Netherlands batsman Ben Cooper says his overriding emotion was "relief" after he batted through the entire final day of play to ensure his side secured an improbable draw with Hong Kong in the Intercontinental Cup on Monday.
Set a target of 507 to win, Cooper was at the crease on 19 at the end of day three with Netherlands 48 for 2; two overs after the first drinks break on day four, they were 105 for 5. Pieter Seelaar joined Cooper and the pair produced a historic 288-run sixth-wicket partnership, batting out the final 79 overs together to deny Hong Kong victory.
"For me it was a big relief," Cooper told ESPNcricinfo, when asked how he felt when the draw had finally been achieved. "It had been the first time I had batted for such a period. I was just relieved and very tired but it was special to have been able to produce that performance and hold on for the draw. It's been something that the Dutch have been working towards and being able to perform on the four-day game and put those big scores together, we've now proven to ourselves that we can. So we can take the forward with confidence into future games."
The pair set several marks during their epic stand. They set the Netherlands record for any wicket in first-class cricket and a sixth-wicket record stand in the Intercontinental Cup. It's also the highest ever stand in the fourth innings in the competition and the sixth-biggest partnership in the 13-year history of the Intercontinental Cup. Netherlands also set a new mark for most overs batted to save a draw in the fourth innings of an Intercontinental Cup match. Cooper says he was too focused on saving the match to think about the significance of their feat at the time but says he is happy to have been able to have created a bit of history with Seelaar.
"It's a special thing," Cooper said. "It's something you don't think is possible but you just have to apply yourself and when you get in you just have to make the most of it. To be able to set a record along with Pieter Seelaar is something very special. The first job at hand is to bat and to produce for your team. Anything second to that, such as partnership records and personal records, is a bonus."
Cooper batted just short of seven hours to finish on 173 not out and was named Man of the Match for his brilliant rearguard. It was only his second first-class match, with his debut coming 18 months earlier at home against Scotland. Cooper says he worked hard on mental preparation to deal with the duration required to bat, in spite of his lack of four-day experience.
"It's a tough one because there's not a whole lot of four-day cricket around for Netherlands but I guess you just have to back your training," Cooper said. "You go to training and mentally prepare there. I try to bat as long as I can at training to simulate batting for an extended period in a four-day competition. But I guess it's just a mental thing. You prepare yourself mentally to fight it out and you know you've got time so you don't have to chase so many balls outside off."
Just as remarkable as Cooper's innings was that of Seelaar, who ended on 138 not out. Coming into the match, Seelaar's highest score for Netherlands in first-class cricket was an unbeaten 81 against a Zimbabwe XI that came nearly seven years ago. His only other half-century in 40 innings prior to arriving at the crease on the final day was an unbeaten 75 against Canada in 2013. Cooper paid tribute to his partner, saying that the squad was especially pleased for Seelaar to reach his maiden first-class century, especially after he has put in a lot of hard work to turn himself into an allrounder when he began his Netherlands career as a specialist left-arm spinner batting at No. 11.
"I think his reaction when he scored his hundred, and the celebration he had, was enough to say how relieved he was," Cooper said. "I backed him all the way. He's a class batsman although he may not have been recognised before. But I'm very happy for him to have ticked that off and to have proved that he is a batsman and not just a bowler."
The 1467 runs in the match made it the third-highest scoring game in Intercontinental Cup history, though Cooper says the pitch was playing slightly uneven towards the end to keep the task a challenging one for him and Seelaar. The second new ball was taken in the first over after tea, but Hong Kong failed to make a breakthrough. Cooper says he and Seelaar began to believe they were close to finishing the job when Hong Kong captain Babar Hayat brought himself on as a part-time option in the 101st over, the eighth bowler used for Hong Kong, followed shortly afterward by Nizakat Khan as the ninth.
"I think as a team you get that mental victory to know you've pushed their main bowlers nearly to their limits and they've now had to start using their part-time bowlers," Cooper said. "That little mental victory does lift you and push you a little bit more. You think it can't be too much longer until you completely break them and it could be the match saved."
To be able to fight back and hold on for a draw had added significance for Netherlands because it was Hong Kong who had knocked them out of the Desert T20 Challenge in Dubai in January. Netherlands are hoping to take a momentum boost from the final day into the pair of WCL Championship 50-over matches between the sides scheduled for Thursday and Saturday. Netherlands are currently level with Papua New Guinea at the top of the WCL Championship table on 12 points while Hong Kong is third on 11 points.
"There's always that little bit in the back of your head that you may not have played your best cricket previously at the Desert T20," Cooper said. "But it's a whole new game, a whole new opportunity to go out and prove yourself and luckily enough we were able to prove ourselves toward the back end of the four-day game and come out with a draw. To come out with a draw from where we were is a great feeling."