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Why England did what they did in the final session

by  Darshan  •  Last updated on 2021-02-09 09:30:54

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As Chris Silverwood and Joe Root walked away to a part of the dressing room not accessible to the host broadcaster's cameras in the final session of day four, it did not take much to deduce the topic of conversation. What should England's tactics be with the bat? Should they declare and if so, when? They clearly wanted to talk about it in private, like two parents not wanting to discuss their plans for Christmas presents in front of the kids. And why wouldn't they? Third innings declarations are rarely simple decisions and there is nearly always plenty riding on them.

In a situation like England found themselves in late on the fourth day, there is a lot to weigh up. The conditions, the opposition, the fitness of the bowlers, the state of the series, all of these things have to be factored into any decision to bat on or declare. There are consequences too. A captain who declares and then loses is vilified. A captain who delays a declaration and then sees the opposition save the game is vilified. And just because a team wins or loses, doesn't necessarily make the decision they made was right or wrong anyway. Choosing if and when to call the batsmen in is never as simple as some might make out.

England did not actually end up declaring because India bowled them out but the outcome would have been roughly the same. Had they not been dismissed, England would have declared at a similar stage of play. Jon Lewis, the bowling coach, said they wanted around 100 overs at India in the fourth innings and they will end up with 103. The tourists think that sort of timeline hits the sweet spot of both reducing India's chance of victory to almost nothing while simultaneously giving England's bowlers enough overs to bowl them out.

As such, rather than swinging the bat, ending their innings early and putting India in with a couple of hours of play remaining, England's batsmen carried on for the best part of 20 overs after Tea, eating up time as they went. Instead of declaring, they scored at three an over, taking their lead past 400, and put even more overs into the Indian bowlers' legs. Depending on your view, the approach could either be seen as negative or ruthless. It may result in a win, a draw, or, possibly, even a loss. Either way, the context of England's decision needs to be understood.

Firstly, this is the first Test of the series. Teams rarely win in India. They hardly ever do so after losing the opening game. By setting India 420 runs to win, England have done all they could to take an Indian win off the table while still giving themselves 103 overs to bowl Virat Kohli's team out on a pitch that is turning and bouncing variably. To say England are not trying to win this game is wide of the mark. They have got themselves in a fantastic position from which to do so. But in doing so they have guarded against defeat as well.

They are also up against a high-class Indian line-up that has just chased a record score at the Gabba against one of the best attacks in the world, albeit on a far better fifth-day surface than the one at Chepauk will be. A victory like the one in Brisbane infuses a team with confidence. This pitch is difficult for batting but not impossible. Had England set India a total of, say, 350 in 120 overs, the hosts would have looked at that as very doable with the depth and quality of their batting resources. While it is never a good idea to write off this Indian team, victory is now a distant prospect for them.

Then there is the fitness and freshness of England's attack to consider. Jofra Archer has not played in a red-ball match since last August. Nor has Ben Stokes. James Anderson is fitter than most 21-year-olds but he is still 38. After bowling 23 overs on the third day, Dom Bess looked a little fatigued in the morning, dropping short to Washington Sundar twice and bowling a couple of full tosses. England may have only bowled 96 overs in India's first innings but Chennai is one of the most humid places in India and the temperature has been 30 degrees for the whole game. The bowlers will have been tired.

An extra 90 minutes rest might not sound much but it could prove vital towards the end of the final day. Ravichandran Ashwin certainly understood why England wanted to give their bowlers some more time with their feet up. "The only reason I see [for batting on] is that they wanted to give a bit of rest to their bowlers which is a part of the game which is not very well understood from the outside," he said after play on Monday (February 8). "Sometimes the fresh bowlers can do the trick than tiring bowlers."

By taking time out of the game, might England have increased the pressure on their spin bowlers to take the wickets required for victory on a final day? Might they have benefitted from more overs to do the job? It could be seen that way. But there was going to be pressure on Dom Bess and Jack Leach regardless. By reducing the chances of an Indian victory, Bess and Leach can operate a little more freely, without having to constantly worry about conceding runs. They will be able to keep their catchers in for longer and bowl longer spells. Might the pressure actually have been taken off Bess and Leach by England's approach?

Time will tell whether it was the right decision for England to take time out of the game. If they win, the plan will have been vindicated. If India save the match, the time lost might have cost them, although there are a number of other things that could cost England on the final day too. But whatever the outcome, there were clear reasons why England did what they did in the final session. Silverwood and Root thought about it, talked it through, and decided on a course of action. It has put their team in a dominant position. It may yet lead them to a precious victory.