LOL is Ishant Sharma’s middle name: The Ishant Sharma story

“LOL is Ishant Sharma’s middle name.”

Bangalore, 2007. India have made 626. Pakistan are 96 overs into their innings and every batsman has made a double-figure score. There have already been three hundreds and a double-hundred. A teen, more like a young boy, with more hair than any human needs and an extremely prominent Adam’s apple, comes on to bowl.

A ball from a good length jumps up and makes Faisal Iqbal’s forward defence look idiotic. It flies off the gloves to a deepish short leg. It is one of five wickets in the innings for a 19-year old bowling on the many remains of deceased seamers who went before him.

India had found their missing link.

“Ishant Sharma is God’s answer to BCCI’s wrongdoings.”

‘Why does Ishant Sharma keep getting picked?’ It’s one of the most asked questions to people who have just admitted they are cricket journalists. You cannot escape that when you have played over 50 Tests and average more than 35. The current Australian team might be number one, but mainstays and recent sensations Steve Smith, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson have been at times the most abused victims of their fans.

Indian fans, when they were taking a break from abusing Rohit Sharma, would whip the Ishant boy all over social media. Tall for nothing. Over-rated. Slow. Can’t keep his foot behind the line. Can’t move the ball away from right-handers. Falls apart under pressure. Google suggests Ishant-Sharma jokes as its third search suggestion.

It’s also not a shock to see why he is still around. He’s tall. He’s fast. He gets natural movement. He can reverse swing the ball. They don’t grow on trees in India, or really, anywhere. If he uses all these things right, he’s a match-winner. He’s also a match loser. Ishant isn’t as fast as Johnson, or as tall as Morne Morkel. On a bad day, he is a fast-medium bowler with a no-ball problem and average control. Potential is a powerful aphrodisiac.

“Behind every successful batsman there is a Kamran Akmal, but in front of them is Ishant Sharma.”

A typical good Ishant delivery is angled in at the right-hander. The good ones swing further in and carry above the stumps to the keeper with a bit of heat on it. Akmal missed one such delivery like this. And Ishant decided to tell him about it. Loudly.

The scene looks bad because Ishant is screaming over Akmal, who is about a foot and three inches of hair shorter. Not to mention sledging a guy with an ODI batting average of 26 is like picking on the kid who isn’t allowed to use scissors in class. Ishant has to be removed from the situation.

Against Australia, Ishant decided to sledge David Warner at the WACA during the innings where Warner swung and connected with India’s head. Warner came back with verbal aggression and they had to be separated. But not before Warner said, “You’re kidding yourself, you are a bad bowler”.

A short poor ball from Ishant is cut by Root. India are sure it is out. Ishant is more sure. He’s surer than sure. He stands a few feet from Root and discusses it with him. And discusses it. And discusses. Eventually the two have to be removed. Replays show Ishant may not have been right. Although I doubt any replay could have changed his mind.

It’s not even just small aggressive batsmen that Ishant likes. During a piece of glacier-like fielding from Zaheer Khan, Ishant used a term that suggested an incestuous relationship after watching the ageing seamer allow an extra run.

Ishant has the anger.

“There are good bowlers, and there are poor bowlers. Then there’s 500 feet of crap, and then there’s Ishant Sharma.”

Australia need 44 from 18.

47.1 A wide half-volley. Four.
47.2 A short ball. Six.
47.3 A straight half-volley. Six.
47.4 A short ball. Two.
47.5 A short ball. Six.

“47.6 I Sharma to Faulkner, SIX, SIX MORE, what on earth? Ishant Sharma had his critics before this game, there aren’t going to be many people backing him after this, short once more, another pull, right off the middle off the bat, and that sails into the crowd once more, crowd not sure whether to be gobsmacked by this hitting from Faulkner or be thrilled by this sensational turnaround, that’s Faulkner’s 50 as well”

Australia win with three balls to spare.

“Dear single guys, if a girl gives you as many chances as Dhoni has given Ishant Sharma, marry her.”

