England’s failure in the 2019 Ashes was due partially to the immovable object that was Steve Smith, but equally to the calamity that was its own top order, who had lost a few matches before the Ashes and nearly embarrassed them very badly against Ireland. The problem at root (with the exception of Root) was the lost art of test batting. Hence I thought it pertinent to recall a few players from years past who could have taught the current lot a thing or two about survival at the crease.
During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln famously dismissed General McClellan for suffering a terminal case of ‘the slows’. His complaint was that, having built a fine army, McClellan just did not want to damage it by employing it. Earlier Lincoln had asked whether, if the general didn’t wish to use his army, he might be able to borrow it for a while.
More than a few batsmen over the years have suffered a similar affliction to General McClellan; players who prefer the well-judged leave or the immaculate forward defence ahead of anything so vulgar as trying to score runs or win the match.
Given that cricket evolved gradually and fitfully over many centuries before the modern age of digital communication and instant gratification, one can understand how defence became just as valued for batsmen as attack, especially in the era of timeless tests. Funnily enough, the slowest decade for scoring in tests was the 1950s, after timeless tests had been abolished and television first reached a mass audience. Nine of the ten slowest tests in history took place in that decade, including the slowest of all, England against South Africa at Port Elizabeth in 1956-57. The two sides in that match scored a combined total of 538 runs from 287.5 eight ball overs, a rate of 1.40 had it been six ball overs.
Evidently in those early post-war years people were content to take things at a leisurely pace. It was somewhat unfortunate therefore that the only one of Lincoln’s successors as American President ever to attend a test match was Dwight D. ‘Ike’ Eisenhower in 1959. Ike was taken to see Pakistan versus Australia and ended up watching the slowest single day’s play in test cricket history. Pakistan, led by Hanif Mohammad’s tortuous unbeaten 40, nudged a scarcely believable 104 runs in the three sessions, for the loss of five wickets. Unsurprisingly Ike did not ask to attend another day, let alone another match. Perhaps if he had seen Pakistan score 400 or more in a riotously entertaining fashion the history of cricket in America – the country which played the first recorded ‘international’ match and was the destination for an England XI’s first overseas tour – might have been very different.
I concede this introduction has already been too long, but it seemed wrong to rush anything with this particular XI. Here then, at last, is a team of batsmen who achieved something very notable in the form of nothing very much (by way of runs per over) and secured themselves lasting reputations as stolid sentinels of the crease. They are joined in the lower order by bowlers who gained equally strong reputations as cricketing scrooges, fashioning economy rates that almost look as though the decimal point is in the wrong place.
1. Geoffrey Boycott (Eng). Where else to begin than with probably the most famous slow-scorer in the history of test cricket? Boycott was born in 1940 and clearly took note of the slower pace of cricket in the 1950s before making his test debut in the 1960s. For years he was described tongue in cheek as ‘Sir Geoffrey’, until the joke was codified by outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May in 2019. The decision attracted much derision given Boycott’s conviction years earlier in France for a domestic violence offence. He stubbornly dismissed all criticism, entirely in character since he was known in his playing days as the most obstinate cricketer on the planet in terms of defying bowlers, team orders, team interests, scoring rates, or more or less anything other than his own batting average.
One side effect of being so self-absorbed at the crease was that he was also known as a terrible runner between the wickets – although his most famous run-out, at the hand of Ian Botham in 1978, was not his fault. It is right to record that, whatever Boycott’s vicissitudes, no-one could score 8,114 test runs at 47.72 without truly excelling at the game, and there was never any doubt about his physical courage either, as evinced by him taking guard against Clive Lloyd’s West Indians when he was over 40.
2. Bruce Edgar (NZ). A left-hander with a batting style not wholly dissimilar to that of Boycott, even if they did not otherwise have much in common, Bruce Edgar was part of the first golden age of New Zealand cricket, when they were unbeaten at home for more than a decade including the whole of the 1980s. Cricket was still essentially an amateur game in New Zealand at the time. Edgar’s day job was as a chartered accountant, much the approach he brought to the crease, where his overriding concern was not to endanger the batting ledger by getting out.
Edgar played a part in some of his country’s great wins, including scoring 161 to help secure victory against Australia in Auckland in 1982. Overall, though, his successes were sporadic, reflected by a modest career average of 30.59, and he retired when still aged under 30. He holds the record as the slowest strike rate by a specialist batsman in one day history, just 49.22 runs per 100 balls.
3. Ken Barrington (Eng) (c) On paper Ken Barrington was one of the greatest batsmen in English history. His record of 82 tests and 6906 runs at 58.67 puts him in the same league as Hammond, Hutton and Hobbs. Even more impressively, his average was higher away from home, in the days when travel was more arduous and home umpires were always used. Like Boycott his powers of concentration were legendary: it was once said that he would book in for bed and breakfast at the crease. If so, his scoring rate and aggregate suggests he quite liked a lie in and several courses followed by coffee.
