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The fascinating mind games of Test cricket

South Africa’s Test cricket captain just did something—days ago as you read these words, but minutes ago as I write them—that I suspect will be discussed for a long time. To start, he spent most of the first day of a Test against Australia shepherding South Africa out of the doldrums of 36/2 and 117/5, all the way to some safety at 259/9. He himself was on 118 then, a magnificent, hard-fought innings.

Now, any other batsman would have been forgiven for setting his sights on 150 or more—or at least, adding as many runs to his and the team’s score as possible in the company of the last man. But captain Faf du Plessis stunned Australia, and every fan of this wonderful form of the sport, by declaring.

Other teams have declared their first innings in Tests, so that by itself is not particularly surprising. But that usually happens when they have run up a score like 579/3—which, coincidentally enough, was the score at which Pakistan declared its first innings closed in a Test against the West Indies in mid-October.

That is, their captains figure they have run up a score large enough to put plenty of pressure on their opponents. This is the safe, conventional, take-no-risks way to use a declaration, and it often works out. The opponents do feel smothered under the pile of runs, and that’s enough to lose the match. As, in fact, the West Indies did.

But at Adelaide on Thursday? South Africa had, at best, a competitive score. Not as low as it threatened to be at one point in their innings, but nowhere near being safe either. Yet, here was du Plessis, jogging off the field and leaving Australia to face 12 tough overs at the end of the day. Here was du Plessis, giving Australia a tempting bone to chase, breathing life into the contest.

There were the cynics who said du Plessis was operating from the comfort of knowing he had wrapped up the Test series. From that point of view, this match is effectively dead. Had that not been so, the cynics say, he would not have been half as adventurous. They also ask, how many more runs would he and his No. 11 batsman have scored anyway?

Cynicism, sure—but reasonable enough. I have no doubt those factors were part of du Plessis’s thinking. And yet, consider what he did accomplish. To an Australian team that had the better of the first half of the day, that then probably got increasingly frustrated with South Africa’s resurrection, but would still have thought it was a good day’s work and thus were looking forward to relaxing and recharging for tomorrow—to a team in that frame of mind, du Plessis suddenly said: “I’m sending you in to bat now. Not tomorrow, not after our last wicket falls, but right now.”

Not just that, either. Du Plessis knew one of Australia’s openers was a rookie, playing his first Test. He also knew that the other opener—explosive David Warner, Australia’s second-best batsman—had gone off the field to treat a pain in his shoulder. He had returned, but du Plessis realized the rules for such treatment meant Warner could not bat for a further six minutes of play. So, if Australia were to bat, Warner could not open the innings.

Showing a keen awareness of those rules, du Plessis promptly declared. Which left Australia to play out a dozen overs under lights at the very end of a tough day in the field. The two who would have to do it were a young man on debut (Matt Renshaw) and a middle-order-bat-turned-makeshift-opener (Usman Khawaja) still trying to establish himself in the team. This pair, to face a relentless South African bowling attack that worked so well to rout Australia in the first two Tests.

Mind games, to nicely frame a cricket game.

There are many reasons Test cricket is such a compelling sport. Among them is the creativity a shrewd, imaginative and enterprising captain can display. Such a captain finds ways to make something of nearly everything in the game. The chance Test cricket offers—unique in all sport—to declare, I always thought, was one of those.

The opportunity to declare usually comes when your team is in a strong position. Once there, you can minimize any risk by declaring late. Of course, as tends to happen when you refuse risk, that usually results in tame cricket. But you can also declare to set a target your opponents will sniff at and decide to chase. That much enterprise from both sides is usually enough for pulsating, edge-of-the-seat cricket.

And then there’s the declaration we have seen from du Plessis, that tries early on to set up the game and muddle the opponent’s thinking. There’s every chance it may backfire—or at least yield no fruit. After all, Australia did not lose a wicket in those 12 overs.

But it remains a statement of some purpose—“I write the agenda, dudes!” Which is why the Australians admitted that evening that the declaration had annoyed them. But even as someone who has never played serious cricket, I can feel the weight of a statement like that.

It’s often said that top-level sport plays out to a great extent in the mind. Test cricket epitomizes that like no other game in the world. Even we mere fans can tell that it demands skill, intelligence, strategy, planning, confidence, selflessness, shrewdness, timing, guts and so much more.

That’s what Faf du Plessis gave us a glimpse of with his first-day declaration. That’s why I can never get enough of this game.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Jukebox Mathemagic: Always One More Dance.

His Twitter handle is@DeathEndsFun

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