The Not So Nervous Nineties

In Batting by Bill Ricquier

When play ended on the first day of the first Test between India and England at Rajkot, the England left hander Moeen Ali was on 99 not out. Oddly enough , on the third day , India’s Cheteshwar Pujara went into tea on 99 not out. But having to sit it out overnight must be a lot worse.

Moeen is the thirteenth batsman to have been on 99 when play ended for the day in a Test. It happened to Glenn Turner and Mudassar. Nazar twice; others on the list include all- time greats Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond , Greg Chappell and Javed Miandad. . Intriguingly they all – including Moeen – completed their centuries the next day.

If Moeen had been offered 99 before he went out to bat, would he have taken it? It’s difficult to say. After all, it’s not a bad score. But there is something so special about a Test match century. That one run makes such a difference. ( Ask Shane Warne.) It’s why it’s a challenge to be stranded on 99 at an interval of play. It’s why , as a batsman approaches a hundred , a game within a game develops, with special field placing sand other tests of a player’s mettle. It’s why the crowd is transfixed : for a moment partisan preferences are put aside as an issue of genuine human interest is raised : will the batsman get there?

Moeen always seems a cool customer. At Rajkot he took a single off the first ball of the last over and then watched as Ben Stokes played the remaining five. A year ago, I watched Moeen bowl the last over of the first day of Pakistan’s second Test against England at Dubai. Pakistan were 267 for four with their captain Misbah ul Haq on 87 not out off 187 balls , his innings the usual combination of studied defence interspersed with bouts of unpredictable violence. He reached his hundred in that over with massive sixes over midwicket and long on. ( He was out in the first over next day .)

Misbah , too, is manifestly a cool man under pressure. He doesn’t fret. England’s Ken Barrington was a very different sort of person. Barrington was one of England’s greatest players. His Test match batting average of 58.67 is second only to Don Bradman among players who have scored six thousand Test runs. In his younger days he was an aggressive batsman but as his Test career developed he became more and more circumspect , gritty and impregnable. In 1965 he was dropped for a Test after taking more than seven hours to score 137 against New Zealand. He wore himself to a frazzle worrying about whether the West Indian fast bowler, Charlie Griffith, was a chucker. He retired early and died of a heart attack while managing an England tour of the Caribeean.

So Barrington may have found the approach of a Test century ( he made twenty) a stressful event. Despite, or perhaps because of this, he held a curious record. At Adelaide in 1962-63 he became only the second player , after Australua’s Joe Darling, to reach a century in an Ashes Test with a six. And in Melbourne in 1965-66, he did it again , reaching his hundred in 122 balls.

Bradman appeared to be unaware of the nervous nineties. He made twenty nine centuries in his eighty Test innings and only thirteen fifties. His highest score below 102 not out was 89 , at Lord’s in his final series in 1948. Basically, if The Don ” got in” you could expect him to get a ton – at least.

In the 1972-73 Karachi Test between Pakistan and England no one made a hundred but three batsmen – Majid Khan, Mushtaq Mohammed and Dennis Amiss – made 99: there must have been something in the water.

Three Test batsmen have made ten nineties in Tests- Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Steve Waugh. Bradman said that watching Tendulkar put him in mind of himself as a player and it is easy to see why. But, temperamentally , it is Waugh who seems most closely aligned to Bradman , with that same ruthlessness and single-mindedness, almost coldness. This makes it all the stranger that Waugh just failed to reach a hundred so many times.

I saw one of them , at Perth in 1994-95. It was one of England’s more abject performances, which was a shame because in theory they could have squared the series. As it was, they were thrashed. Be that as it may, Waugh played a fine innings on the second day and was approaching his century when the ninth wicket fell and last man Craig McDermott came out to join him. McDermott had strained his back and was accompanied by a runner, Steve’s twin brother , Mark. Somehow the presence of a runner is always liable to presage calamity. ( It is a typical triumph of bureaucracy to have banned them from Trst cricket.). Almost immediately Mark had a brainstorm and was run out leaving Steve stranded on ninety- nine. It was really very funny , if you weren’t Australian. ( You had to be there…)

Eight years later, Waugh was captain and another Ashes series was coming to an end , but Australia had the series wrapped up by the time of the fifth Test at Sydney. England won this one , with Andrew Caddick taking ten wickets in what turned out to be his final Test.

It is for Waugh’s knock in Australia’s first innings that the game will always be remembered. There were loud whispers to the effect that it was going to be his last Test. He strode out to a hero’s welcome from a capacity crowd at the SCG. He played immaculately, his driving as crisp and clean as ever. As the day drew to a close the crowd grew increasingly excited at the possibility of Waugh reaching his hundred before stumps. Off -spinner Richard Dawson prepared to bowl the final over.

After five balls , Waugh was on ninety eight. Captain Nasser Hussain and Dawson met in urgent conclave; arms were waved, minute fielding adjustments made.

In the commentary box, somebody asked Kerry O’ Keefe: “Will he go for his hundred tonight, or is he going to play for tomorrow ?”

“Tomorrow’s for Poms mate” was O’ Keefe’s laconic response.

Waugh creamed it through the covers for four.

Bill Ricquier, 13/11/2016

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