So the sun is shining and all the windows are open. A game of cricket glows from the TV screen as I settle down with a cool beer. Oops, both openers have gone cheaply but we’ve still got the middle order; which slowly begins to crumble, and before you know it the all-rounder is about to be joined by the wicket-keeper.
The last two recognised batsman with 5 wickets down would soon expose the tail, a mythical beast that never seemed to wag properly – unless there was a batsman who could double up as wicket-keeper and allow for an extra batsman. Such luxuries were rare and if available never quite matched a specialist in that position.
The next wicket to fall would therefore introduce us to the lower order; a twilight world comprised of bowlers with ostensibly a simple brief; stay in, and if there is a recognised batsman at the other end, make sure he gets strike. But has the tail ender now become anachronistic in the modern game; and do we tacitly assume there is batting all the way down the order?
They had a transient, almost comical persona and secretly dreamed of declaration before the pads became necessary. One player immedietly springs to mind: Phil Tufnell, cricket’s equivalent to Gareth Southgate in a penalty shoot-out. A reluctant batsman and classic number 11 Tuffers was nicknamed The Cat, not for his lightening quick reflexes but fondness for sleeping.
Two Sugars also enjoyed a ciggie and so ideally suited to the more sedate art of spin bowling. His jovial manner actually concealed a very capable bowler who played in 42 tests over an eleven year period. However, a batting average of 5.10 is pretty sick even for a number 11. Of course it wasn’t his job to score runs but was there a pathological fear of taking the crease. Moreover, how much was cultivated to build the image of lovable underdog so cherished by the British public? His highest test score of 22 shows he could when the mood took him; were it not for that score his average would have been even lower.
As a batsman Devon Malcolm was fashioned from the same mould as Tuffers. One of the fastest bowlers to play for England, Malcolm had a chaotic and frantic style at the wicket. His batting average over 40 test appearances was only marginally better than Tuffers at 6.05. Perhaps surprising and a general point of curiosity was Malcolm’s inability to deal with fellow pace bowlers? Tuffers and Malcolm were typical tail enders but as always there are exceptions to the rule. The much missed Bob Willis had a highly credible batting average of 11.50; and depending on the brief could always be relied upon to merrily swing the bat. A short and explosive innings would often produce an entertaining boundary or two.
The late Graham Dilley was a particularly effective lower order batsman who scored two half centuries for England. This included a memorable 56 in a stand of 117 with Ian Botham in that Ashes match against Australia. Alex Tudor entered the history books in 1999 during the first test against New Zealand. Nasser Hussain was dismissed for 44 and Tudor elected nightwatchman at 174-3. Tudor went onto to score an unbeaten 99 in a 7 wicket victory. Graham Thorpe was rightly castigated for denying his Surrey teammate a richly deserved century.
However, the ultimate exceptions were the iconic West Indies test squad of the early 1980s. It contained lower order batsmen who were quasi all-rounders. Michael Holding scored six half centuries including an amazing 73 while Andy Roberts averaged almost 15 at test level. Malcolm Marshall scored ten half centuries and a monstrous 92. It was thought Joel Garner enjoyed batting more than bowling and recorded a top test score of 60. They seemed years ahead of their time; a uniquely talented group of players all of whom could bat and bowl. It was the template to which all sides aspired as bowlers were required to contribute more than just their specialised function.
At the turn of the 21st Century times were changing for the lower order. In July 2001, a stand of 103 for the 10th wicket was recorded by Alec Stewart and Andy Caddick in the first test against Australia. Number 11 Caddick scored an excellent 49 but couldn’t prevent an innings defeat for England. The feat has been achieved on eleven occasions since then, and is no longer a scarcity as sides lean on tail enders with greater confidence and guile.
Ashton Agar was a fresh faced all-rounder when selected by Australia for the first Ashes test at Trent Bridge in 2013. The nineteen-year-old was their youngest test player since 1928 and came in at number 11 with Australia floundering on 117-9. In partnership with Phil Hughes they compiled a then record 10th wicket stand of 163. Agar scored a magnificent 98 from 101 balls in the most impactful of debuts.
Amazingly, Agar and Hughes’ record only stood for a year. It was again at Trent Bridge that an England pair took over the mantle. Joe Root and Jimmy Anderson came together with England at 298-9, still 159 runs behind India’s first innings total of 457. A record breaking stand of 198 left Anderson on 81 and Root unbeaten on 154. A draw was salvaged and further proof served of how the lower order has changed over the years.
There now seems greater balance where the dividing line between specialist batsman and bowler is more flexible. Occasionally bowlers gain greater recognition as a batsman. The latest badge of distinction must surely belong to Somerset spinner Jack Leach who made his test debut against New Zealand in 2018.
However, Leachy’s finest hour came in the inaugural test against Ireland at Lords the following year. England was skittled out for 85 in their first innings, which felt a low score at T20 let alone a test match. Ireland held a lead of 122 as England commenced their second innings. Leach entered the fray as nightwatchman with England on 26-1. A tremendous knock of 92 eventually helped his team to a 143 run victory.
It may have only been test new boys Ireland but he saved England’s blushes when they were clearly in trouble. The supreme irony is that Leach only bowled three overs with figures of 0-26. For a specialist bowler his true value, at least on this occasion was as a batsman. He performed similar heroics in the third Ashes test and shared a partnership of 76 with Ben Stokes. He only contributed 1 run but helped secure victory by one wicket, and was described as arguably the greatest one not out in the history of the game. Leach is now a model tail ender; he covers the top order and keeps the innings alive when needed.
The bowling specialism has a curious function within the game’s tactical structure. If a frontline batsman can’t bowl it wouldn’t be an issue, if anything it would be viewed as a bonus if he could; however, a bowler inept with the bat would be looked upon as a luxury at best or a liability at worst. Just as well bowlers are more comfortable with the bat these days?