Even by the standards of his time, Barrington’s rate attracted criticism. In 1965, for example, he took 435 minutes to reach 137 against New Zealand and was dropped by way of punishment. Nothing can detract from his overall statistics, however, and quite unlike Boycott, Barrington was universally praised as a person. He was greatly mourned when he died suddenly during England’s tour of West Indies in 1981, when he was England manager.
4. Chris Tavare (Eng). If David Steele was the bank clerk who went to war, wrote the author Jon Hotten, Chris Tavare was the conscientious objector forced to take up arms. Tavare began his career as a decent middle order batsman for Kent in the late 1970s, but the exigencies of the day saw him forced to open when he was chosen for England at the end of the decade. As if in protest, he regularly staged the cricketing equivalent of a sit-in at the crease. In his third Test innings, against West Indies at Lord’s in 1980, he spent four hours chalking up a careful 42. In his next test, he managed 69 and 78 over a combined time of just under 12 hours.
Clearly regarding each of those innings as needlessly hasty, he went on to make the second slowest half century in test history, against Pakistan in 1982. Even then he chided himself for a reckless approach, for against India in Madras soon after he took no fewer than five-and-a-half hours and 240 deliveries grinding out 35 very select runs.
Perhaps most importantly, Tavare’s defensive style, public school accent and demeanour regularly infuriated England’s ultimate enemy of Australia – an achievement of which any English cricketer from any era would be proud.
5. Mark Richardson (NZ). Richardson began his career as a slow bowler, but reinvented himself as a slow-scoring opening batsman famous for being slow between the wickets as well. In fact, he became so synonymous with sluggishness that it became a tradition for him to challenge the opposition’s slowest runner to a charity sprint race at the end of each series. (Said by Cricinfo occasionally to provide more entertainment than the match itself, Richardson’s races were slightly spoilt on one occasion by the suspicion that the opposition had fielded a ringer, in the form of their fastest sprinter).
Richardson’s reinvention as a top order batsman took place so late in his career that his test debut came at the age of 29. His technique by then was so well-honed that he managed an average of 44.77 in his 38 matches, despite the fact he struggled initially to convert 50s to hundreds. He played a part in some important New Zealand victories. My chief memory of him is the 435 minutes I spent at Lord’s in 2004 watching him score 101 off 309 deliveries; not, it has to be admitted, the most enjoyable experience I have had as a spectator.
6. Brendon Kuruppu (SL) (w/k). According to Cricinfo, Brendon Kuruppu was ‘a specialist one day slogger’, but he certainly did not start as he meant to go on. His test debut was at home against New Zealand in 1987. Among his opponents was New Zealand’s greatest ever bowler, Richard Hadlee, but none of the Kiwis could make the slightest impression on the 25 year-old Sri Lankan wicket keeper and opener: Kuruppu knuckled down for 201 unbeaten runs over 777 minutes and 548 deliveries. It was not only the slowest double ton in tests, but in all of first class history.
Having failed to dismiss or even disrupt Kuruppu with the ball, Hadlee evidently decided to give him a taste of his own medicine. In an uncharacteristically defensive display, he took 406 minutes and 240 balls to craft an unbeaten 151. Both he and Kuruppu were outdone in the same match by Jeff Crowe, however, who scored an unbeaten 120 at an even slower rate than Kuruppu’s – facing 398 balls in more than ten hours at the crease. One gets the impression it was not a great test in which to be an outfielder or a spectator.
It was all a false dawn for Kuruppu, however, who only played three more tests.
7. Trevor Bailey (Eng). One of the foremost allrounders of his day, Trevor Bailey held a variety of distinctions. One of his lesser known achievements was that he played a memorable innings for Dulwich College in the last ever cricket match PG Wodehouse saw on English soil, just before the Second World War. Unfortunately, it was memorable for the wrong reasons – Wodehouse later told the journalist Alistair Cook that it had been a dreadfully dull affair.
Bailey’s subsequent test career, spanning nearly all of the 1950s (1949 to 59) was of a piece with that schoolboy innings. ‘His stubborn refusal to be out normally brought more pleasure to the team than to the spectators’ was John Woodcock’s verdict, while he acquired a variety of nicknames including ‘Barnacle Bailey’. Against Australia at Lord’s in 1953 he batted for four-and-a-half hours on the final day to secure a draw for England. In 1958 he went one better by making the slowest half-century in all of first class cricket, taking 357 minutes at Brisbane.
8. Joel Garner (WI). Readers will have noticed that there were no West Indian batsmen in our top seven, even though Andy Ganteume, Larry Gomes and Shiv Chanderpaul could each have made a case for inclusion. Instead, we have two West Indian bowlers famed for their economy rates, the intention being for them to condemn the opposition to even slower scoring than the top seven of this XI. The first Caribbean miser is ‘Big Bird’ Joel Garner, for ten years (1977 to 87) a notable feature of the all-conquering West Indies’ side under Lloyd and Richards.
