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England should lighten up on nightwatchmen

By Tim Rice

19 August 1998

SOME of the dafter things said in the aftermath of England's win at Headingley included the opinion, expressed in more than one column and/or angry letters page that England's achievement was all the greater because there were three passengers on board -i.e. England won with only eight men.

Let us not beat around the greensward and boldly state that the three alleged drones were Messrs Hick, Flintoff and Salisbury and let us be even more outspoken and state that indeed their contributions, as things turned out, were not statistically that impressive.

The critics of the selectors were of course being wise after the event. Any one of the three might have played a blinder, as all have had moments of glory in domestic cricket this summer, and Graeme Hick has within days of his nightmare in Leeds rejustified his position on the international stage.

The 'Headingley Three' did hold four important catches and without wishing to drag the impossible role of the umpires into the frame yet again, Andrew Flintoff for one would perhaps be justified in beefing to his nearest and dearest (but showed no dissent in public) that he might have been a little unfortunate as far as one of the raised digits he received was concerned. If he isn't an important England player of the future then I am the best slow left-armer in southern England after P C R Tufnell.

But who knows, apart from the players themselves, what contribution an apparent failure might have made to the team spirit, on and off the field, during five stress-filled days of a crucial Test match? This is why man-of-the-match awards, though great fun, are always slightly unsatisfactory. What even the experts see from the boundary or commentary box may not always be the full picture. A chap may bag a pair but be the life and soul of the tea interval, encouraging and inspiring others to greater deeds.

No selectors set out to pick any also-rans at all, with the possible exception of those charged with choosing the Heartaches CC sides, where the pool of available athletes means that the ratio of proven winners to guaranteed no-hopers is more often than not 8-3 in favour of the useless.

But there is one factor that did all three of the England strugglers no favours at all at Leeds -the extraordinary obsession England seem to have with nightwatchmen. Several times during the series just gone, a gent from the less than prolific England lower order has been sent in way above his station when there are just a few overs of the day's play remaining.

The reasons for this escape all sane observers. All right, Alec Bedser did get 79 in 1948 and Harold Larwood almost scored a century in 1933, but the overwhelming recent track record of England No 9s doing anything more but hold out for one scoring stroke in nightwatchman role is dire.

Poor Dean Headley drew the short straw more than once earlier in the series and Ian Salisbury found himself judged more able than Hick to survive the closing balls of England's innings on the Saturday at Headingley. In each case, the promoted batsman managed to hang in there until the following morning but to no benefit to the side as every time they perished before half the punters had taken their seats the following morning.

The argument against a nightwatchman is one of five prongs, viz:

1) It is a defeatist move. It tells the opposition that (a) England have no desire to score any more runs tonight but wish merely to survive and (b) have no great confidence in the man who should be in next. This cannot have helped Hick to feel he was a trusted front-line batsman.

2) Even if the nightwatchman survives the night, he is always out first thing the next day and gives the fielding side a terrific boost right at the wrong moment. Salisbury's dismissal on ball two on Sunday can not have made him feel over the moon, either.

3) Two important batsmen are now reduced to coming in at No 7 and 8. If a top-order man comes in at No 8, he tends to play like a No 8, although the reverse never seems to be true - i.e. put a No 9 in at No 3 or 4 and he still looks like a No 9.

4) There is a greater danger of a top-order batsman who is going well running out of partners, which plays havoc with his concentration viz: Nasser Hussein at Headingley.

5) Test Match Special is so badly programmed by Radio Four chiefs that it hardly ever covers dismissals in the first 15 minutes of play, which are now commonplace thanks to the nightwatchman policy.

I am certain that if Hick had come in on Saturday night he would have still been there on Sunday morning and would have gone on to make at least 30 or 40 the next day. What would have happened if Salisbury had got out two balls before the close instead of two balls after the start the next day? Would we have seen Cork at No 7 and Flintoft at No 9? And to be consistent, why did we send Mike Atherton and Mark Butcher in for one over on Friday night? Surely Darren Gough and Angus Fraser would have been a more logical choice?

It is a barmy policy which can only be justified for any side if they have a lower order stuffed with all-rounders of at least Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener stature. Sad to say, right now we do not and we did not triumph at Headingley despite carrying three makeweights, but despite ludicrous tampering with the batting order.

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Date-stamped : 19 Aug1998 - 10:37