Ishant’s last Test started with him cutting down New Zealand’s top order. He bowled quick. The ball moved. And Ishant took 6 for 51. There were sexy short balls and tricky straight balls. It was lovely and New Zealand had no answer to it. It was the sort of performance that should have justified the selectors faith in him.

The next innings in the same game, Ishant bowled 45 overs, took no wickets and went for 164 runs. It doesn’t seem to matter how good or bad Ishant is, Ishant remains.

“Dhoni isn’t India’s greatest finisher, Ishant Sharma is.”

The 50th over at Trent Bridge started with a no-ball. Ishant bowls a lot of no balls. Ishant is known for no balls. Then Ishant bowled a fast, reverse-swinging ball that tailed in and smashed into Sam Robson’s pads. Ishant does bowl reverse-swinging balls that tail in and smash into pads. Ishant is known for reverse-swinging balls that tail in and smash into pads. Ishant aggressively sent off Robson. Ishant often does aggressive send-offs. Ishant is known for aggressive send-offs. Ishant then bowled a short, slow long-hop that Ian Bell smacked for four. Ishant bowls a lot of short, slow long-hops that get smacked for four. Ishant is known for short, slow long-hops that get smacked for four. Ishant bowls a ball drifting down leg side. Ishant bowls a lot of balls drifting down leg side. Ishant is known for drifting the ball down the leg side.

That was one over. That was Ishant’s career.

“It was Ishant Sharma’s stunning form that made MS Dhoni take up bowling”.

A highlight package of Ishant’s best work looks as good as anything. Balls flying off a length. Quick swinging balls. Fast short balls. The hair, the necklace, the stare, the aggression. This is a fast bowler; you can smell it through the screen.

Ishant’s best delivery is a short of a length ball that angles in, tails further in and bounces quite well to the keeper. It’s a sexy ball, but it’s not that likely to get you out. An edge will probably be an inside edge that flies past the keeper. His height means the ball goes over the stumps. It’s essentially a theatre ball for people to “oh” and “ah” about. In the end, it’s a tragedy delivery. It’s the unlucky Ishant ball.

Ishant was once clocked at 152kph, but his wrist doesn’t stay behind the ball like it did that summer. Sometimes his head falls away as well. If you can get the ball to reverse in, you should also have the attributes to conventionally swing the ball out. Somehow Ishant doesn’t. He’s flawed. And he’s a rhythm bowler, which is often code for – he can be good, or really rubbish.

“RT if you can bowl better than Ishant Sharma!”

Australians have a different view of Ishant. They saw the young kid on his first tour bowl very good, and on occasion, very quick. This is despite the fact he only averages 44 against Australia, has an average of 73 in Australia and only has a best of 3 for 115 in Australia. It’s because of how many times Ishant dismissed Ricky Ponting.

In 2008, Ishant took Ponting’s wicket five times in Tests. Five times. Ishant had the pace and bounce, and when combined with a bowler who naturally moved the ball in, it was something Ponting never did well against. Here was a teenager doing it. Over, and over, and over again.

Somehow this guy had made a master look like an awkward teen. They had switched places. It wasn’t just the wickets that he took, but how silly Ponting looked in them. His bat splayed weirdly. His balance leaving him. He was always late. He was always trying to survive. At the other end he would be Ponting, at Ishant’s end he was the soon-to-be-massacred bunny.

Ponting eventually overcame it, and was only ever dismissed twice more in Tests by Ishant. By then though, the bunny stuff had stuck. And so it should. How many bowlers in Ponting’s career dominated him for a minute, let alone a year?

If you couldn’t get excited with Ishant at that stage, you were really fighting against basic human instincts.

“Newton’s third law modified: For every N Srinivasan, there is an equal and opposite Ishant Sharma.”

In the tour game in Leicestershire before Trent Bridge, Ishant conceded 64 runs in nine overs. He took two wickets, but even his mother would find it hard to justify that spell. It was made worse by the fact that his team-mates never took any of the Leicestershire players for more than five an over.

Today, in his last seven overs, Ishant took five wickets for 27 runs. He did it with five short balls. He did it with pace. He did it with energy. He did it with passion. He did it with all his flaws. He did it.

