Johnson column: You don’t see 11-hour batting marathons anymore in Test cricket

By Martin Johnson

Some of you will remember a Seventies television sitcom in which the title character, Reggie Perrin, opens a shop called Grot, selling items advertised in the window to be “guaranteed useless.” Stuff like pea-less whistles, salt and pepper cruets without holes, and tennis rackets without strings. To which, were you the scriptwriter for a modern-day remake, you could immediately add two tickets for the fifth day of a Test match.

The fifth day simply doesn’t happen any more, not unless there is rain (and often not even then) or one side is so dominant they take the modern path of not enforcing the follow-on. There was a time when every Test started with the draw odds-on at the bookies, but now it’s up there among the longer shots in the Ladbrokes window – alongside Elvis being discovered performing weekly gigs in a Buenos Aires nightclub, or the next lunar astronaut returning to earth with a chunk of green cheese.

Alastair Cook is about to retire from international cricket, and soon – like World War II Spitfire pilots – the last of  his kind will finally be gone. We’re talking here about batsmen who place a high price tag on their wickets, in an era when the human attention span has officially, according to the boffins, dipped below that of your average goldfish.

You don’t see innings any more like Michael Atherton’s near 11-hour marathon in Johannesburg in 1995, only made possible by another stubborn bugger at the other end in Jack Russell, or the last wicket heroics from Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar in Cardiff in 2009. If there is any remaining vestige of the old ethos, “if you can’t win, let’s at least try for a draw”, it isn’t immediately apparent.

My own theory is that it has a lot to do with funereal over rates. Today’s batsman looks up at the pavilion clock, works out that he’s been out there for threequarters of an hour, and sees 4 not out next to his name. So he thinks: “Better get a move on here,” and immediately gets out flashing at a wide one. Without realising that he’s only faced half a dozen deliveries.

Whatever the reason, the old art of getting your head down is a long forgotten one, and it was interesting to hear Paul Farbrace, England’s assistant coach, reveal that his message to his players before starting their second innings at the Ageas Bowl was: “Be patient.”

Quite why it took three and a half Test matches to come up with a piece of advice which belongs firmly in the bleedin’ obvious category is hard to say, but at least it proves that it’s not always poor technique that lets England’s batsmen down. Dodgy hearing clearly has a hitherto unsuspected role in the matter.

Jonny Bairstow’s patience level didn’t actually extend beyond taking guard. It was a grim enough stroke for a first ball in any event, never mind the first ball after lunch as well.

Then, with England needing to squeeze out every run they could from their last two wickets on the fourth morning, Stuart Broad gets out wafting at the first ball of the day. It almost (but sadly not quite) had the effect of rendering Geoffrey Boycott speechless.

I was listening to the Test on the radio, with England four down in their second innings, when the softly spoken TMS scorer Andrew Samson – a man so immersed in statistics he can even tell you Henry Blofeld’s pigeon-spotting average – came up with the information that 182 of England’s previous 188 batting partnerships, had been under three figures.  Which has now moved on to 188 from 194. Another statistic, which was easy enough to work out for myself, is that the number of fifth-day minutes in this series tots up to precisely one dozen. All of them at Trent Bridge. In which case the fifth-day catering sales for the series must amount to something like four pints, two meat pies, and a scotch egg.

This is not to say that the lost art of blocking is not, in some ways, to be celebrated. Gone forever are those first morning sessions watching Boycott and Edrich, or Simpson and Lawry, when you could confidently take the dog for a walk, or get the shopping in, without missing much more than a couple of singles and a leg bye. And celebrated though the longest innings (in terms of balls faced) was, who would remained conscious for all of Len Hutton’s 364 at the Oval in 1938, during which he faced 847 deliveries? Or the longest innings in terms of time, Hanif Mohammad’s 970 minutes for Pakistan in Bridgetown in 1958? That’s 16 and a quarter hours. The rough equivalent of flying from Heathrow to Singapore.

Marathon: Allan Donald appeals against Michael Atherton in a match England rescued a draw from in 1995

I wonder what Trevor Bailey would have made of modern Test cricket? No assistant coaches in his day, but the Barnacle, as he was nicknamed, never had to be told to be patient.

In Australia’s first ever TV Test, in Brisbane in 1958, he almost killed televised cricket forever by reaching his half century in a tick under six hours.

Personally speaking, I think I’d rather have the modern-day airy fairy stuff to the old style grafting. Imagine, for example, sitting through five days of Sri Lanka v India in Colombo in 1997.

India made 537-8 declared, whereupon Sanath Jayasuriya and Rohan Mahanama made 39 more than that on their own for the home team’s second wicket. At which point, with the total 615-1, Mahanama carelessly threw his wicket away for 225.

Sri Lanka totalled 952-6, the Indian spinner Rajesh Chauhan had figures of 78-8-276-1, and there was not time left for either side to have a second innings.

Remarkably, the most patient batsman on either side in this series has been Ben Stokes, whose two innings in the last Test yielded 53 runs off 189 balls.

In which case, given Ed Smith’s reputation for left-field selection, maybe we’ve already found the natural replacement for Cook.

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