November 29, 2012

Homage to catatonia

In praise of epic solo batting efforts - the ultimate acts of invidualism in a team cause

The longest innings I ever managed lasted, ooh, 40 minutes. Tops. A highly unlikely match-winning 49 not out for John Lyon School against Christ's College after rushing in at the unaccustomed heights of No. 8: I'd begged to be promoted so that I could get in, get out and get off to London for an audition for the BBC's Brain of Sport radio show. God knows how many swipes nearly went to hand. The glory had turned a sour shade of bittersweet by the time I eventually panted up to Broadcasting House - just as the other triallists were leaving.

Still, let's face it, there are oodles of us flibbertigibbets out there. For 99.99% of cricketkind, clobbering Glenn McGrath for six, creaming Muttiah Muralitharan through the covers, taking a hat-trick or pitching a legbreak outside leg, scurrying it through the target's legs and hitting off are all within the scope of our dreams, but occupying a crease for a session, or even 60 consecutive minutes? Hmm. I'd be better at watching the English Channel dry.

Now picture hanging in there for six successive lots of 60 consecutive minutes - an entire day's play. Given our dreadfully modern embrace of the butterfly school of focus, emulating Faf du Plessis' resolute rearguard in Adelaide is barely more feasible than finding a cure for flu, right? What, then, can we say of those remarkable souls who have remained unconquered for twice that long? That they have the self-discipline of an award-winning monk? That they value their wicket as Usain Bolt values his legs? That they possess Bobby Fischer's concentration? And a fair dollop of that chessmaster's mania?

Awe doesn't begin to describe it. Granted, on the face of it, it doesn't seem that much to fantasise about, even for a child. But, deep down, that's because, as the first seeds of ambition are sowed in our youthful brains, most of us are intuitively aware of what batting time requires, even if we aren't yet conscious that that encompasses a combination of assets and virtues that come easy to precious few, and instinctively to even fewer. Desire comes even harder.

Let's pause, then, to celebrate the monumental. To date, 17 Test innings have spanned 12 hours or more. To apply a measure of perspective, Alastair Cook and Marlon Samuels have both had a jolly good stab at it this month yet still finished the best part of three and two hours short respectively - the slackers. One man's 12 hours, however, can be another's infinity. Only one player, Brian Lara, has twice dug in for that long, but then the fruits were world records. Shoaib Mohammad's 163 in Wellington in 1989, on the other hand, amounted to 13.6 runs per hour; had he batted as long as his dad did in Bridgetown in 1958 - 16 hours, ten minutes - he would have made 220: 117 fewer. Had Lara's residency endured that long, he would have wound up with 499.

Now for the most surprising aspects of those 17 sojourns, in descending order of probability:

1) Just one came during the interminably turgid 1950s - even if, admittedly, it was Hanif's epic (no one else has gone into a 14th hour);

2) With Sunil Gavaskar having fallen 12 minutes short of the full dozen at Bangalore in 1981, not one has been witnessed in India;

3) The current century has produced six of them.

True, more than three times as many Tests have been played this century as during the 1950s, but the last of these oddities is still the most counter-intuitive. Wasn't one-day cricket supposed to have sapped concentration levels, turning marathoners and stonewallers into sprinters and flashers? If that truly is the case, how come 11 of our 17 homages to catatonia have been played since the dawn of the 1990s?

Not that the defiance of received wisdom stops there. Mahela Jayawardene is alone in having endured for ten hours-plus on four occasions; Marvan Atapattu and Javed Miandad did so thrice. Asians all, moderns all. Cue a closer examination of Hanif's stint in the trench.

More than half a century on, the numbers beggar belief. Pakistan had followed on 473 behind when he took guard on the third evening. Spending the rest day on 5 not out, the only communication he received from his captain, Abdul Kardar, was a bedside note lacking nothing in either succinctness or onerousness: "You are our only hope." He duly obliged, adding just 56 on day three, followed by a breakneck 100 on day four, when he usurped his previous Test peak, 142; day five brought mild acceleration and a further 109, whereupon he throttled back on day six, eking out 67 more before finally buckling for 337.

