TIME MACHINE CRICKET

By Bill Ricquier - August 2, 2019

Come on everyone! It’s England v Ireland at Lord’s! And we’re going. Back to the nineteenth century!

It really did seem like that in this extraordinary one-off Test match, Ireland’s third, and their first at the home of cricket. England, having won the toss, was bowled out for 85 before lunch on the first day. Forty-eight hours later, Ireland, chasing a seemingly gettable 182 for victory, was bowled out for 38.

Middlesex veteran Tim Murtagh, vastly experienced, especially at Lord’s, took five for 13 on the first morning, using the conditions perfectly. Two days later it was the turn of Chris Woakes (six for 17) and Stuart Broad (four for 19)whose superb fast-medium bowling was simply too much for the Irish. The four-day match was done and dusted barely two hours into the third. The bowling figures are reminiscent of George Lohmann or the “Demon Spofforth from yesteryear.

The crowds were good, as they always are at Lord’s, and nobody could have complained about the entertainment on offer. There were two completed innings, and one over of the third, on the first day. On the second there was an entertaining 72 from one of England’s World Cup heroes Jason Roy, and an almost surreal 92 from nightwatchman Jack Leach. To round it off there was the always fascinating, and increasingly familiar, spectacle of an England collapse. And then, on Friday morning, poor Ireland recorded the lowest score ever made at Lord’s, and the seventh-lowest Test innings of all time. It really was like England v Australia or South Africa in the
1890s. (England v Australia at The Ova, 1896: England 145 (H Trumble 6 -59) and 84 (Trumble 6-30), Australia 119 ( J T Hearne 6-41)and 44 ( R Peel 6-23, Hearne 4-19).

Ireland will be bitterly disappointed but their performance was admirable until the third morning when conditions really did conspire against them, with low cloud, the lights on and intermittent rain.

England will feel hugely relieved to have won. Woakes and Broad got them out of a hole and bowled much better on the third morning than they had done in Ireland’s first innings. But England’s batting was lamentable throughout, except during the stand of 145 between Leach and Roy on the second day.

The collapse to Murtagh on the first morning was grim enough – they lurched from 36 for one to 43 for seven – but not exactly inexplicable. It was probably a good toss to lose and Murtagh, innocuous enough to look at, is a master of those conditions. The second innings was worse really. When Roy was out the score was 171 for two; by close of play, it was 303 for nine. At
one point they lost four for 23.

Roy played a fine innings second time round but support from the top and middle order were woeful. Rory Burns, Jonny Bairstow, and Moeen Ali scored 23 runs between them in the match. Joe Root was just as disappointing. It is getting to the stage where it is difficult to put him in quite the same league as Kane Williamson and Virat Kholi (and, who knows, maybe Steve Smith). Hopefully, this is just a phase: Root’s overall record shows he is a world-class player. But the unique challenges of being captain of England’s Test team are taking their toll.

What made the second innings capitulation worse was that it apparently squandered the position built by Roy and Leach. It was, naturally, Leach’s innings that really demands attention because he entered the match as England’s unchallenged number 11 and has a first-class average of ten.

When Ireland was bowled out for 207 there was time left for just one over. This is always an unenviable time for opening batsmen but they tend to just get on with it.

In red-ball cricket it happens quite frequently that an innings break occurs just before an interval, so openers are used to these awkward moments. It’s a bit different perhaps when that interval is the close of play, as opposed to lunch or tea. That is suggested by the time-honored nomenclature of the night-watchman. You would never see a night-watchman coming in to face the last three overs before tea.

The glossary in the magnificent Barclay’s World of Cricket (general editor E W Swanton, 2nd ed. 1980) “night-watchman“is defined thus:” a lower-order batsman sent in late in the evening, to tide over the remaining time and so prevent the possible loss of a better player.”

Night-watchmen are used quite frequently in Test cricket. It is by no means the case that the batting side is in difficulty in the game when a night-watchman goes out. They might be cruising at, say, 300 for two when a wicket is lost with three overs to go. A night-watchman might emerge from the pavilion. This would be regarded as a very negative approach to the
game but it illustrates an important point about the “sending out” of a night-watchman. It is an essentially selfish act on the part of the “better player”.

Night-watchmen rarely seem to open, however. Maybe it’s because they are used to going in for short periods of time; maybe openers are just different; certainly, Michael Atherton, a fine opening batsman himself, made it clear that he would never have asked a night-watchman to open for him.

So, generally, there was some consternation when it was Leach and Burns who came out to face that last over.

None of us know what goes on in the dressing-room. Maybe it was Root’s decision. Maybe it was collective; who knows, maybe they took a vote. But the conventional thing would be for it to have been Roy’s decision. Leach’s job was in that sense to protect Roy. But once out there it was to protect Burns. It would have been strange indeed if the first thing he had done was to take a single. (Why not send out two night-watchmen to open the innings?) Although night-watchmen apparently never open, this was, bizarrely, the second time Leach has done it in his five-match career.

In the sense that Roy plays so little red-ball cricket and cannot be used to going in for such a short period of time, his decision – if it was his decision – is understandable. Still… In pre-match interviews, Root said, inevitably, that he wanted Roy to “express himself”. Whether that included asking Leach to go and face the 38- year old Murtagh – admittedly with tail well and truly rampant – is not clear.

The fact is, of course, that it worked. Roy made runs and Leach was a revelation. Quite apart from making more than his entire team in their first innings and Ireland in their second, he played a real Test match innings, unlike pretty well everyone else in his team.

“Tide over the remaining time.” That’s the main job of course. One over is really very short. Still, it might have been long enough. Everyone’s favorite night-watchman story concerns Robin Marlar, the former Cambridge University and Sussex off-spinner and captain, later cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times.

Marlar went in as night-watchman in a county match. His innings lasted three balls; he was stumped for twelve.

By Bill Ricquier

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