Captains need to attack

Mahendra Singh Dhoni with Harbhajan Singh during the second Test against New Zealand in Hyderabad. Far from pressing for victory, Dhoni let the game roll along on the final day, feels the author.-K.R. DEEPAK

Cricket is a battle between bat and ball and it's only interesting when both sides have a chance, writes Peter Roebuck.

Captains must shoulder some of the blame for the parlous state of Test cricket. Three matches were played over the last few days and all were as tedious as a tax form. Unsurprisingly the crowds were paltry and the contests merely provided another collection of cold and inflated statistics. Test cricket seems to have a death wish. It produces the best and some of the worst the game has to offer.

Insipid pitches hardly help and groundsmen need to be instructed to prepare tracks with bounce and pace, pitches that start green and deteriorate as time goes along. Cricket is a battle between bat and ball and it's only interesting when both sides have a chance.

So much progress has been made in the world, with astronauts and cures that it ought to be possible to provide suitable pitches. Pitches consist of soil and grass, and preparation merely requires the right balance between rolling and watering. Doubtless it's more complicated than that and certainly the elements are unreliable but it's hardly rocket science.

But captains cannot escape their responsibilities. Some have lost the knack of thinking on their feet, using their wits to plot a batsman's downfall, or following a hunch, anything to change the mood of the contest. If things are going quietly the batsmen are winning.

All too often dull tactics are pursued. Take the fields set for spinners. As soon as batsmen start to dictate, the field becomes defensive, with numerous fellows sent to patrol the boundary. Thereafter batsmen are allowed to collect easy singles. There is no pressure to score runs and no reason to take risks. It becomes routine. From the spectators' viewpoint it becomes vapid.

India's lame attempt to take the last few wickets on the final day of the Hyderabad Test was a case in point. Overnight the visitors were in a pickle and the first session was crucial. Once early wickets did not fall, though, the hosts sat back. Even before lunch they were in retreat. Far from pressing for victory, Mahendra Singh Dhoni let the game roll along. Far from moving fieldsmen as Mr. Anand moves his pieces, he put them in fixed positions. The raging storm was too easily stilled.

Even the bowling lacked imagination. On tame pitches spinners need to try anything to get a wicket. It is not just a question of hoping for an edge. New Zealand saved the match comfortably.

It was the same in Sri Lanka. As soon as the West Indies began to impose themselves the field was spread. Chris Gayle and company were content to stroll singles. No pressure was applied, maiden overs were rarities, and batsmen were never under strain. Gayle is blessed with immense power and a wide range of strokes but he is not infallible. The Lankans needed to made him work for every run.

Rather than trying to reduce the number of boundaries, captains need to attack. It's not a matter of crowding the bat. Sometimes it is better to set a tight field and let the spinner experiment. Or else leave an inviting gap, anything to make the batsman think, anything to disturb his rhythm or to encourage him to loft the ball. Batsmen can get themselves out.

Spread fields are wrong tactically. Every run ought to be resented in Test cricket and contested. Singles crush bowlers more slowly than boundaries but more certainly. They cannot apply pressure or develop plans or lay traps because batsmen are constantly changing ends.

Besides not working, there is another reason defensive fields are bad. They produce boring cricket. And boring cricket is killing the game.