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Twenty last-ball Test thrillers from the last 20 years

Ben Stokes, VVS Laxman, Graham Onions, Courtney Walsh and Fidel Edwards start in this list (with Brian Lara making a cameo)

Ben Stokes and Jack Leach's last-wicket stand gave England an unexpected win in the Headingley Test  •  Getty Images

Ben Stokes and Jack Leach's last-wicket stand gave England an unexpected win in the Headingley Test  •  Getty Images

The last ball in a Test is about to be bowled. What are the possible scenarios? Let us ignore overthrows, ball hitting the helmet, penalty runs, wides and no-balls. There could be runs scored (a single, or 2 or 3 or 4 or 6), a dot ball or a wicket (and in rare cases, after some runs have been scored). It is clear that, numbers working favourably, a different event to what actually happened could have brought about a change to the actual result, be it a win for the batting team, a win for the bowling team, a draw or a tie. In 2366 Tests played so far, only 46 Tests have had such scenarios.
A few years ago, I did an article titled "A different ball, a different result", covering such matches in which the result was on a knife edge on the last ball. This article has a similar theme but while that one was table-driven, this will be anecdotal, focusing on Tests in the last two decades (although I have one pick from before) and on the last pair batting at the crease.
The criterion is simple. The result was in balance as the last ball was bowled. In all the drawn Tests, it is a matter of a team avoiding defeat. In the decisive matches, any one of two or three results, including a tie, was possible. These Tests were true cliffhangers.
1. England v Australia, Headingley, 2019
England won by one wicket
Last pair at the crease: Ben Stokes 135* and Jack Leach 1*
Before the last ball was bowled, any result was possible. Maybe a tie would have been a truly deserving result. After dismissing Australia for 179 and conceding a first-innings lead of 112, England needed 362 to win. Joe Root scored 77, Joe Denly 50 and Jonny Bairstow 36. However, the all-important last-wicket partnership added 76, out of which Leach's contribution was 1 in 17 balls. Stokes made 135 not out in 219 balls and took England home with a four. This was an outstanding knock and was placed in the top 20 in my list of greatest Test innings.
2. South Africa v Sri Lanka, Durban, 2018-19
Sri Lanka won by one wicket
Last pair: Kusal Perera 153* and Vishwa Fernando 6*
Rank outsiders Sri Lanka went on to score 304 for 9 in the last innings of a low-scoring match, helped by a last-wicket partnership of 78 between Perera and Fernando, who provided magnificent support during his 27-ball stay. This was similar to the Headingley Test described earlier, except that the South African pace attack was much more potent and this was an away Test for Sri Lanka. It was no wonder that Perera's 153 not out (matching Brian Lara's identical score in another mirror-image Test 20 years before) was determined to be the best ever Test innings in my list of top batting performances of all time. Perera's winning shot was a four.
3. New Zealand v Pakistan, Abu Dhabi, 2018-19
New Zealand won by four runs
Last pair: Azahr Ali 65 and Mohammad Abbas 0*
This is a rare selection: a low-scoring Test that ended in a close win for the defending side. New Zealand's way-below-par score of 153 enabled Pakistan to get a useful lead of 74 and eventually they had only 176 to chase in the second innings. At 130 for 3, the win seemed to be a formality, but then they lost their last seven wickets for 41 runs, Nos. 7 to 11 scoring 0. A very exciting Test but it was mostly self-inflicted agony for Pakistan. Debutant left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel was the unlikely bowling hero with five wickets, including the final one of batting mainstay Azhar Ali.
4. England v Sri Lanka, Lord's, 2014
Match drawn
Last pair: Shaminda Eranga 0* and Nuwan Pradeep 0*
England set Sri Lanka the task of scoring 390 to win or lasting 90 overs to save the Test. Sri Lanka achieved the latter after a lot of huffing and puffing. They were comfortably placed at 123 for 1 and then at 194 for 5 with only 12 overs to go. Then they lost four wickets for seven runs and needed No. 11 Pradeep to last five Stuart Broad deliveries to save the Test. He did that after surviving an lbw appeal, overturned on review, off his penultimate ball.
5. New Zealand v England, Auckland, 2012-13
Match drawn
Last pair: Matt Prior 110* and Monty Panesar 2*
Did New Zealand declare too late? It may seem so since they ended a wicket short of victory. However, let us remember that they gave themselves more than 140 overs to bowl out England, who, at the end of day four, were tottering at 90 for 4. When Prior walked in, England were 159 for 6. He scored a wonderful unbeaten 110 and steered them to safety, receiving good support from Broad while James Anderson and Panesar just about hung on.
6. India v West Indies, Mumbai, 2011-12
Match drawn
Last pair: Varun Aaron 2* and Pragyan Ojha 0*
This was the closest we got to a third tied Test as the scores were level at the end of the match, but since India had a wicket in hand, it finished in a draw. Set a target of 243, India were 241 for 8 at the end of the fourth ball of the last over. R Ashwin survived an lbw appeal off the fifth and took a single of the final ball before being run out. This was only the second instance, after Zimbabwe v England in Bulawayo in 1996-97 of a Test being drawn with the scores level.
7. India v Australia, Mohali, 2010-11
India won by one wicket
Last pair: VVS Laxman 73* and Pragyan Ojha 5*
I would put this VVS Laxman masterclass at par with his more famous 281. Ah! I can hear incredulous gasps. Agreed there is a 200-plus run difference. Let us look at the circumstances. India were set a target of 216 and lost early wickets. Laxman came in at 76 for 5. After a brief recovery, three batsmen, including Sachin Tendulkar, departed and the score was 124 for 8. Laxman started attacking and Ishant Sharma kept his end intact with impeccable defence. Then Sharma was dismissed when India were 11 away. Pragyan Ojha kept ten balls out and Laxman carved out a memorable win over a tough team. Mitchell Johnson's last delivery to Ojha produced two leg-byes.