He will forever be the bowler who bowled India to victory at Lord’s.

If you allow me to walk you through the third wall for a moment, you may notice that there are some “jokes” in quotations throughout this piece. When you google Ishant Sharma, ‘Ishant Sharma jokes’ is the third result. There are many, many, many websites with lists of these jokes. There is much history to make fun of. Little of it can be realistically defended.

Ishant’s age at the moment is 25. Ishant is much maligned. Ishant is unlucky. Ishant is a bad bowler. Ishant is a 25-year old Indian quick who just took 7 for 74 at Lord’s to win a Test.

Today the joke was on England.

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Bhuvi from the badlands

England had one last chance to win at Trent Bridge. India were 220 in front, seven wickets down, with still more than 40 overs left in the day. The new ball was 13 deliveries old and had just claimed Ravindra Jadeja. The match had stumbled on it’s way to a draw and England knew this was their last chance of winning. Their bowlers put in one last effort. Their sound went from mute to 11. Every single delivery was ooheed, aahed, moaned and groaned. Joe Root found a reason to be as close to the wicket as possible, clapping and yapping, right in the ear of the young number nine.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar seemed to barely notice. He batted the same way right through and finished unbeaten on 63.

Allan Donald once said of Bhuvneshwar: “He is a very quiet guy, does what he needs to do.”

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Sachin Tendulkar’s record against debutants in Test cricket might lead you to think he underestimates young players. It is probably not true, his record is mostly like that because he has faced more debutants than other cricketers. But it is a feeling that some had. When Bhuvneshwar bowled to him, it was not his first class debut, it was his 13th game. But he did not have an IPL team. He was not an Indian age-group cricketer. He did not come from a big school, club, academy or city. There was no hype or marketing deals, he was just a swing bowler with a tidy action.

Tendulkar may not have underestimated him. But he was dismissed by him. For his first ever Ranji trophy duck.

Others have underestimated him. In fact, his parents did. It was his sister who suggested he be pushed towards cricket. Even his coach, the metronomic Venkatesh Prasad thought he would be an ideal third bowler for India. In the first Test a five-wicket haul and matching 50s was not enough for him to be Man of the Match. He is at his third IPL team. Yet somehow this overlooked, underestimated player is India’s most important this series.

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219 for 6 was the score in the 2012-13 Duleep Trophy semi final when Bhuvneshwar came in. North Zone had scored 451 in the first innings. For Central Zone to make the final, they needed to score 233 more runs in that innings, as an outright win looked unlikely. Mohammad Kaif had just departed for 63, the top score so far that innings. Mahesh Rawat put on a small partnership with Bhuvneshwar, before departing for 71. All North Zone needed were three wickets and all Central Zone needed was 201 runs. The invitations to the final were all but written.

Bhuvneshwar rewrote them. He shielded the tail. Batted resolutely. Farmed the strike. Scored at a sensible pace. On 99, with his team still behind, he refused singles that would have taken him to his maiden first-class hundred, because they were not the right thing for the team. Bhuvneshwar was eventually dismissed for 128. But only after a tenth-wicket partnership of 127. It earned a lead of 18 runs. And his Central Zone went to the final.

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Bhuvneshwar is straight. Exceptionally straight. His bat, his front arm, his strokes, his wrist, his crease position and his posture. Straight. Probably the only thing that is not straight is the the ball once it comes out of his hand. He has the magic wrist. The sort of wrist position that old bowlers drool over when leaning on bars because their knees can no longer hold them up.

It is the wrist that has got him there. Asian batsmen get their wrists festishized by cricket writers the world over, but Bhuvneshwar’s wrist is not wristy, it is swingy. If he did not have the magic wrist he would not be playing. He does not have any height. He has very little pace. He is not a reverse swing merchant. Since uncovered pitches disappeared, the medium-fast bowlers have become rarer and rarer to find, like the seam of a Kookaburra after 35 overs.

