Every quarter, one of our editorial board will choose an article from the latest issue. We asked the evil genius who masterminded The Nightwatchman, Matt Thacker, to make his selection from Issue 1 and to tell us why. We’ll only publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy an individual issue.
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Before Christmas, once we’d come up with the name The Nightwatchman, I spoke to Jimmy Anderson, killing time in an Indian hotel between Tests, to ask him what it was like actually being a nightwatchman. He was initially taciturn, trotting out the platitudes about everyone having to do a job for the team, but when I told him he averaged 39 going in at number 9 (I didn’t say he’d only batted there twice), his excitement was palpable. He wanted me to email over the figures and I’d love to think that he then marched up to the door of ‘the management’, slammed the print-outs on the table and argued his case, demanding he be given a steady berth down the order – not right down, for every bowler believes he should bat higher – and that someone else, Steven Finn, say, should take on the nightwatchman mantle. And so it came to pass. And Finny, bless his soul and his size 12 cotton socks, has put nightwatchmen on the map again just as we have launched our first issue.
We knew we wanted a piece on the nightwatchman in the first edition and we could think of no finer writer to deliver it than Jon Hotten. He didn’t let us down. Matt Thacker, March 2013
DON’T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT – THE NIGHTWATCHMAN’S LOT
Jon Hotten delves into the psyche of the nightwatchman, the man who highlights cricket’s glorious idiosyncrasies
The first nightwatchman I knew, or at least the first who admitted to being one, was Alf Gover. Alf had taken 1,555 wickets for Surrey and England but he was most famous for his cricket school, a low-level, two-storey building with a whitewashed front halfway up East Hill in Wandsworth. Viv Richards, Barry Richards, Andy Roberts and Sunil Gavaskar are among Alf’s alumni, but anyone with the price of a half-hour net – about four quid, from memory – was welcome to try and fit their cricket bag longways through the school’s slender side door and up the narrow stairs that opened out onto the snooker room, washed in its murky yellow light, and then past the bar, into the changing rooms and up to the nets via a thin corridor with heavy canvas hung across it at the far end.
I went there every week for five or six winters in my teens; if I have had my moments when I can play this game (debatable) it’s down to Gover’s. I must have seen Alf hundreds of times, and he was always dressed identically: immaculate cream flannels, a silk cravat under his stiff collar, white hair swept nobly back and, most impressively, his England sleeveless sweater, the three lions in its centre, now so long it almost reached his knees. Sometimes, in his office, which was behind the snooker room, he would wear a blue England blazer too. Alf was in his seventies then, but he still bowled hundreds of overs in the nets, his arm brought down almost to the horizontal by the years, his pace a distant memory. In retrospect, it was like facing a very slow version of Lasith Malinga. He could put the ball wherever he pleased, and would often call the shot he wanted you to play (“one to drive”). It was traditional that newcomers would have their first lesson with Alf so that he could make an assessment of their game before he allocated them to one of his coaches. There was a famous story that he’d told Viv Richards that he wouldn’t make it if he kept hitting the ball so much on the leg-side – I didn’t believe it: Alf would have known genius when it presented itself to him.
All kinds of people met in the bar there. Harold Pinter, who called cricket “God’s greatest creation” went sometimes, and Timothy West, the actor, took his son along; Monte Lynch used the nets in the winter, pounding ball after ball from anyone who’d bowl at him; and Alf’s coaches, a fluid line-up of travelling pros that washed into south London from across the globe, brought in all sorts of strange, nocturnal characters, most of whom engaged in long snooker matches on Alf’s pay-as-you-go table. The barman was a guy called Terry who had another job humping electrical goods into houses. He once told me a brilliant and no doubt greatly exaggerated story about delivering a fridge for Dave Vanian, the lead singer in the Damned. “He slept in a coffin,” Terry said mournfully. “He showed me it.” Alf would, very occasionally and if the bar was quiet, tell some stories too. One of them was about the time he was nightwatchman at The Oval. He survived for the evening and when play resumed at 11am the following day, he found himself seeing the ball so well he batted for another hour, at which point his partner, having received a signal from the balcony, came down the wicket and said: “Alf, I think you might get out now, we have some very good batsmen waiting to come in.” His partner was Jack Hobbs. His captain was Douglas Jardine.
