India v Australia, 2nd Test, Chennai, 4th day October 17, 2004

A nightwatchman to remember



Jason Gillespie's innings was a hairy, sweaty affair © Getty Images

An assignment to bat through the first five overs would have been knocked back by any mercenary. India were dominating and with a couple of quick wickets the series could have been squared by lunch. Instead a nightwatchman and a shot-maker with doubts facing spin accepted the challenge and almost stayed for tea in a partnership that was thrilling, gruelling and potentially match-winning.

Initial survival rested on Damien Martyn, while anything from Jason Gillespie - a couple of runs, 25 minutes of absorbing Harbhajan and Kumble - would be a bonus. He had been sent in to protect Darren Lehmann and Michael Clarke on Saturday night, so Gillespie had already achieved his primary goal, as he has on the five other occasions he has been promoted. Unlike the top order, he is never in a hurry and this was a perfect day for tortoises.

The designated nightwatchman, Gillespie is a strange combination of fearsome attack with the ball and a stonemason's approach with the bat. With block after block he survived the early overs and then forged a lead with Martyn. Together they collected pebbles and stretched it to 45. Still it seemed nothing more than an irritating delay for India. By lunch Gillespie had picked up 15 and with Martyn's 67 they were 89 ahead. Australian supporters started to breathe again.

Like his appearance, Gillespie's innings was a hairy and sweaty affair. Even in defence he is intimidating. With his limited repertoire he was open to attack, but each raid was somehow foiled by pad, bat, body or leave. His simple method involves planting his front forward and waiting for the spin, sponging the impact with the soft hands than belie his appearance. Spurning risky shots, he has more success at dealing with the danger than some of those further north in the order. However, after the break he was dropped by the bowler Harbhajan Singh and joined the list of those reprieved by Parthiv Patel when a stumping was fumbled.

At the other end Martyn was as comfortable as any non-Indian batsman could be on the dusty surface. A graceful player, Martyn suffers in the same way Mark Waugh did. When he hits a boundary he is sublime, when he is dismissed he is clumsy, carefree or, most harshly, soft. By now the strength of both men was clearly evident and they enjoyed celebrating the century partnership. It was Gillespie's third similar stand against India after sharing 133 with Steve Waugh in Calcutta in 2001 and 117 at the SCG in January with Simon Katich.

Gillespie built further walls until Harbhajan found his and Martyn's edges in the same over. In the click of Rahul Dravid's fingers the game had changed again, but the unlikely performance had given Australia immeasurable strength and a lead of 144. Adam Gilchrist's return to convention had been rewarded.

Pushing bowlers in front of batsmen as stumps approaches has become a modern-day sticking point. Under Steve Waugh the tactic was abandoned, soon after Gillespie had overstayed his welcome and eked out 23 in almost two hours against West Indies in 2000-01. "We've decided as a group we're not going to use it any more," Waugh said. "We all came to the conclusion that we probably do it just for the sake of it, so there is no real need for it." A change of leader rekindled the plan and this time the move was a success, allowing Clarke and Lehmann the space to attack in extending the lead.

In the past 30 years Tony Mann, Ian Healy and Peter Taylor have made larger scores as nightwatchmen for Australia, but Gillespie's 26 over 165 balls was a massive contribution and, like Martyn's, the grittiest innings he has played. But both will have to wait until tomorrow to discover their true value.

Peter English is Australasian editor of Wisden Cricinfo.

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