To be a regular international bowler these days at Bhuvneshwar’s pace, you need to be something special. Just to make it, you need to be. All the academies in all the lands are not looking for the next canny seam bowler, they are looking for height and pace. Movement is an afterthought, and by the way they think, can be taught to any lumbering monster with a fast arm.

But every now and then, a slower bowler crawls up through the broken bodies of the wannabe 90mph gang and shows the way. Mohammad Asif was one. Stuart Clark was another. And then there was Praveen Kumar.

We might never see Praveen Kumar again. Asif was the surgeon. Clark the slippery lawyer. Praveen was the stoner philosopher. The ball wobbled hypnotically. Batsmen were left wondering which way it would finally dart off. And then his seam position was so perfect, so exact, so romantic, that he also took a bit of seam as well. In six angry beautiful Test matches, Praveen averaged 25 with the ball.

Tragically Praveen was not meant for Test cricket, at least, right now. He is an artist, a poet, a self saboteur. And he disappeared. But he had a bowling partner that was like a little brother. Bhuvneshwar Kumar. They played together at Central Zone, UP and at Victoria Park club in Meerut.

Kumar the junior saw Kumar the senior all the time. It was like he had an inbuilt mentor and hero. A swing bowling allrounder who did not bowl quick enough to excite selectors. Kumar the junior also went one better than his hero, because he was a more stable person. He did not need to worry about rage to fire him up. He did not fly off unpredictably. He was the Kumar you could take home to mum, or plan the next few years around. The white knight to Praveen’s dark knight.

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Christmas Day , 2012: a slight swing bowler plays in a T20 match against arch enemies Pakistan. His first over has a wicket. He takes three more. In his four overs he only concedes nine runs, yet India still lose.

England are 73 for 2 chasing 285 at Kochi. Kevin Pietersen is on a-run-a-ball 42. Bhuvneshwar brings back a ball and bowls him. Two balls later, Bhuvneshwar moves one away from Eoin Morgan who is edging behind. He had already taken Alastair Cook’s wicket. He finishes with 3 for 29 and England lose massively.

Chris Gayle made the world go crazy. 175 off 66 balls. Songs were written about it before he finished it. Bowlers were used as dental floss. But in his 175, only 11 runs were scored off Bhuvneshwar. In that match, while he had to run through the remains of his bowling unit, he finished with 23 runs off his 24 balls.

In the Champions Trophy, Bhuvneshwar never bowled a full ten overs. He only got three overs in the final. But he also went at only 3.90 an over against the world’s most powerful batting line-ups.

The Port of Spain’s rain shortened one of the many ODIs between India and Sri Lanka. India made 119 for 3 in their allocated 29 overs. Bhuvneshwar took the new ball. He took the first four wickets. He took 4 for 8. Sri Lanka lost.

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Duncan Fletcher was a man who loved his 90mph bowlers as much as anyone. He also likes height. But Bhuvneshwar does tick his other two boxes. Movement both ways and being able to strengthen the tail with the bat. There are simply no bowlers in India who tick all the boxes, or many of the boxes. But what India has produced consistently throughout their history is swing bowlers.

In Perth, 2008, Australia took in pace, India took in swing. Madan Lal took three wickets in the 1983 World Cup final: Haynes, Richards and Gomes. Adelaide 2003 had a six-wicket haul for Ajit Agarkar. Sreesanth took another six at the Wanderers. And Zaheer Khan‘s nine-wicket haul at Trent Bridge in 2007 won a Test. While the world spent over a decade kissing the feat of India’s many batting Gods, it was Zaheer many heroic spells on flat pitches that took India to No. 1.

Bhuvneshwar is just in a long line of swing bowlers. But of recent times, many of them have been tampered with or discarded. RP Singh, Ashish Nehra and Irfan Pathan will all retire having never got the most out of themselves or won nearly enough Tests for their country. Some have been told to bowl faster. Some have been told to change the way they are.

India is a country that creates swing bowlers, and often destroys swing bowlers.

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Bhuvneshwar’s first Test was against Australia. He opened up with the first four overs. Then didn’t bowl again for 60 overs. He bowled 13 overs for the entire match, all in the first innings. MS Dhoni, it seemed, had underrated him.

