Column | Thrilling last-wicket stands in Test cricket

Jack Leach and Ben Stokes
Jack Leach and Ben Stokes celebrate England's one-wicket win over Australia in the 2019 Ashes Test at Leeds. File photo: AFP/Paul Ellis

A former colleague of mine who is a committed cricket buff remarked the other day that the last Test of the recently concluded series between England and the West Indies, which the latter won handsomely, should be christened as the “match of tailenders”. His astute observation was on account of the fact that the course of this game was decided by the batting performances of players who were placed at the bottom of the batting order.

Jack Leach and Saqib Mahmood, batting at No. 10 and 11 respectively rescued England from a position where they had lost nine wickets for 114 runs in the first innings and took them to a total of 204 through a 90-run partnership. When the West Indies batted, England came back strongly to dismiss nine batsmen with the scoreboard showing 245 runs. But the last-wicket pair of wicketkeeper Joshua Da Silva (batting at No. 8) and Jayden Seales added 52 to take the final score to 297. England collapsed again in the second innings to be dismissed for a paltry score of 120 and the hosts did not lose any wicket while reaching the target of 28. Thus, it can be seen that total scores of both sides in the first innings were given respectability only on account of the resilience and defiance shown with the bat by the tailenders.


Cricket is a unique game in that though it is a contest between the bat and a ball, the former is vested with some advantages. One of them is that though all 11 players in the side are required to bat, only a few are needed to bowl. In fact, instances of more than five players turning their arms over in the course of an innings are rare. Thus, while specialist batsmen can focus solely on batting, bowlers are required to develop some ability to wield the willow. However, the increasing popularity of limited overs cricket has led to more bowlers seeking to improve their skills with the bat in recent times Hence, these days it is extremely difficult to find batsmen like Bhagwat Chandrasekhar of India or Courtney Walsh of the West Indies, who were pure bowlers in the sense that they did not believe in troubling the scorers when they walked out to the middle with the bat in hand.


Cricket is described as a game of glorious uncertainties. But even within this sport, last-wicket partnerships occupy a unique pedestal. The bowling side would be on a high after taking nine wickets and looking at getting back to the dressing room quickly after dismissing the last pair. This is the time when bowlers and wicketkeeper tend to lose their focus with thoughts straying towards taking some well earned rest after many hours on the field. Similarly, the top order batsmen start their mental preparations for taking on the bowling of their opponents. Any last-wicket stand that goes beyond a few overs has the capacity to first irk, then perturb and finally create chaos as the bowling side starts running out of ideas. Only a calm and composed captain, who has his troops firmly under his command, will be able to tackle such situations with poise and ensure that his side does not unravel in the face of this unexpected resistance.


Flintoff  consoles Lee
Andrew Flintoff, right, consoles Brett Lee after England beat Australia by just two runs in the second Test at Birmingham in 2005. File photo: AFP/Alessandro Abbonizio

The Ashes series of 2005 will be remembered by followers of the game not only on account of England regaining the urn after a gap of more than a decade and a half but also for the intensely fought matches that figured therein. After the visitors won the opening game easily, the hosts struck back, winning the second Test at Birmingham by a narrow margin of two runs. The fate of this close match, which went down to the wire, was decided by tailenders of both sides. England batted first and made 407, to which Australia replied with 308. The hosts suffered a batting collapse in their second innings and were reduced to 131/9 before Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones put on 51 runs for the last wicket to take their total to 182. Chasing a target of 282, Australia found themselves pinned to the mat at 220/9, when last man Michael Kasparowicz joined Brett Lee. The two added 59 runs, bringing down the target to a mere three runs, when Kasparowicz gloved a short ball from Steve Harrison to be caught by wicket keeper Geriant Jones. With the benefit of hindsight, one can state that but for the last-wicket stand between Fliintoff and Jones, England would not have pulled off this win. Similarly, Lee and Kasparowicz brought the Aussies so close to an almost impossible win.


