Trivia - batting June 20, 2008

The best night-watchman in Tests - Part I

The night-watchman concept in Test cricket is a paradox

After a light-weight ODI related post last time around (The "Unfulfilled team innings in ODIs"), I am now reverting to Test matches and a considerably more complex analysis.

The night-watchman concept in Test cricket is a paradox. A batsman of far lesser ability is sent to bat in place of a far more accomplished batsman, in possibly inferior batting conditions. The better batsman is preserved to bat when conditions are better. But this is as much part of Test cricket as white clothing, follow-on, new ball after 80 overs et al and deserves an in-depth look.

This time I have taken a conscious decision to do this post in two parts. The first part will deal with the individual batsmen performances while the second one will analyse the whole night-watchman canvas by team and by period. In addition, I will take a view on whether the night-watchman concept has been successful. I will also incorporate relevant readers' suggestions.

This analysis is based on the earlier study I have made on the Test batting positions. In that analysis, we looked at batting positions as a measure. To summarize that analysis, I had looked at the career Batting Position Average (BPA) of Test batsmen, keeping the two opening positions as 1. That index is used to have an analytical look at the night-watchmen.

Using night-watchmen as a tactic has existed down the ages. The night-watchmen regularly padded up an hour before close, and would walk in at the fall of a wicket. If he survived, great. Else, send another one hoping that at least he would survive. I have seen matches in which two such night-watchmen had failed and the regularly scheduled player was forced to bat, this time with his team having lost two more wickets. However, there have been many cases where the night-watchman survived that day and for quite some time the next day.

The Australians, led by Steve Waugh, changed things. A top-order batsman was expected to bat whatever be the time of the day, be it 10.47am or 16.53pm. There is no denying that this worked. Overall this seems to me to be the correct approach. Most other teams, for that matter even the Australians now, take the nigt-watchmen approach.

Our interest here is analytical. Let us first define a night-watchman. This is very difficult especially as there is very little data available on things like the time of the day when a batsman came to the wicket. So we can only take an algorithmic approach using the BPA and the batting position the batsman batted in. We may get it right 95% of the time, but that is enough.

A simple starting definition may be that a night-watchman is one who bats (somewhat) higher than his intended position. But we have to take care of situations such as an accomplished batsman like Gilchrist opening for Australia or Wasim Akram/Dhoni coming in earlier to speed up the scoring. Gilchrist's Batting Position Index in Tests is 6.68, indicating that he is a batsman who has batted at No.7 most of his career. Wasim Akram, scorer of three Test centuries and a BPA of 8.1, batting at number 3 or 4, would have to be taken care of. In order to do a correct job of selecting true night-watchmen for our analysis, it is necessary to define a number of related parameters other than batting position alone.

1. First our knowledge, research and intuition lets us decide who is not a night-watchman. Any batsman whose career-to-date batting average is higher than 25.00 cannot be classified as a night-watchman. No captain is going to risk a batsman of the calibre of Vettori (ave 26.65) to protect Styris (36.05). His wicket is too valuable to risk losing. In this regard, we also have to take care of genuine batsmen like Wasim Akram (22.64), Benaud (24.46) etc who have batting averages between 20 and 25. A slight tweak takes care of such batsmen.

  • Career-to-date average rather than career average is taken since by now I have realised the importance of taking this value as against career figure in certain situations. I have also realised the readers' preferences and have anticipated their inputs. It is also true that I have developed the Career-to-date figures and incorporated in my data base because of suggestions relating to earier postings making my task that much easier.
  • In this case there is perfect justification. A player's cumulative measures keep on changing. A captain who decides to use a player as a night-watchman at a certain point in his career may not do so at another point depending on changes. For instance, in match 1486 against India, Nicky Boje was used as a night-watchman when the first wicket fell late in the day. His career-to-date batting average at that time was only 14.00. Hence we have treated this correctly as a night-watchman innings even though his end-career average was 25.23. If the career figure was used, this match-winning innings of 85 would have been missed out. This is just an example.

2. We should also ignore players whose BPA is less than 7.00. If a player normally bats in positions 1-6, and he moves up, he cannot be treated as a night-watchman. For instance a batsman with a batting average of 24 and BPA of 5.2 opens the batting, this is not an example of a night-watchman.

3. We have to look at it the other way as well: only innings in which tailenders have batted at positions 1-6 will qualify as night-watchmen innings. A no.10 batsman batting at no.8 is certainly not a night-watchman instance.

4. Finally, the key criterion. An innings will be considered as a night-watchmen innings if the difference between the batsman's BPA (rounded to nearest integer) and the one he actually bats in is greater than or equal to 3. Examples, a no.8 batsman batting at 5 or above, a no.10 batsman opening, a no.9 batsman sent at the fall of first wicket and so on.