But when Bhuvneshwar came to the wicket in the first innings, India were only 26 ahead. He was batting at No. 10. He would make a composed 38. He would use a straight bat. He would be sensible. He would let the senior partner make the decisions. He would let the senior partner make a double century. He would let the senior partner end Australia’s hopes. He would outlast the senior partner.

And at some stage during that 140-run partnership, the senior partner, his captain, must have looked at the other end at his new ball specialist from the badlands and thought, this is a man I can rely on.

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The first ball Bhuvneshwar faced came flying back in at him. India’s best batsman this tour had just been outfoxed by James Anderson. The lead was barely 200. And England had the new ball that was 16 balls old. Bhuvneshwar played it with a straight bat. There was no discernible proof to say he was not the next Indian batting sensation, so technically perfect was his defence. His back foot drive off Anderson was just as correct. In fact, through the off side he was a batsman, forget where he was in the order.

It was not until he got to 50 that he looked like he was slogging a bit more. But, you are at Lord’s, you are in form, why not smack Ben Stokes back over his head to bring up your first fifty? He had taken the lead from just over 200 to just over 300. Jadeja had managed to sticky tape his technique together and trust himself to counterattack. But it looked like his innings could end any ball. Bhuvneshwar’s looked like it would end when his job was done.

In this series he has taken a five-for, a six-for, made an important 36 and three fifties. Almost every single time India have needed him, he has been there. He is slow and unsexy. He is not tall, or a natural leader. And he is no one’s first pick.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar just does what he needs to do.

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the green monster

There was a sense of fear in some Indian fans on the opening day at Lord’s. Green pitch fear. Terror of the lush grass. One told his friend that India would be bowled out by lunch. Another said that only Cheteshwar Pujara could survive such a wicket, the rest were front runners or hopeless. They can’t play the swinging ball, let alone the seaming ball said a third friend.

Yet, India made it to stumps. They scored their highest ever Lord’s total when batting first. The ball swung, and it occasionally seamed, but it was not a minefield. There were no booby traps hidden by lushness. It was a Test match wicket with a slightly longer covering of grass.

There is a cricket pitch in every cricket competition in the world that is green. The opposition turn up, they see the colour, they bowl first, the home side smash them everywhere. Week after week this happens at this ground. Because we as cricketers are bred to see green and assume green means bowl. Carnage, collapse and calamity.

Even Wikipedia agrees: “A natural pitch with grass longer or more moist than usual is described as a green pitch. This favours the bowler over the batsman as the ball can be made to behave erratically on longer or wet grass.” See, it is written on digital stone tablets. It must be true.

But we do not really know anything about pitches. Sure, the horticultural of us might be able to talk about the mix of seeds used. Maybe even the grading or watering requirements. But even that is not about pitches; it is about advanced gardening.

Mark Butcher, the former England batsman, says by the end of his career he would talk to the groundsman about the pitch just so he had something to laugh about in the upcoming days. A groundsman can tell you what a pitch has had done to it. It cannot tell you what an offcutter might do late on day four after the covers have been on and off and once really hot session has baked it.

Other than facing Mitchell Johnson or bowling to Hashim Amla, there are few worse jobs in cricket than standing in front of a TV camera and predicting what the wicket will do. It is like cricket weather reporting, but only using your eye and past experience. Isa Guha is currently doing it for Star Sports. She just stands in front of the pitch doing her best Tony Greig impression and guesses. That is what the job is. That is how most people in cricket do it. It is as scientific as the Spirit of Cricket. Guha will use her cricket experience to guess, and be as wrong as any great that has done it before her .

On November 7, 2002 Nasser Hussain made a mistake at the Gabba. But it was not a spontaneous mistake. Hussain had seen the ball nipping about in the nets. Thought his bowlers could use that well. Saw that Sheffield Shield sides had sent teams in. Felt the humid Queensland conditions. And then he decided to send Australia in to bat.

