Cricket for Americans: 25 July 2019: The Nightwatchman

Last night at Lord’s — after Ireland spent the entire day embarrassing a woeful and hungover England — one of cricket’s weird little things happened: the nightwatchman.

The gist of it is this: if a team has to come back out to bat at the very end of the day when the light is poor and the shadows long, they sometimes will send their worst batter out there, to keep from making one of their top order batsmen bat in tricky light and possibly losing a far more valuable wicket.

And that’s just what happened last night. England bowled out Ireland a few minutes before the hour, and so the hosts had to come back out and bat one over. Because they didn’t want to lose openers Roy or Burns before super important day two even started, they sent out number 11 Jack Leach to face the red hot Irish bowler Tim Murtagh — who had already taken five wickets on the day — as the sun set behind the terraces. Leach’s job was simple: don’t try to score runs, just survive and see out the day. And he did. He successfully negotiated six deliveries and got England back in the dressing room with all of their 10 wickets still intact.

The American in me thinks that the nightwatchman tradition is dumb. It’s the batsmen’s job to bat. And to send a bowler out there to be sacrificed after he bowled all afternoon while they sit in the dressing room is a little shameful on their part. And lots of cricket fans — even the non-American ones — agree with me. You job is to bat, you bat. No matter the light or the time of day. You bat. Do your job. If you can’t negotiate six deliveries without tossing your wicket away then maybe you shouldn’t be wearing the whites in the first place.

But, at the same, it works. Well, at least it worked last night for England, and then some. Leach got through the over and in the morning came out and scored 92 off 162 deliveries including 16 4s, barging England back into the game. To be fair, Leach is no stranger to the bat, and has scored almost 1,000 first class runs, but his highest ever test score was 16. So maybe England also got a little lucky — again — that they were playing Ireland. Sure, the Irish bowlers bowled beyond admirably yesterday — punching far above their weight — but if England’s opponent had been India or Australia, then yesterday’s little nightwatchman stunt might not have worked out so swimmingly.

It’s just another little bit of cricket nonsense, the nightwatchman. One of those traditions that probably served a purpose at some point but now is all but obsolete. But people still use it, despite the fact that as bowlers and batters become more and more specialized, bowlers become less and less competent with the bat, so you are risking more than ever losing a wicket before close of play and making a top order batsmen bat in bad light anyway. Or, the nightwatchman losing his wicket first thing in the morning when the bowlers are rested and the pitch is tricky, so you start your innings already one down after only a couple overs.

According to Cricinfo, there have been six centuries scored by nightwatchman over the years. Including two from Mark Boucher whose status as a nightwatchman is a little debatable. The last one was in 2006, Jason Gillespie for Australia against Bangladesh. His was also the only double century, as he racked up 201 runs for his team after being brought in as nothing more than a sacrificial lamb in what would be his final match in international cricket. Talk about leaving on a high note.

At the end of the day, it’s one of those cricket tactics that just doesn’t exist in other sports. I mean, can you think of anything similar in soccer or baseball or gridiron football? I sure can’t. Which makes it, I don’t know, kind of great and cool. Just one more thing that separates this lovely game from all the others — and Test cricket from the sport’s other formats. And so, in that spirit, I love the nightwatchman, and I hope it’s something that never disappears from the game.



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