  • A note on the need to round off BPA. A BPA value of 7.86 indicates a batsman who has batted at no.8 or below more often than at no.7 or above. Similarly a BPA value of 5.18 indicates a batsman who has batted at no.5 or above more often than at no.6 or below. It is necessary to round up 7.86 to 8.00 and round down 5.18 to 5.00. This is how the rounding off is effected.
  • The difference criteria of 3 was arrived at after many trials. If the difference was set up at 4, many a true night-watchman innings, such as a batsman with BPA of 9 batting at no.6, would be lost. A change to 2 would mean inclusion of many normal innings, such as a batsman with BPA of 7 batting at no.5.

5. There are situations when a batsmen such as Irfan Pathan or Derek Murray might genuinely have been asked to open a few times for strategic purposes. These are clearly non-night-watchman situations. However there is no way I can separate out these since their rounded BPA might be 7.0 and they have batted at no.1. The only way out seems to take a courageous decision that if a lower level batsman bats at the opening position, it is not a night-watchman situation. It is reasonable to expect that no captain would send his no.9 batsman to open, solely to protect his opening batsman, however late in the day the innings starts. This will also take out quite a few pre-WW1 batsmen such as Blackham who have opened at will. A total of 127 opening batsman innings have been handled by low order batsmen with BPA greater than or equal to 7.

It is true that many of the above criteria may seem arbitrary. However, before readers rush to comment after a 10-minute perusal of the article, I would like to remind them that I have been studying this fascinating aspect for over 2 years and have run programs with varying parameters many times before settling on the methodology. However, I am certain that by the time all readers' comments are received, the analysis would be improved considerably based on their feedback.

A. Analysis results

A total of 563 innings qualify under these criteria. It is possible that we might have missed a few genuine night-watchman innings and included a few non-night-watchman innings. I have aimed for 95% accuracy and am confident that I have achieved that. This works to slightly less than one in three tests. A perusal of the recent Test scorecards will indicate that this is a fairly accurate proportion.

These 563 innings are analysed in different ways below.

B. Runs scored

The top 10 individual scores are listed below.

Year MtNo Batsman            For Vs  Bat BPA Runs(BallsFaced) Batting Avge
Act  Calc   CTD*   Career
2006 1799 Gillespie J.N      Aus Bng  3  9.0 201*(425) (425) 15.69 [18.78]
1977 0811 Mann A.L           Aus Ind  3  7.0 105 (n/a) (214) 18.33 [23.62]
1999 1455 Tudor A.J          Eng Nzl  3  8.0  99*(119) (119) 22.33 [19.08]
1933 0224 Larwood H          Eng Aus  4  9.0  98 (n/a) (221) 16.12 [19.40]
1983 0944 Hemmings E.E       Eng Aus  3  9.0  95 (n/a) (174) 12.88 [22.53]
1978 0832 Wasim Bari         Pak Ind  3  9.0  85 (n/a) (125) 15.33 [15.88]
2000 1486 Boje N             Saf Ind  3  8.0  85 (198) (198) 14.00 [25.23]
1885 0018 Jarvis A.H         Aus Eng  5  8.0  82 (n/a) (322) 16.83 [16.83]
1948 0302 Bedser A.V         Eng Aus  4  9.0  79 (n/a) (183) 15.06 [12.75]
1959 0478 Nadkarni R.G       Ind Eng  4  7.0  76 (n/a) (223) 21.78 [25.71]

* Career-to-date average
  • The top innings has been the double-century scored by Gillespie. Coming in at 67 for 1, he lasted nearly 10 hours and remained unbeaten on 201 while 514 runs were scored, including a stand of 320 with Michael Clarke. This must be the leading contender for the most amazing innings in Test cricket history.

    But what about a few centuries which are being discussed as "Night-watchmen centuries". Let us look at all these.

  • Eknath Solkar scored his only century batting at no.3 against West Indies in 1975. However this innings gets ruled out since Solkar has scored over 1000 runs at an average of 25.43. It would be unfair to call him a night-watchman.
  • What about Nasim-ul-Ghani's 101. It is true that Nasim-ul-Ghani has come in as night-watchman in a few matches. However in the specific match against England he batted at No.6 and scored 101. His rounded BPA is 8. So this innings does not fall into the basket of night-watchman innings.
  • Consider the unbeaten 99 by A J Tudor playing for England against New Zealand. England, needing 210 to win, sent Tudor in as a night-watchman. He responded by remaining unbeaten on 99, just missing out on a unique achievement. A similarly stunning performance is that of Larwood, who, after going in at No.4 instead of his more customary No.9, scored 98 against Australia in the Bodyline series.
  • Kirmani scored a hundred batting at no.5. However, with a career batting average of 27.05 he surely does not qualify as a night-watchman by any standards. His career-todate batting average when he played the hundred was 26.44.
C. Balls faced