Hussain was not wet behind the ears. He had played all around the world. He had captained England 37 times before that Test. He was an experienced professional international cricketer, but even he admits he was “searching for something that wasn’t there” and using “guesswork”. At the close on day one Australia were 364 for 2. If someone with that much help and information can make such a bad call what hope do we all have on our couches.

Even when they are not green monsters, they are living breathing changing things. Or sometimes dead and decaying. And on the odd occasion they are kept in formaldehyde or cryogenically frozen. But mostly they change and grow depending on where the bowlers bowl, where they follow through, weather conditions, and everything else. And once you have worked them out, they have often changed again.

The perfect pitch could be one that has movement on day one, but not so much that you cannot bat. On days two and three it should flatten out, but not so much that bowlers want to self-harm. By day four it should be an even contest as the ball starts to misbehave a bit. On day five it should get a bit messy for batsmen as the pitch disintegrates.

That would be the utopian cricket pitch. But on day one people would complain about the movement. For days two and three they would complain about how flat the pitch is. By day four some would be complaining about how spicy the pitch is, and some how boring the match is. And on day five people would complain unless it gets close.

At Cape Town nine years after Hussain’s mistake there was a Test with an odd pitch. Australia batted out the first day on a helpful surface thanks to an as good a Michael Clarke hundred as any he had made before. The next day 23 wickets were taken. The day after only one was taken. On day one the pitch was seen as fair. On day two the pitch was seen as a minefield unfit for humans. On day three it was as flat as a pancake.

Mark Nicholas believes that despite bland batting pitches we still get results as modern cricketers try to move the game on and make mistakes. Considering only last week the pitch was doing everything it could not to give a result, and one small collapse from India almost forced one, you can see what he means.

Here the pitch did very little. For all the colour and fear, how many wickets have seamed so much that they were unplayable? Perhaps Stuart Binny’s wicket, but that should not have been out anyway. Maybe Pujara, as there can be little other reason for him missing a fairly straight ball. Ian Bell’s ball certainly behaved oddly, although it was the pace and bounce that took him by surprise as much as anything. That is three out of 13 wickets to seam bowlers. That is not even a monster from a kid’s film.

With only 16 wickets in two whole days of cricket, and rain to come, people have already started to suggest this could be a draw. It is a monster, it is a road, and it is a fair cricket pitch. The only certainty is that no matter what the pitch does, how it changes, what it produces, someone, somewhere will suggest Ishant Sharma was unlucky on it.

Jimmy Anderson and the eleven legends

Peekay - a number 11

Peekay – a number 11

I am the son of a No. 11. My dad had no real skill as a batsman. He had patience and a decent technique, if the ball was full on off stump. He pretty much put his foot on the same spot every single delivery, almost oblivious to where the actual ball was delivered.

My dad had no cricket gear other than his red-stained whites, his boots, a ratty terry toweling hat and his box. “Batsmen have gear, bowlers have boots” he told me once. While in beard and belly he could resemble Mike Gatting, one look at him told everyone at the ground that nine wickets been taken, and the tenth would soon follow. You could often pour a beer as he walked out and it would still be ice cold when he returned. He was that guy. Last man. Jack. The bunny and ferret.

But he wore it proudly. He worked in the nets. He fought in the middle; every time with the thought that you don’t have the talent to go in and really bat, but your wicket will end your team’s innings, match or series. I don’t know how he did it every week.

Mike Atherton was left with a hard decision. Sky needed the interview from the amazing finish to the match at Headingley Test. James Anderson had been made Man of the Series, and as such, was required to speak to Sky. Atherton could clearly see the pain on Anderson, and the more he questioned, the more Anderson got upset. Soon it was tears. Atherton had to finish the interview.

Anderson had faced 55 balls in 81 minutes and only needed to face one more afterwards to save the series for his country. He was the hero right up until that ball. The man who failed to handle one short ball. The man who gave the catch. The man who lost the match. He was the last man in, and out.

All three Tests in England this year have had No. 11s do magical things. Nuwan Pradeep survived five balls from Stuart Broad, somehow, to draw the Lord’s Test. Anderson very nearly survived his. And Mohammed Shami’s unbeaten 51 at Trent Bridge made his 3.33 average look silly. Even in the West Indies just a few weeks back, Shane Shillingford made 53 off 29 balls in the West Indies.