By then Pakistan were 153 in the black; when Kardar declared at 657 for 8, the lead was 184 and just 11 overs remained. Job done. In all, Hanif tallied 26 fours, 16 threes, 40 twos and 105 singles; since he was in for 309 of the 319 overs, that estimable statistician Charlie Davis has calculated that the West Indies attack made around 900 attempts to unstaple him, so he received 700 dot balls, give or take. Imagine the thoughts of Nasim-ul-Ghani, who on the opening morning had become, at 16 years and 248 days, the youngest player yet to appear in a Test. "Right, so the key to all this is to never hit a shot in the air, think like a 75-year-old owl with a PhD in wisdom and wear earplugs. Simples."

"Fate was with me," Hanif insisted when we met at his London bolt-hole in the 1990s. As ever, this tiny, profoundly unmuscular and utterly unprepossessing fellow was being uncommonly modest. The steadfastness and steeliness in his eyes told another tale. As Saad Shafqat testified on this site: "Javed Miandad, whose father knew Hanif, tells the story of once receiving one of Hanif's bats as a gift; it left him awestruck, because the only marks on that bat were right in the middle - the edges and shoulders were spotless."

As the first seeds of ambition are sowed in our youthful brains, most of us are intuitively aware of what batting time requires, even if we aren't yet conscious that that encompasses a combination of assets and virtues that come easy to precious few

So there you have it in all its glorious, barest bones: one innings spanning nearly a week, one that saw its author pull off the grand old game's greatest escape. In terms of saving the unsaveable, nothing has come remotely close. As that wild 'n' crazy Norwegian TV football commentator almost put it: "Mike Atherton, Gary Kirsten, Kenny Barrington, Ken 'Slasher' Mackay, Jackie McGlew, Sunny Gavaskar… you boys took a helluva beating!" Quite how those habitually wise bods at Wisden ever saw fit to rank Hanif's masterpiece of resistance as merely the 19th greatest Test innings strains credulity. (And yes, Rajeev Nayyar did surpass Hanif in 1999, collecting 271 in a smidge under 17 hours, but, with all due respect, that was for Himachal Pradesh against the unmight of Jammu and Kashmir.)

So what, realistically, does it take? If there's a textbook on how to bat long it has sneaked under my radar. Brian Close captured the immobilising aspect, that appearance of catatonia, though it is doubtful such an aggressive player was drawing from first-hand experience. "The sheer effort makes one like an automaton," he warranted, sympathising with Geoff Boycott after his Test and county team-mate had scored an unbeaten if less than exhilarating 106 on the opening day against India at Headingley in 1967, a grave sin at the height of the English campaign for "brighter cricket" that resulted in him being dropped. The then-England captain pressed on compassionately. "Very often you don't even hear the crowd; all you are concerned with is that ball." In John Arlott's considered view, Boycott, having been compelled to adjust first to spectacles and then contact lenses, was driven by a quest for "utter perfectionism".

Some have a between-balls ritual. Jonathan Trott renews his guard; Chris Tavaré strolled to square leg. Others have their mantras. "I want to stay on telly today," chirped the small voice inside Nasser Hussain's head during his 635-minute stretch in Durban in 1999. "I'll try and stay on telly all day." Douglas Jardine's tic, presumably, was to keep reminding himself how much he loathed Australians.

These days coaches and psychologists prattle on about zoning in and out of this and turning on and off that. Whatever. The line, between purposeful occupation and navel-gazing negligence of the duty to entertain, will always be finer than fine. Sometimes we, the watchers, get it; sometimes we don't. Sometimes - Hashim Amla's triple-ton at The Oval - we forget time entirely. Sometimes - Atherton's 185 in Jo'burg - that's all we remember. "Time trickled on, still we jabbed and stabbed," recalled Mackay of his match-saving last-wicket stand with Lindsay Kline in Adelaide in 1961. Strokes that, "right through my career, brought only jeers, now brought cheers".

The one constant is the mindset. Pick your definition: imperturbable, unwavering, obstinate, cussed, stubborner than a mule with a migraine. "Slasher" nailed it more efficiently than most: "Experience has taught me that of the six batsmen usually chosen in a side, only an average of three really get set. It is their responsibility to 'soldier on' and make up for the ones who fail. I always apply the maxim: 'Once there, stay there', and make runs for your team." However ugly those runs might be, however demanding of our indulgence and patience.

So there you have it: a whopping great ego and an acute sense of collectivism. Could there be a better or more contradictory recipe for anyone aspiring to play the ultimate individual-within-a-team game? Simples.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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