The top 10 innings, in terms of balls faced, are listed below.
Year MtNo Batsman            For Vs  Bat BPA Runs(BallsFaced) Batting Avge
Act  Calc   CTD   Career
2006 1799 Gillespie J.N      Aus Bng  3  9.0 201*(425) (425) 15.69 [18.78]
1885 0018 Jarvis A.H         Aus Eng  5  8.0  82 (n/a) (322) 16.83 [16.83]
1959 0478 Nadkarni R.G       Ind Eng  4  7.0  76 (n/a) (223) 21.78 [25.71]
1933 0224 Larwood H          Eng Aus  4  9.0  98 (n/a) (221) 16.12 [19.40]
1977 0811 Mann A.L           Aus Ind  3  7.0 105 (n/a) (214) 18.33 [23.62]
2000 1486 Boje N             Saf Ind  3  8.0  85 (198) (198) 14.00 [25.23]
2002 1597 Harris C.Z         Nzl Eng  4  7.0  71 (185) (185) 19.40 [20.45]
1948 0302 Bedser A.V         Eng Aus  4  9.0  79 (n/a) (183) 15.06 [12.75]
1983 0944 Hemmings E.E       Eng Aus  3  9.0  95 (n/a) (174) 12.88 [22.53]
1994 1246 de Villiers P.S    Saf Aus  5 10.0  30 (170) (170)  8.00 [18.89]
  • The "balls played" information is available only for 173 of the 563 innings. In order to a complete "balls played" analysis, I have done a pro-rata allocation of the "team balls" value to the 390 night-watchman who do not have the "balls played" information, based on batsman runs and team runs. It must be remembered that this calculation has been done for a limited purpose and I am ready to accept the possible variations. The zeros have a token 1 ball allocated. However this article is not to determine the best night-watchman zero, so I can live with that.
  • The maximum number of balls faced by a night-watchman, with no doubts whatsoever, is the 425 balls faced by Gillespie while scoring 201, against Bangladesh. It is safe to say that when the year 2100 dawns, Lara's record might have been broken, but not this record. It was a once-in-hundred-years innings.
  • The 201 by Gillespie is an extraordinary innings. Notwithstanding this innings, the most significant and arguably the best ever innings played by a night watchman in Test matches must be Gillespie's 4-hour vigil at Chennai last year when he played 165 balls while scoring 26. This was a vicious spinning track and the Indian bowlers included Harbhajan and Kumble. Gillespie played the way Gavaskar batted in his farewell innings against Pakistan at Bangalore during 1987, dropping the ball dead beyond the reach of the close cordon of fielders. The importance of the series, the significance of the result and what happened on the fifth day must surely make this the greatest night-watchman innings ever. I would go to the extent of placing this innings among the best 5 innings ever played on Indian soil. It was ironical that it is by an Australian batsman, and was also possible only because Gilchrist was the captain. A Steve Waugh might have sent Michael Clark or Lehmann the previous day.
D. The batsmen who have been the night-watchmen most often (Min 7 attempts):
Player           Inns    Runs     Balls       BpI

Saqlain (Pak) 11 98 384 34.9 Hoggard (Eng) 11 39 249 22.6 Gillespie (Aus) 9 327 1040 116.0 Warne (Aus) 7 34 92 12.9 Headley (Ind) 7 30 177 25.3 Prasanna (Ind) 7 61 Morrison (Nzl) 7 7 Venkat (Ind) 7 4

Saqlain Mushtaq (very effectively) and Hoggard (less effectively) lead the field, followed by Gillespie, the night-watchman par excellence. However Gillespie is way ahead of the others in the key indicator, Balls per innings. Warne just makes to the list, having batted in positions 3,4 and 5 few times. He is, surprisingly, a failure as a night-watchman, scoring zero in three of his seven inngs. Maybe he resented being sent as a night-watchman. Venkataraghavan is still worse, scoring only 4 runs in his 7 innings, including 5 zeros. Maybe he also felt offended.

Morrison was the biggest failure, scoring 7 runs in one innings and not opening his account in the six other innings. It is a miracle why the captains continued to use Morrison as the night-watchman. One possibility is that he lasted quite a few balls without opening his account. I wait to be enlightened. Prasanna was better, scoring 61 runs in 7 attempts. Headley was also quite good, scoring 30 runs and lasting 177 balls.

E. Conclusion

Who has been the best night-watchman in history. Easy to guess. Jason Gillespie, in 9 innings has scored a total of 327 runs at an average (no doubt aided by the unbeaten 201) of 40.87. More relevantly, he has faced a total of 1040 balls in these 9 innings, an average of 116 balls per innings. His two great innings total 590 balls. However, note his sequence, in terms of balls played: 425, 165, 145, 79, 73, 71, 43, 35 and 5. Only one failure. He sold his wicket dearly. He wins the title hands down.

What has been the best night-watchman innings played. No need to look beyond Gillespie's two classics, his match-saving effort at Chennai and the mammoth 201 against Bangladesh. As far as I am (and most people are) concerned, the Chennai innings is the best, by a mile. It was a watershed innings and changed the course of one of the most important series of recent times. If India had won on that fourth day, they might very well be sitting at the top of the ICC Test Rankings now.

The second part will follow in a week's time.

Anantha Narayanan has written for ESPNcricinfo and CastrolCricket and worked with a number of companies on their cricket performance ratings-related systems