Alex Massie

The Most Influential Innings of the Decade

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In 132 years of test cricket a side has followed on and won on just three occasions. Despite this, enforcing the follow-on has become almost as unfashionable in the modern game as stationing a fielder at third man. It is as though modern skippers have concluded that the accumulated weight of cricketing evidence, built up over more than a century, has lost its persuasive power in the contemporary game. So it wasn't terribly surprising that Andrew Strauss declined to put Australia in again at Lord's this morning.

One man, above all, is responsible for the follow-on falling out of favour. Ever since VVS Laxman scored 281 against Australia at Eden Gardens in 2001, the Australians have been wary of putting the opposition in again. And as the best side in the world, where Australia have led other countries have followed even if, naturally, they've not had as many opportunities to enforce the follow-on as have Steve Waugh and, subsequently, Ricky Ponting.

Ponting, of course, played in that extraordinary game in Calcutta. Armed with a seemingly impregnable first innings lead of 274 Waugh asked India to bat again. When Rahul Dravid, batting at six, joined Laxman at the crease India were still 32 runs short of requiring Australia to bat again. In effect Australia needed just one wicket to all but secure the match and with it the series.

Instead Dravid and Laxman batted together for the whole fourth day, adding 376 before Laxman was finally dismissed for an epic 281 - at the time the highest score ever accumulated by an Indian batsman in test cricket. When Dravid was out for 180 India declared, having reached 657/7 - tying the record for the most runs ever scored by a side following on.

Even then, Australia only needed to bat for two and bit session to save the match. At lunch they were 24/0 and by tea their situation had deteriorated only to the point that they were 161/3. Enter Harbhajan Singh and Sachin Tendulkar: Steve Waugh, Ponting, Gilchrest, Hayden and Warne were dismissed in just five overs after tea, leaving Australia in a near hopeless position. Sure enough, Harbhajan finished with six wickets and Tendulkar three to seal a startling victory in one of the greatest comebacks in test history. Perhaps even the greatest.

In other words, Laxman's innings, like Botham's at Headingley in 1981, was not enough to secure the match on its own. In each case, a batting collapse was needed too. Willis never bowled better than he did at Leeds and if Botham (and Dilley and Old) had put England in a position from which not all hope had been extinguished it still needed Wilis's 8-43 to secure victory. History suggests that two of three career-defining perfomances are needed if the side following-on is to prevail. For obvious reasons this does not, indeed cannot, happen all that frequently.

Nevertheless, Laxman's innings might be the most influential innings of the past decade. It's hard to think of many others that have changed the way captains think about the game to quite the same extent, even if this also demonstrates that captains have been spooked by the great exception, not the rule.

Events may yet prove Strauss's decision today correct. The odds remain against Australia escaping with a draw, let alone chasing down an improbable, and probably record-setting, target to preserve their 75 year undefeated streak against England at Lord's. Nonetheless, as Norm says, I suspect Ponting was not unhappy to see England decide to take their turn at the crease.

I wonder if concerns about Flintoff's fitness played a part in Strauss's decision. Given that Freddie didn't bowl this morning it's tempting to think that they did. If so, then Strauss's decision, while less bold than one might like, is more understandable. Yet by batting again Strauss also delayed putting Australia under real pressure and, of course, left himself more vulnerable to the vagaries of the English summer weather.

And when england were 74/2 and then should have been 90/4 the possibility that they might be all out for 200, leaving Australia two days to score 400 on a pretty flat pitch suddenly seemed all too likely. That in turn would have left Australia thinking that they had a real chance of winning the match. My suspicion - and it's only that - is that the combination of "Chief Executive" wickets and a generation of batsmen trained at chasing down scores in one-day cricket has made it a little easier for teams batting fourth to make record or near-record fourth innings totals to win matches.

By contrast, if Australia had followed on and themselves been 74/2, let alone 100/4 England would have a chance to win the game by lunch on Day Four. Instead England have chosen to grind Australia into submission, trusting that it won't rain. The bolder course would have been to press home their advantage now.

In the end, it may not matter too much on this occasion. Wellington did beat Napoleon at Waterloo after all. But, generally speaking, I'd rather my skipper took their cues from the Little Corporal than the Iron Duke.

UPDATE: Admittedly, England did enforce the follow on against Sri Lanka at Lords in May 2006, only to see the Sri Lankans bat for 199 overs for 537/9. But that merely demonstrates that, at Lords these days, surviving the final day and a half is not necessarily a treacherous operation. Indeed, England's victory against the West Indies earlier this summer was the only "positive" result since Australia defeated the hosts here in 2005. Six of the last seven Lord's tests, then, have been draws. Which suggests that England need a lead of 550 to be absolutely safe...

Anyway, for your pleasure, here's a ten minute highlight reel of VVS Laxman's 281 in Calcutta. Of all the batsmen currently playing test cricket, he's the one I enjoy watching bat most. This video shows why.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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