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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harsh on December 2, 2012, 6:50 GMT

    I have to also mention the recent exploits of Du Plessis of South Africa who has been absolutely magnificient in his last 3 innings,virtually averting certain defeat.It is on par with the all-time great performances.,virtually reviving a sinking ship in all causes.South Africa were virtually ressurected from the grave.Also Hashim Amla has played some of the finest marathon innings and could be classed with the all-time great batsman in marathon efforts,particularly in England last summer.In the 1980's Mudassar Nazar ,too played some useful marathon knocks ,particularly versus India.

  • Sana on November 30, 2012, 16:20 GMT

    Test cricket maybe boring for some spectators but for a player it's the ultimate test. It tests your patience, skills, strategy, stamina, nerves, adaptability to conditions, adaptability to the pace of the game. In ODIs and T20s you can try to hide from a bowler by changing your order of batting, sneaking a single and getting on the other end hoping you won't see the bowler again because his spell will be over. In test you can not hide your weaknesses. If you can get wickets only then can you be in the playing 11. You can not win by just trying to bowl dot balls and stealing the ball. For me Test cricket is just like a gladiators arena, a 5 day war where you are locked up in a Cage and asked to kill 20 wickets of the opposition if you want to win. No other sports keep me excited for 5 days. You dont watch the whole thing but a beep on your cell phone just tell you somebody has fallen in the arena; you can not wait to see people's and media's reaction to anything that happens in test.

  • Dummy4 on November 30, 2012, 14:44 GMT

    Hanif's 337 is the only triple in the 2nd innings (against such devastating bowling attacks as Gilchrist, Atkinson, Sobers, Valentiine). That shows his true grit and class. I also remember his 187 not out (1967) against England in England on a swinging sticky wicket in the 2nd innings yet again. He, assisted by Asif Iqbal (76), kept all those English greats like John Snow at bay and forced England to a draw. The English press reverberated: "No praise is too high for Mr. Concentration."

  • Balajee on November 30, 2012, 13:32 GMT

    A glorious cricket tale , wonderfully written.

  • Harsh on November 30, 2012, 12:45 GMT

    Some of the greatest innings have been played to bat for your life ,even in losing causes.The most important criteria is whether it has lifted the team's cause or cost them a victory.Some of the best innings of Alan Border,Sunil Gavaskar, Mohinder Amarnath,Ken Barrington,Steve Waugh or Ian Chappell are classic examples of this criteria.

    Rahul Dravid's 270 at Rawalapindi in 2004 which won the match ,Alan Border's 100 and 98 n.o at Trinidad in 1984 which saved a game against all odds ,Dennis Amiss's match-saving 262 at Barbados in 1973-74 or Mohinder Amarnath's century in the 1st test of the 1984 series in Pakistan which saved the match after India had a huge deficit in the 1st innings are classic examples of great innings for the team.

    I also applaud Alan Border's 123 n.o at Old Trafford in 1981 ,Sunil Gavaskar's 127 n.o at faisalabad in 1982-83 and Geoff Boycott's 99 n.o at Perth in 1979-80.,although they were scored in losing causes.

  • Dummy4 on November 30, 2012, 2:25 GMT

    Thanks for highlighting an almost forgotten aspect of the game.Critics usually quote near history performances. Hanif's innings was one of the greatest of all times but it seldom receives the recognition it deserves.Great of you for bringing it into readers' knowledge.

  • John on November 29, 2012, 22:53 GMT

    With the advent of T20 cricket, it has done a huge favor, in my opinion, to Test cricket. I think, in the last couple of years, more and more people are coming to appreciate the beauty of test cricket. Test cricket has been here for more than a century, but with the arrival of T20, the spectators have finally found some thing to which they can compare to. People might say that we have ODI's for the last 40 years or so. I think ODI's and test cricket have a lot in common both in terms of building up an inning for the batsmen and taking wickets/stopping runs for the batsmen. With T20 now, it has opened up a new avenue for the spectators to view Test cricket in a different light and appreciate the ebbs and flows of it. Lovely article btw. Amazing to learn about the legendary little master Hanif Mohammad.

  • Dummy4 on November 29, 2012, 22:00 GMT

    Hanif is probably the greatest batsman since Javed from Pakistani soil.

  • Arvind on November 29, 2012, 21:15 GMT

    A new term for heroic crease-occupying, opponent-defying, draw-salvaging feats of attritional batsmanship could be Faf-ing as in... du Plessis , in the company of the lower middle order and the tail, blunted all Australian efforts to bundle out the Proteas in a masterful and epic display of Faf-ing ! ! ! !

  • Jay on November 29, 2012, 19:02 GMT

    I grew 20 years OLDER just reading this article. Test cricket ??? NO THANKS !

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