But it’s not the summer of the No. 11, it’s the era of them. Ashton Agar’s 98 will be the single thing that defines him right up until he cures cancer. Tino Best was asked to mind the windows by England once, and then smashed them at Edgbaston. Zaheer Khan helped Our Sachin score his highest ever score in Test cricket. That, along with Anderson on day four, are the four highest scores ever made by No. 11.

Even Trent Boult has a fifty. They are giving them away with happy meals. Glenn McGrath’s slog sweep for six was an amazing moment in Test cricket history at the time. Now it’s just another No. 11 who eventually had that one magic day. Like when Monty Panesar saved that Test. And the other one. Graham Onions saved two Tests in the same series from No. 11 – against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. Nathan Lyon couldn’t be dismissed in the Ashes and before that top scored in an innings with a magnificent 14.

There are few players who can score a magnificent 14. No. 11s can.

Muttiah Muralitharan was perhaps one of the last great old school No. 11s. A man who regarded batting as a problem for other people. He bowled 44,039 deliveries in Test cricket, why would he want to be involved anymore? He wanted to slog, laugh, and go out and bowl.

It’s not the modern thinking. We are now in the era of hard working No. 11s who spend a great deal of time on their batting. Nathan Lyon went from a ferret to a bunny with some hard work. Lasith Malinga got better over the years. Morne Morkel really does try to bat well. Boult is a huge upgrade from Chris Martin. Part of this is due to the professionalism of the game. Unless you are Murali, you can’t really afford to throw the bat around for fun.

Then there is the equipment. Once the gentleman’s agreement between bowlers not hurling bouncers fell down, bowlers were fair game for short balls. That led to No. 11 batsmen backing away and swinging, not for fun, but for survival. Even in the 1990s, that was still a common thing for a No. 11 to do. But it changed. Coaches and captains wanted more of their tail. Glenn McGrath was challenged to go from probably one of the worst tailenders in history to someone who could provide. He did. He stood in line. He took balls on the body. At times he looked like recently caught fish flapping on a wharf. But he did get better. And so did everyone else.

No. 11s are never going to be good at facing fast bowlers, or even top quality spin. But they now get in line more often, watch the ball and don’t do anything silly. There is still not enough equipment to protect them, but the days of playing balls from square leg and smiling on your way off have seemingly left us.

Arshad Khan played nine tests. In one of them he made nine runs; from 184 minutes. Bhagwath Chandrasekhar had to overcome a withered arm to score his top score of 22. It was Lindsay Kline who turned the ball into the leg side to set up the run out for the first tied Test and Lindsay Kline who made 15 not out to draw another match for Australia. Jeff Thomson put on 70 with Allan Border over two days to fall all of four runs short of victory. Chuck Fleetwood-Smith’s uncharacteristic 5 not out helped Stan McCabe to his only double hundred. Geoff Allot’s 101 minute duck helped New Zealand draw a Test. The then-world record holder for ducks Danny Morrison batted for 166 minutes to draw a Test for New Zealand against England. He never played another Test.

Mike Whitney had to face an entire over of Sir Richard Hadlee to save a Test. It was a like a seven-year-old school kid holding a stick surviving an Invasion from the US Army. There are few sports, or endeavors in general, as silly as No. 11s batting – sending out the player in your side who is least qualified to do his job against, in Whitney’s case, one of the single greatest human beings to ever bowl a cricket ball. It’s made for humiliation and light relief.

These are not men made for batting. Ishant Sharma once went out on the field with two of the same gloves, in what was a cunning tactical move, or just a stupid thing that No. 11s do. Bob Willis once forgot to take out his bat.

James Anderson is a big player in the age of the No. 11 © Getty Images
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Since George Hirst said, probably apocryphally, “we’ll get them in singles, Wilfred” to the No. 11 Rhodes, there have been 11 other occasions of No. 11s winning a Test with the bat. Every single one of these men are heroes worthy of every single honour and prize their countries can afford them; they should be given all the beer and skittles in all the lands. Courtney Walsh has done it twice.

