There have been many tactics used in Test cricket.
There was Michael Clarke’s aversion to following on. He thought it best to grind his opponents into the turf, not give them an opportunity to get a lead back. He followed on once, in his final Test, presumably just to see what it was like.
There was Douglas Jardine’s Bodyline tactic. So brutal, it forced a change in the rules. However, it was effective, nullifying Australia.
But, perhaps the most bizarre tactic in cricket history, one hatched from the mind of Sir Donald Bradman himself, is one that seems utterly ridiculous, but actually makes a lot of sense.
Putting the best batters in the tail, and the worst in the top order.
The tactic holds its origins in one of the oddest Ashes Tests in history, the 1937 New Year’s Test in Melbourne. They played a Test starting on January 1 back in those days. Australia won the toss and elected to bat. This was a mistake. Bradman came in at 1-7 and made a weak 13, taking the score to 2-33. Jack Fingleton and Bert Oldfield were the only players to play an innings of any substance, and Australia was 9-200 after 65 overs, on a wicket that was getting worse and worse.
Bradman declared, sending England in on early Day 2 on a wet wicket. The team collapsed. Wally Hammond and extras scored more than everyone else. Six batsmen were out for single figures. England went from 3-68 to 9-76. They had lost nine wickets in 28 (8-ball) overs, and the wicket was in worse shape than the Titanic.
Gubby Allen, the English captain, was fully aware of this, and then he declared. Statsguru helpfully tells me that this was the second-lowest declared total at the time, and Wisden marvelled it was the first time both teams had declared their first innings. Bradman knew he would have to face the worst wicket of his career, as darkness descended (half an hour was left in the day). He also knew that the sun beating down on the rest day on Sunday would dry the wicket, making batting significantly easier.
The first thing he did was waste time by asking the umpires if they were sure Allen had declared. Then, he pulled off his master stroke. He sent his tailenders, Bill O’Reilly and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith, out to open.
The crowd, and presumably the English fielders, cracked up when they saw this. What the heck was Bradman thinking? When O’Reilly was caught first ball, they were even more sure of being in with a chance.
Bradman persevered. Frank Ward, the number 10, went in at number 3. Him and Fleetwood-Smith batted out the rest of the day, partially through sheer luck.
Fleetwood-Smith was out for a duck early on the Monday. Here Bradman sent in the first innings number 4 at number 4, and broke rank with his tactic. He went on to score 270 at number 7, a world record, and Australia won by 365 runs, fitting for a New Year’s test.
Bradman’s experiment certainly helped the match. However, it’s an interesting idea, that makes a fair bit of sense.
A good tail-ender should be able to either score quickly or stay at the crease for a long time. If you can do both, then you’re an elite batsman. Doing that at the start of an innings is a reasonable way to demoralise bowlers.
Another point of view it holds the advantage for is that it means that as the pitch deteriorates, making it harder to bat on, you get more skilled batsman batting. It seems mean to put Nathan Lyon out to bat on difficult pitches which were easy when David Warner was batting.
Two more benefits are that it gives the bowlers time to recover before bowling, which plenty of bowlers say, or claim, is important to them, and it also means that the top batsmen are facing tired bowlers, making it easier to cart them around.
I’d like to see a Sheffield Shield team do this once, if they were behind on the first innings, just to shake things up a bit. It would take a while for this to be seen as a legitimate tactic, but it could change the game. And it would make cricket more interesting to watch, and isn’t that what we want anyway?