Garner is not remembered for being as terrifyingly quick as his colleagues Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall, nor did he have the variety of some contemporaries such as Richard Hadlee. Instead, he had metronomic accuracy and the most awkward of bounce due to his 6ft 8 height, another side effect of which was that many batsmen found his hand to be above the sightscreen from their line of sight.
Garner forms a bowling counterpart to Bruce Edgar’s batting, since his economy rate in one day cricket of 3.10 runs per over remains by some margin the most economical in history. Due to the changing nature of the game, it is highly improbable either record will ever be beaten.
9. Lance Gibbs (WI). Joining Garner is another West Indian legend, the one-time holder of the most test wickets in history, the offspinner Lance Gibbs. Gibbs overtook Fred Trueman’s then-record 307 test wickets at the end of his career (spanning almost two decades, 1958–76), which finished just as Clive Lloyd was assembling a phalanx of fast bowlers with which West Indies would use to dominate world cricket for the next two decades. The timing was especially fortunate for Gibbs, since Lloyd had little or no faith in the art of spin bowling.
Gibbs did not turn the ball with the venom of a Kumble or Laker, but he clearly commanded the highest respect from his opponents, since he gave away on average just 1.98 per over, the most economical in test history for anyone with more than 200 wickets. (The Australian seamer Alan Davidson took 184 wickets at 1.97 per over.) His greatest ever performance was against India in Barbados in 1962, when his figures were 53.3-37-38-8. Even more remarkably, all eight of his wickets came in a 15 over spell at a cost of just six runs. It made his later effort against England in Port-of-Spain in 1967-68 look almost as though he was leaking runs, since he sent down 57 overs for 68 runs and one wicket.
10. Bapu Nadkarni (In). A superb Indian orthodox slow left-armer, Bapu Nadkarni played 41 tests between 1955 and 1968, sending down 9,165 deliveries whilst conceding just 1.67 runs per over. He picked up 88 wickets at 29.07 while he was about it, and was a decent batsman too, averaging over 25 in tests with a hundred against England to his name.
Nadkarni attributed his miserliness to unstinting research and development in the nets, where he would bowl for hours at a coin placed on a good length. Three of his particularly notable performances were 32-24-23-0 at Kanpur followed by 34-24-24-1 at Delhi in 1960/61 (both against Pakistan), and 32-27-5-0 against England at Madras in 1964. In the match against England, he bowled 21 successive maidens, still the most economical spell in test cricket. It helped on that occasion that he was bowling to Ken Barrington, of course.
11. Geoff Allott (NZ). Allott was a decent bowler of the sort synonymous with New Zealand cricket: an accurate medium pacer who could be quite a handful especially in his home country. In limited overs cricket he took a record 20 wickets in the 1999 World Cup, a figure later equalled by Shane Warne but in one more match. Allott’s selection here does not relate to his bowling, however, or even his overall batting record. Instead, it is for a single test innings in which he set a world record not for slow scoring but for no
Allott’s magnum opus came against South Africa in 1999. The Proteas batted first and racked up an imposing 621/5. By the time Allott came to the crease, New Zealand was facing annihilation at 320/9. Unfazed, Allott stood by the guns for 101 minutes in a 32-run partnership with Chris Harris, to which his contribution was zero. It was a fine effort nonetheless, since although New Zealand followed on, time ran out on South Africa and the match was drawn.
Chris Smith (Eng) (12th man). I have chosen Smith ahead of many possible contenders for 12th man for a sentimental reason, because he played a famously stodgy effort in the first test match I ever attended, England versus New Zealand at Auckland in 1984. New Zealand batted first and racked up almost 500 seeking to shut England out of the match and the series. Smith, who had been dismissed first ball on his debut by Richard Hadlee the previous year, evidently set his mind against a repeat, as he dug in for a truly marathon 91 off 396 balls in 459 minutes. If he had just managed to hang around for another half hour making the odd nine, he would have made England’s slowest ever test hundred.
His career did not last much longer, and he finished with 392 runs at 30.15, with a strike rate of a truly leaden 29.83 – slower even than Chris Tavare. It was all in contrast to his first class career, in which he was a consistent and fluent scorer for Hampshire, averaging 44.40. It was in even greater contrast to his younger brother Robin, ‘the Judge’, who went on to have a distinguished career for England as a fearless attacking batsman capable of taking on the fastest bowlers on the planet.
That concludes our carefully chosen team of the most scrupulous limpets of the crease. A few might have prompted relief with their retirement, but I wonder how many realised how much their defensive skills would later be missed.
By James Wilson, author of Court and Bowled: Tales of Cricket and the Law
© James Wilson 2019