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The use of the nightwatchman is one of cricket’s implacable enigmas, a tactic that has been employed almost since the game began. Its effectiveness has always been disputed and never been proved. Nonetheless it persists and probably will as long as matches are played over successive days. It is a notion based on human fallibility, a defence of position, a counter-intuitive decision to place a player of lesser ability into a parlous situation that others are better equipped to handle. Beyond that, it is an identifier of the game’s greatest single divide: that between batsmen and bowlers, men whose professional lives are consumed by thoughts of how to overcome one another. The very act of needing a nightwatchman, when wickets are falling at the end of a day, is indicative of failure: batsmen who have lounged in the field for hours have been unable to survive at the crease for a few minutes; bowlers who have trooped exhausted from the same arena are now expected to clean up after them. It has a sacrificial element to it. It tells one member of a team that they are more expendable than another, that their abilities are more lightly regarded. It is about rank and position. In a game so finely attuned to psychology, the nightwatchman taunts a player with his mental frailty and displays it to the world and, when it is over for the day, the batsman who has declined to go in must change in the same room as the bowler he has required to do so. Some captains have banned the idea; others have exempted themselves from responsibility for it. In an age where the prevailing mindset is aggression, the nightwatchman is a laying-down of arms, a brief if temporary surrendering of the initiative. It’s a move that piles pressure not onto the opposition, but onto the team employing it. And yet it lives.
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Alf had another story about being a nightwatchman, one that spoke about some of the older divisions and allegiances in the game. He had been bowling all day and was enjoying a soak when he was hauled out and sent in to face Harold Larwood. “I was in no state really, so I said ‘Easy Harold, they’ve dragged me from the bath.’” In solidarity with one of his brothers, Harold bowled wide of the stumps so that Alf didn’t have to play.
That was the bowlers’ lot, and theirs was a fellowship with loyalties that sometimes transcended the requirements of the team. For many decades, most bowlers couldn’t really bat. Rather wonderfully, Alf only scored 757 more runs than he took wickets in a 20-year career. It wasn’t until 1962 that a nightwatchman made a Test hundred, and it was another 15 years until the next. Of the six ever scored, three have come since 1999. This is a statistic that suggests a growing professionalism, the natural acceptance of Duncan Fletcher’s maxim that every player must excel at a minimum of two of the three skills of batting, bowling and fielding, or of Steve Waugh’s policy of giving his bowlers “batting buddies” to squeeze every last run out of his team.
Except it doesn’t. Instead, examination of the list simply reveals the fluidity of the tactic itself, the ambiguity of its definition. The first Test hundred by a nightwatchman was made by a Pakistani, Nasim-ul-Ghani, against England at Lord’s. Nasim was a remarkable cricketer, at 16 years and eight months the youngest Test player ever when he made his debut in Bridgetown, and the first Pakistani to get a Test match hundred in England. He could bowl left-arm spin, medium-pace, and later opened the batting.
Of the remaining five, two were scored by Mark Boucher, who got 5,515 Test runs at an average of more than 30. The centuries he made at nightwatchman came when he batted at number six instead of his customary seven, and Boucher was never going to get a nosebleed that high in the order – in total he made more than 900 runs from six, and played around a tenth of his innings from there. In 2006 he struck the second fastest one-day ton of all time, in 44 balls against Zimbabwe in Potchefstroom. Syed Kirmani, who got 101 for India against England at the Wankhede in 1979, made one other Test ton, another 11 in first-class cricket and, like Boucher, kept wicket.
That leaves two. One is perhaps the most famous nightwatchman’s innings of them all, Jason Gillespie’s 201 not out against Bangladesh in Chittagong in 2006. It remains an extraordinary outlier of an innings that will stand forever, but there can be no doubt that these teams were mismatched: Australia won the game by an innings and 80 runs after losing the toss. After a punch-up between the press and the police and a storm that blew the scoreboard apart, Gillespie’s double-hundred spread itself like a fever dream over three days, the last of them his birthday, and ended with him walking from the field poking out his tongue at the cameras and looking baffled by the sheer unlikeliness of what had just happened. It was his 93rd (and, as it turned out, final) Test knock, the longest ever wait for a debut ton, and it beat his previous highest first-class score by 143 runs. So inspired was he that Dizzy went on to make two more first-class hundreds.
Perhaps only Australia’s leg-spinner Tony Mann was genuinely out of his comfort zone, not that he would have recognised that buzz-phrase back in 1977, when he was required to bat at three against Pakistan, and made 105 of his 189 Test match runs in that single innings, played for the most part on the last morning of the game.
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These men then, are our champion nightwatchmen: two wicket-keepers, an opening bat and a couple of men playing innings that came, like Ballard’s wind, from nowhere. There are others that fall into their company: Alex Tudor’s 99 not out, Harold Larwood’s 98, Jack Russell’s 94, to offer entry to those who came within ten of the magic number, but such scores are not the nightwatchman’s purpose, merely a comet’s tail, rare and spectacular. The power of their ability to skew the perception of the job is evident in the case of Tudor, a cricketer of great talent whose default reference point in every mention of his career is that innings. He is the man who made 99 not out, just once, with all of its suggestions of non-fulfilment, of wasted promise. There is an argument that Tudor’s innings would be regarded differently had he made exactly the same score batting in his normal position. It’s the fact that it is by a nightwatchman that sticks it in the mind.