The first Test of the series between Australia and Pakistan in 1994, played at Karachi, acquired notoriety when Shane Warne later disclosed that Salim Malik, then leading Pakistan, offered him money to bowl badly so that the visitors lost the game. Batting first, Australia secured a lead of  81 runs in the first innings, but their batsmen could manage only 232 in their second outing to the crease. Chasing a target of 314, the hosts were placed at 155/3 wickets when stumps were drawn at the close of play on fourth day. It was on this fateful evening that Malik was reported to have approached Warne with the offer for throwing away the game. This incident inspired Warne to put in a masterly performance on the last day as he bowled his heart out to bring his side to the brink of victory. When the ninth-wicket fell, the hosts were still 56 runs away from the target. However, the last man Mushtaq Ahmed gave admirable support to Inzamam-ul-Haq and the duo took the score to 311 when the latter charged out to a floater from Warne seeking to hit it over the vacant midwicket region. However, the ball turned a mile beating not only the bat of Inzamam but also the outstretched gloves of keeper Ian Healy and sped to the boundary. The umpire signalled four byes to record a victory for Pakistan.


Two such Test match-winning last wicket partnerships took place in 2019. The Sri Lankan pair of Kusal Perera and Viswa Fernando added 78 runs for the last wicket to snatch a win  against South Africa at Durban in February, 2019. Faced with a target of 304 in a match where no side had crossed 260, Sri Lanka were staring at defeat when last man Fernando joined Perera, who was in great form. Perera carefully farmed the strike and took his side to victory with an unbeaten 153 while Fernando stuck around stoically with only six runs to his credit. A few months later, England tail displayed their ability to wag in the Test against Australia at Leeds in August, 2019, when Ben Stokes took his side to a great victory in the company of last-man Leach. The pair put on 76 runs for the last wicket out of which the contribution of Leach was just a single! Stokes, on the other hand, powered his way to an undefeated innings of 135, peppered with 19 hits to the fence that included eight sixes.


A quick look at history of Test cricket shows us there are 15 instances where a side won the match by one wicket. In all these games, the caliber and temperament of the batsmen placed at No. 11 in the order were tested vigorously by the bowling side, who needed just one good ball or a mistake on the part of willow-wielders to win the match. No words of praise would be enough for these players who walked out to the crease in these extremely tense situations and displayed tenacity and gumption to take their side to victory despite their limitations with the bat. The few runs scored by the No.11 batter and in some cases even the number of balls faced by them without getting dismissed in such circumstances are worth their weight in gold and more valuable to their sides than centuries made by top order batsmen on flat wickets against mediocre opposition.


Ojha & Laxman
Pragyan Ojha and V V S Laxman are all smiles after India's one-wicket win over Australia in the 2010 Mohali Test. File photo: AFP/Dibyangshu Sarkar

India figure only once in the list of 15 games where the margin of win was by one wicket. This indicates that we have not been able to show resilience to claw our way to victory from seemingly impossible positions, with the same frequency as England or the West Indies. The only instance when India could achieve this was against Australia at Mohali in October, 2010, when VVS Laxman guided the hosts to a win. Chasing 216, India appeared to have lost the plot when they lost eight wickets for 124 runs. But Laxman fought a splendid rearguard action in the company of Ishant Sharma and took the total to 205 before the latter was dismissed. After that he guided, coaxed and even chided Pragyan Ojha to help India cross the finishing line to clinch a very very special victory for his country.




Though India do not have any notable contribution from the last batting pair in Test matches, we can take some solace from the fact that the second highest last- wicket stand in first-class cricket was made by two Indian batsmen. This record was created by Shute Banerjee, a fast bowler batting at No. 10, and Chandu Sarwate, a leg-spinner placed at No. 11 in the order, during the tour match against Surrey in 1946. This pair put on 249 runs for the last wicket, with the former scoring 121 and the latter remaining unbeaten on 124. This also remains the only instance in first-class cricket where No. 10 and 11 batters scored centuries! 


(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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