I don't like night watchmen. I've got nothing against those poor souls that are sent out by their timid captains to weather the storm, but I do have a principled objection to the very idea. It is internally incoherent, is poor cricketing strategy, and when the captain does it to protect his wicket, it looks especially pusillanimous.
The first time I encountered the concept of a night watchman was when Srinivas Venkataraghavan went out in the fading Delhi light on the second day of the first Test of the 1976-77 series against the touring MCC. The score read 49 for 3, and India were tottering. Anshuman Gaekwad, Mohinder Amarnath and Gundappa Viswanath had all gone lbw to Lever. A deadly spell of swing bowling was in effect. Two balls later, Venkat joined the procession, bowled for a duck by the same bowler. Brijesh Patel had to come out and bat for time.
I thought the idea was silly then, despite its 'rationale' being explained to me by my ever-patient father. Why was Patel not batting? If Lever could blow away that illustrious bunch that had preceded Venkat, why not Venkat?
Years later, despite the heroics of folks like Wasim Bari, Tony Mann and Jason Gillespie, I still find the notion ridiculous. Captains send in a tailender to deal with a difficult passage of play so that a recognised batsman won't have to? (Yes, batsmen are a pampered lot, we all know that). And if a wicket does fall, does not a recognised batsman have to come out anyway? Or are we going to send out another night watchman? Or is the task of the night watchman to hope for the best? That either he survives till the morning, or he chews up enough deliveries before he gets out so that the incoming stalwart only has to face a few deliveries?
Of course, the next batsman will have to deal with a more hostile and testing atmosphere, because the bowling side has their tail up, having taken two wickets, and because facing five deliveries at the end of the day is harder than facing ten.
The incoherence of the night watchman strategy especially becomes apparent when captains use it when three or four wickets are down. By doing this, they ensure that a recognised batsman is shoved further down the order, and is reduced in his effectiveness.
The night watchman strategy seems to work well when they hang around the next day, frustrating the bowling attack, which wants to get on and dismiss the recognised batsmen. But the bowling side's task has already been made a bit easier by the fact that the recognised batsmen will be forced to bat with more of the tail than they'd like to. And of course, night watchmen, if they simply hang around and block, can get in the way of a team trying to push on and score quick runs to drive home a potential advantage.
The reason why I feel compelled to write this post is because I was reminded of the points made above when I noticed Amit Mishra being sent out as night watchman near the close of day two at Eden Gardens. Dhoni's decision was nothing short of ludicrous. With one stroke Dhoni managed to do three things: potentially expose Mishra to Steyn (there was no guarantee the bad light suspension would have taken place), push himself down to No. 8, and last, by not coming out himself to face the music, I dare say he didn't exactly look like Captain Courageous.
In a post on this blog a few days ago I complained about batsmen being treated with kid gloves by the laws of the game. Its a pity their captains don't even feel like making them earn their keep.