with West Indies captain Jason Holder once the day’s revised playing conditions were confirmed and proposed that the visiting captain close his team’s first innings at their current score, at which point Smith would immediately forfeit his team’s opportunity to head to the crease.

He would then would guarantee the West Indies half an hour or so of “lob-up” bowling whereby they could slog their way to a lead of 370 and set the Australians a fourth-innings chase off the remaining 70 overs at an asking rate that meant there was equal hope of winning for both teams.

"He (Holder) said 'give me five minutes' and went over to their team and they had a little huddle and chat or whatever they were doing,” said Smith, who also revealed that “lob-up” bowling essentially meant him bowling his occasional leg spin with an attacking field more often associated with Curtly Ambrose in his pomp.

"No-one really wants to see a draw, they want to see good exciting cricket with teams winning.

"But he (Holder) said their boys weren't up for the challenge. That was unfortunate.

"I thought it was pretty generous, it would have taken some very good batting to get that on a day five SCG wicket.

"We want to try and win every game we play and today was a perfect opportunity to set the game up for a good chase and for the fans that stayed out this afternoon.

"I think that’s a fair game for both teams and it’s just disappointing they weren’t willing to come to the party."

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Even though his team has won just five Tests away from home in the past decade and not experienced victory in Australia since 1997, Holder – in consultation with a team that he, like Smith, is in the early days of leading – did not believe a contrived outcome would be beneficial.

Watch: Windies all out for 330 on day five

Not because of the unpleasant whiff that has accompanied such boldness since the day at the turn of this century that disgraced South Africa skipper Hansie Cronje manipulated the result of a Test against England for the sake of personal reward that included a new leather jacket and pocketfuls of cash.

But largely because the parameters that Smith had laid down fell outside the goals that Holder and his men had drawn up for this tour, and had so spectacularly failed to meet over the preceding month.

The 86.2 overs they had survived across the first two rain-affected days before the Test became rain-ruined was not quite the 90 overs they had set themselves to bat in each innings of this tour, but had managed just once – 100 and a half in the first dig at the MCG.

The 7-248 they had on the board was not the 300 minimum they had ordained as the batting benchmark against Australia, a total that eluded them in all four previous attempts in Hobart and Melbourne.

And because it had taken him until the second innings of the preceding Boxing Day Test to reach 50, it was felt that it was more beneficial for the team’s long-term aspirations if their most experienced Test player, Denesh Ramdin – the man who Holder replaced as captain – was given the chance to bat on this morning.

Seemingly to set himself for the West Indies next Test assignment, scheduled to be their away series against India in July.

To turn the 30 runs he had eked out across the first two days into the 69 he eventually finished with in almost three hours at the crease, by which time the West Indies had reached 8-296 off 102.4 overs, but batted on to be ultimately bowled out for 330 off 112.1.

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At which time lunch was taken, and the game’s last rites were delivered in unseemly haste by David Warner who cavorted to a record-breaking century from 82 balls upon its mouldering remains.

"He (Smith) came to us and made an offer, I just went back to the team and we thought at this stage of our development it wasn’t the best thing for us," Holder conceded after the Test was abandoned in bright sunshine at 4.50pm with a minimum of 15 overs left to bowl and not a hope in hell of a result.

"We had Ramdin who was scoring well and looking well, so just give him the encouragement to go out there and build an innings and build some confidence.

"We set out at the beginning of the series to bat 90 overs each time we batted and get past the 300 mark.

"It was a team vote, a team decision.

"I think we just need to take it step by step, it’s not a case where you can just jump from losing Test matches to winning in one transition, especially against good opposition like Australia.

"So we just thought at this stage of our development it was best to give Ramdin an opportunity to build on what he had started and for us to bat out some overs."

At day’s end, Holder’s decision not to risk losing their 14th Test to Australia since their most recent win against them at Antigua in 2003 doubtless saved any potentially awkward aspersions being cast on the motives of either party for flagrantly confecting an outcome.

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Although Smith had raised that concern with Lehmann prior to lodging the offer, and the pair had double-checked the Test game’s laws to make sure there was nothing nefarious about it.

"It would have been great for the crowd, but at the end of the day we can only give teams options," Lehmann told ABC Radio after Warner had been crowned player of the match, Adam Voges player of the series and the crowd has dispersed into the warming summer sun.

Perhaps to the KFC Big Bash League match at nearby Spotless Stadium that would deliver both a spectacle and a result.

"If they don't want to play that way that's their choice,” the Australia coach continued.

"I think it would have been a great experience for even the young West Indies side to defend a total . . . and we would've gone the whole hog.

"It would have been an exciting day, but that's what happens in Test cricket. It's never easy to have a result when you have two and a half days washed out."

It probably also saved the Test cricket purists from decrying further diminution of the traditional values and practices of a game that holds tight to its occasionally anachronistic rituals and its quaint pastimes in the knowledge that with change comes risk.

The sort of risk that has also been known to deliver rewards.

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