When Walsh retired, he did so with the most ducks of any human being in Test history. But those innings of 0 not out and 4 not out are very special. It’s only at No. 11 where you can offer so much by doing so little.

To thank Jimmy Anderson for his amazing effort at Headingley in trying to save the match, he was given a pitch at Trent Bridge so brutally unfriendly that had it leapt up and punched him, the only surprise would have been that it leapt up. Alastair Cook used Anderson on it for 38 overs. When he finally came out to bat, his team were 159 runs behind. Had he got out then, he would have had one day off after bowling 38 overs.

Instead Jimmy stayed in. He didn’t like the short ball, but he knew this wasn’t Mitchel Johnson and the WACA. He was protected by Joe Root, but not always that maternally. He gave chances, but wasn’t any more lucky than most batsmen on this surface. He just batted. Maybe he batted just for his team. Maybe he batted just so he didn’t have to bowl again. But he scored the third-highest innings a man in his position has scored in over 2000 Test matches. His highest score was made. His first fifty was scored. The world record partnership was broken. And he became only the third man ever to know how the 80s feels like in a Test match at No 11.

Then he drove at a wide ball. The catch was taken. Anderson turned and started to leave the ground with his shoulders slumped. Then he remembered his real job and he jogged off. He had more work to do. His 81 was hurriedly given a standing ovation. His partner in the world record 198 stand was well behind him, Anderson left too quickly for them to be appreciated together. Anderson raised has bat to shoulder height only once just as he hit the Trent Bridge pavilion steps.

Anderson’s last two innings have been two of the greatest knocks by a No. 11 in the history of cricket. He was rewarded by losing a Test series on one and having to bowl ten minutes later on the other.

Anderson’s eighth ball of the Indian second innings was edged, Prior missed it. Anderson walked back to his mark again.

On December 24, 1953 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, South Africa were 259 for 8 at the close of play against New Zealand. The next day, the players had a rest and a lovely Christmas lunch. But there was a massive mud slide at Tangiwai. It took out a bridge. A train went through and couldn’t stop before slamming into the Whangaehu River.

151 people died, including the fiancée of New Zealand seamer Bob Blair. On December 26, play resumed. Blair stayed back at his hotel to grieve. The flags were at half-mast as South Africa made 271.

New Zealand’s innings started terribly, and it got worse as the day went on. Only the legendary Bert Sutcliffe could handle the ferocious Neil Adcock and the inform David Ironside. But he was sent to hospital after a brutal bouncer to the head. Sutcliffe came back out to bat, his head covered in a bandage. With only the tail left, he went past the follow-on. Eventually, at 154, the ninth wicket is taken, and both teams start to walk off the field.

But there is a No. 11 batsman. Bob Blair walks out. Sutcliffe puts his arm around him. The crowd applaud Blair’s act. In the next ten minutes they score 33, mostly in sixes. Sutcliffe hits many of them. Blair hits one of them.

It is one of the greatest moments in cricket history, and all that happened is a No. 11 walked out to bat.

My dad made two 47s batting at No. 11. And one day, while I was old enough to understand what was happening, he hit two sixes over midwicket. That is the only positive memory I have of watching my dad bat.

Anderson’s innings was another piece of history for cricket’s most comical and undervalued batting position.

Every No. 11 needs that one great moment. That amazing draw, a nerve-killing win, the best comical dismissal, a six off a fast bowler, a nagging never-ending partnership, a proper score or that time they came out when they really shouldn’t have. They deserve it for having to suffer the many embarrassments of batting where they bat: the bad decisions from grumpy umpires moving the game forward; the confusion at not understanding which way the ball is spinning; trying to face a ball that is bowled at a speed quicker than you can see.

Until you know what it is like to walk out on the field as a No. 11, with the opposition sniggering, and your team preparing to take the field behind you, it’s impossible to know what batting at No. 11 is really like. It takes a special person to bat last.

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