No, glory for the nightwatchman is double-edged, because it is not his primary function, or even close to it. Instead it is his lot to strap on the pads, tighten the thigh guard and the chin strap, carefully locate the box, and then rummage through the dressing-room for any other kind of available padding that the lower-order man might not always think to pack; an arm guard, perhaps, or a chest protector, before striding down the steps to the inevitable disappointment of a crowd wanting to see a big name further discomforted. Nathan Lyon walked out to a rapturous standing ovation, his face a picture of joy beneath his visor until he realised that the SCG thought he was Ricky Ponting. But the more usual noise goes one of two ways: ironic beery cheers or a low disillusioned hum combined with dutiful applause. This is what the crowd thinks of the nightwatchman.
Our man, though, might barely hear the crowd. He takes guard to face a team with confidence surging through it, his very presence serving them notice of the timorous state of their opponents. He knows that the batsman he is protecting doesn’t fancy it, and if an accomplished batsman feels that the chances of being dismissed quickly are higher than usual, then what chance does he, as an acknowledged lesser player, have? He knows that if he fails, that man will have to bat anyway, in even more parlous circumstances. And he knows that he cannot play with any freedom, cannot dispel those nerves with a full swing of the arms. The game has narrowed itself down to this: the cut strip, the constricting field, the pressing bowler. All around him is aggression, and yet he cannot meet like with like.
There is an old psychological experiment that consists of a single sentence: “Don’t think of an elephant.” Everyone reading it does. This is the mental realm of the nightwatchman, whose brief is similarly singular: “Don’t get out.” It’s a negative thought, a negative state that any sports mind-doctor would tell you to avoid, and yet it is unavoidable because it is true. Don’t get out. Don’t think of the elephant.
And there’s a further twist. Just as those people who yearn to own fast cars are exactly the people that shouldn’t be driving them, those temperamentally best suited to a job like nightwatchman, the extroverts, the happy-go-lucky, the glass-half-full merchants, are most likely to play a big shot to “relieve the pressure” (read “get that beery, end-of-the-day cheer from the crowd”). It is a job for the spiky, the introverted, the cussed, a job for the men who don’t want it. England’s most successful nightwatchman of recent times, Jimmy Anderson, who survived on 26 of 28 occasions, is proof of the character required. He has a highest Test score of 34, a highest first-class score of 37 not out, an average of 10. His repertoire of shots is limited, his demeanour at the crease stoic. He is quite clearly not a batsman, and furthermore, he will never approach those distant foothills of a bowling all-rounder. At the first opportunity, he handed the job over to someone else, feeling, apparently, that his seniority as a cricketer was being impinged upon. In all of these ways, Jimmy was a perfect nightwatchman.
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Perhaps the position persists because it is so equivocal, so unprovably right or wrong. One study, which looked at 113 instances, found that the collective nightwatchmen had a mean career average of 15 in their usual position, and an average of 15 as nightwatchmen too. The effect of a nightwatchman on subsequent partnerships is examined, as is its effect on the final score. But what the data cannot provide is an answer to what would have happened without one in those precise circumstances. The study is called The myth of the nightwatchman, a title intended to be conclusive but that instead carries more weight when read another way. Nightwatchmanship eludes statistical clarity because its truth is very simple: it works when it works.
The word itself is a beautiful and evocative one, redolent of safety. Someone to watch over us, to take away that angst and fear, just for a short time while it’s at its worst and as darkness draws near. A long career in professional cricket is in part an accrual of scar tissue, of mental wounds that must be constantly overcome. For batsmen it is the psychology of the game that is its real key, and for all of the notions that cricket is a team sport, each man stands at the crease alone. Perhaps the act of being a nightwatchman can be seen as a gift too.
John Arlott once said to Mike Brearley: “You know Mike, you’re the only one who realises it doesn’t matter.” All of us – players, coaches, followers, fans – are in the business of taking cricket seriously, and there’s a marvellous absurdity to that. The game does things to us. Here’s a story that might be the best nightwatchman yarn of them all. In a match against the touring New Zealanders, Nottinghamshire’s Kevin Saxelby dislocated his shoulder swinging at a wide. That is the nightwatchman, and that is cricket, in all of its mad glory.
Jon Hotten is the author of Muscle and The Years of the Locust, and writes the hugely popular blog theoldbatsman.blogspot.co.uk. He used to be an opener, but now bats much nearer the nightwatchman. Check him out @theoldbatsman.