Australia retained the Ashes after the fourth Test of the ongoing series ended in a draw at Old Trafford, Manchester. England held the upper hand throughout this rain affected match and the hosts were distinctly unlucky to be denied by the weather gods in their attempt to draw level with the visitors.
Though the highlight of the match was the remarkable pace at which England batsmen pushed the score along, with 592 runs being scored in a little under 108 overs, there were some splendid individual performances as well. The first among these was Zak Crawley’s brilliant knock of 189, which set England on course for a big total. But the icing of the cake was the unbeaten 99 struck by Jonny Bairstow off a mere 81 deliveries, scored in the most part in the company of tailenders. Bairstow was distinctly unfortunate at being denied a well deserved century, but the audacity of his strokeplay will remain etched in the minds of all those who saw this innings.
Reaching the three figure mark is a target that all batsmen invariably have in mind, irrespective of the level at which cricket is played. Hitting a century propels a willow-wielder to a higher level, while simultaneously conveying the message that he has well and truly “arrived”. The glee that spreads the face of the batsmen once this landmark is achieved serves as an indication of not only his unbridled joy but also the relief at safely navigating through the “nervous nineties”. Cricket history is so full of stories of batsmen who could not handle the pressure of scoring the 10 runs required to get to 100 from 90 that it gives the impression that this is the cricketing equivalent of climbing Mount Everest!
While a dismissal in the nineties will definitely leave a batsman disappointed and even despondent, getting out on 99 is nothing short of a heartbreaking experience. A peep into the world of statistics shows that 94 batsmen have been dismissed when their individual score was 99. But even worse is the scenario when one is left stranded on 99, where the innings of the side gets over when the batsman is one run short of a century. This misfortune that befell Barstow at Manchester had struck six cricketers in the past.
It is interesting to note that the first ever batsman who got stranded in Test cricket on 99 was none other than the legendary Geoff Boycott. Known as a batsman who played for himself with the team’s interests coming a distant second, Boycott would have been terribly upset and disappointed at being denied a century. This happened at Perth during the first Test of the Ashes series of 1979-80. Chasing a target of 354, Boycott held the England batting together while wickets fell around him like ninepins. England lost two quick wickets when score had reached 211 when last man Bob Willis joined Boycott. However, Willis too fell to Geoff Dymock, who was the wrecker-in-chief for Australia, having picked up 6/34. It was a brilliant innings by Boycott though he could not achieve the coveted three figure mark.
Incidentally the second instance in Test matches where a batsman remained unbeaten on 99 also took place at Perth during the course of another Ashes series, in 1995. This time around, the batsman was Steve Waugh. Australia batted first in this Test and Waugh walked in when the scoreboard read 238/3. He anchored the remaining part of the Australian innings and took the total to 388 when the ninth wicket fell. Waugh and Craig McDermott added 14 runs for the last wicket before the latter was run out, while attempting to give strike to the former. Australia won the Test and the series, which would have assuaged Waugh’s disappointment at missing a century.
The third player to face this misfortune was Alex Tudor of England in the first Test of the series against New Zealand in 1999. Tudor was a fast bowler and lower-order batsman but he was promoted in the batting order. The hosts had reached 98/3 in their chase of 208 when Tudor came in. He played a brilliant knock and had reached 95 when England leveled the scores. Tudor attempted to hit a sixer off the next ball, but his efforts only fetched him a boundary. Thus, he missed his century by a single run though his batting brought a comfortable win for his side. Tudor played in 10 Tests but, unfortunately, could not hit a century in any of them.
Shaun Pollock and Andrew Hall, both from South Africa were the next two players who missed the coveted three figure mark by a solitary run despite remaining undefeated. Pollock was leading the side in a series against Sri Lanka when this happened at Centurion Park in 2002, while Hall scored 99 not out against England at Leeds a year later. Both of them were fast bowlers who could bat well though their position was in the lower middle order, just above the tailenders. South Africa won both these matches.
Followers of cricket in India can never forget Misbah-ul-Haq for the brilliant innings he played in the final of the ICC T20 World Cup in 2007 which brought Pakistan to the doorstep of victory. Misbah was leading Pakistan on a tour of West Indies in 2017 when he was stranded on 99 in the first Test played at Kingston in Jamaica. Misbah was the top-scorer for his side and added 34 runs for the last wicket with Mohammed Abbas, whose contribution was a paltry single. Pakistan won this Test by seven wickets as Yasir Shah ran through the West Indies batting to set up a modest 36-run target.
We have more than a century of batsmen who could not score that one run which would have taken them to the coveted century mark, with 94 getting dismissed on 99 and the remaining seven left stranded as innings came to a close. There are nine Indian batsmen in this list - Pankaj Roy, M L Jaisimha, Ajit Wadekar, Russi Surti, Navjot Sidhu, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Murali Vijay. Ganguly holds the dubious record of being dismissed twice on 99 - against Sri Lanka at Nagpur in 1997 and while playing England at Nottingham in 2002.
Why do so many batsmen get dismissed on 99? Wielders of the willow, at all levels, tell us that the most difficult stage of any innings are the first few overs. Usually a new batsman (except the openers) walk to the middle at the fall of a wicket, which is a time when bowlers have a distinct psychological advantage. Hence batsmen are circumspect at the beginning and most of them heave a sigh of relief when they get off the mark. Getting into double figures is the next hurdle and once this is achieved, most batsmen start breathing easy. Next comes the half-century mark by which time they would have gauged the pace and bounce of the wicket and sized up the bowlers. Thus, by the time their individual score reaches the nineties, batsmen would invariably be on top of the bowling. Then how is it that so many slip up at this stage?
The answer is simple, which is probably the reason why this happens so frequently. As they near the landmark, most batsmen become so aware of this fact and try to exercise an extra amount of caution, which affects the rhythm and flow of their batting. Bowlers also discern this and mount extra pressure by putting in additional effort. Fielding side captains too contribute by setting attacking fields. These add to the stress levels of the batsmen forcing them to make mistakes, either by becoming overwhelmingly defensive or through playing outrageous shots, both of which can cause their downfall.
How does one surmount this situation? There are no surefire solutions for tiding over this situation. The best course will be to follow the example of Sunil Gavaskar who made it a point not to look at the scoreboard when he was batting. Thus he did not allow his batting to be influenced by his individual score and played each ball on merit. This requires an immense amount of self discipline and dedication, but helps to avoid the pressures brought on by the “nervous nineties”.
It is also interesting to note that nervousness robbed three players from scoring a hundred on their debut in international cricket, when they were only one run away from this landmark. They are Arthur Chipperfield of Australia (against England at Nottingham in 1934), Robert Christiani of West Indies (against England at Bridgetown in1948) and Asim Kamal of Pakistan ( against South Africa at Lahore in 2003). However, there has only been one batsman who was dismissed for 99 in his last test. This distinction goes to Bruce Mitchell of South Africa who was dismissed when one run short of 100, in the first innings of the last Test of series against England at Port Elizabeth in 1948.
One cannot conclude this piece without mentioning the third Test of the series between England and Pakistan at Karachi in 1973. Three batsmen - Dennis Amiss of England and Majid Khan and Mushtaq Mohamed of Pakistan - were dismissed on 99 in this game. Incidentally, Mushtaq was run out while attempting a single that would have brought him the hundred! This was indeed a unique match where no centuries were scored but three players came within one run of this figure, only to be denied at this stage!
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)