8. South Africa v England, Cape Town, 2009-10
Match drawn
Last pair: Graeme Swann 10* and Graham Onions 0*
9. South Africa v England, Centurion, 2009-10
Match drawn
Last pair: Paul Collingwood 26* and Graham Onions 1*
Let me cover these two Tests together. Same series, Tests played within a fortnight of each other. England were set huge targets and the ninth wickets fell with 19 and 17 balls remaining respectively and they saved both Tests. However, the most heartwarming common factor was the presence of Graham Onions at the end of both Tests. He outscored senior batsmen each time, playing out 12 and 11 balls respectively. Let us toast to Onions for saving England in two of the nine Tests he played.
10. West Indies v England, Antigua, 2008-09
Match drawn
Last pair: Daren Powell 22* and Fidel Edwards 5*
This was a Test in which a team dominated through the match but could not force a win because of good defensive skills and their own ultra-conservatism. Despite a near-300 lead, England waited for the target to go over 500 to declare. Ramnaresh Sarwan scored a good hundred and received support throughout. However, at 353 for 9, with still over ten overs to go, West Indies looked down and out. Edwards faced 26 balls and helped Powell keep England at bay. Powell played out a dot off he final ball of the match, bowled by Graeme Swann .
11. England v India, Lord's, 2007
Match drawn
Last pair: MS Dhoni 76* and Sreesanth 4*
This was a key match in India's 1-0 away win over England. Set India a target of 380 to win, or more likely, as often happens in these situations, to survive a day. They were perilously placed at 145 for 5. Then Dhoni and Laxman added 86, which was followed by a collapse and suddenly India were wobbling at 263 for 9 with four overs to go. Sreesanth took care of seven of these deliveries and Dhoni the rest. Dhoni's innings was a very valuable one in that he saw India through to a narrow draw. Dhoni took a single off the final ball before tea, off Michael Vaughan, and rain prevented any further play.
12. Sri Lanka v South Africa, Colombo, 2006
Sri Lanka won by one wicket
Last pair: Farveez Maharoof 29* and Lasith Malinga 1*
Three 300-plus innings left Sri Lanka with a target of 352. Sri Lanka looked in command at 341 for 6 with Mahela Jayawardene on 123. Disaster struck and Sri Lanka lost Jayawardene, Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan at 341, 348 and 350. Two very tough runs were needed. Maharoof made a patient but invaluable 29 in 118 balls and Malinga scored the winning single off Nicky Boje. Sri Lanka converted a potential 1-1 draw into a 2-0 series win.
13. West Indies v India, Antigua, 2006
Match drawn
Last pair: Fidel Edwards 1* and Corey Collymore 1*
This was a peculiar match in which West Indies had the upper hand for half the match and then the pendulum swung totally towards India. After conceding a lead of 130, India, marshalled by Wasim Jaffer's 212, set West Indies a target of 392. Despite three fifties, by Chris Gayle, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Dave Mohammed, suddenly West Indies found themselves at 297 for 9 with three overs to go. Edwards was batting very well and Corey Collymore supported him by keeping out eight balls. It was touch and go but the two pacemen held on.
14. England v Australia, Old Trafford, 2005
Match drawn
Last pair: Brett Lee 18* and Glenn McGrath 5*
It is not often that a high-scoring match produces such a cracker. After three middling innings, Australia were set 423 to win in just over 100 overs. Surely the asking rate was beyond even them. Ricky Ponting made a wonderful 156, however when he was the ninth batsman out at 354, it seemed certain that England would win. Then, in a final twist, Lee and McGrath held on for over four overs to secure a very creditable draw, although we should not forget Shane Warne, who scored 34 in 69 balls. Lee scored a four off Steve Harmison with the last ball of the match.
15. England v Australia, Edgbaston, 2005
England won by two runs
Last pair: Lee 43* and Michael Kasprowicz 20
There have not been many better Tests played in the history of the game. A lead of nearly 100 but an average batting display in the second innings, barring Andrew Flintoff, meant that Australia's target was a gettable 282. However, a score of 175 for 8 seemed to indicate that everything was over. Then Warne and Lee took the attack to England and added 45 in fewer than nine overs. Warne was dismissed hit-wicket at 220 for 9 and again the end seemed nigh. Lee and Michael Kasprowicz continued to attack and Australia seemed to be coasting. Unfortunately, Kasprowicz was given out in controversial circumstances to Harmison when Australia were two runs short.
16. Sri Lanka v England, Galle, 2003-04
Match drawn
Last pair: Ashley Giles 17* and Matthew Hoggard 0*
England had to survive a final day against Murali and company and while Sri Lanka managed to bowl 107 overs, they couldn't capture all ten wickets. Giles batted for nearly two hours and when No. 11 Hoggard joined him, they had to survive another three overs. The key contribution was made earlierby Richard Johnson, who batted for 35 balls after coming in at 204 for 8. A few days later, England would go on to save the second Test in a similar, but less nail-biting, manner. Giles defended the last ball of this Galle Test from Sanath Jayasuriya.
17. Zimbabwe v West Indies, Harare, 2003-04
Match drawn
Last pair: Ridley Jacobs 60* and Fidel Edwards 1*
West Indies seem to specialise in last-wicket finishes - this being the third one in four years. Zimbabwe outplayed the hosts on the first four days but delayed the declaration on the last day, batting for nearly two hours and setting a target of over 370. The strong West Indian team collapsed to 38 for 3 and 103 for 5 before Jacobs and Shivnarine Chanderpaul salvaged the situation. Then wickets fell in a heap and the score was 204 for 9 with 12 overs to go. Jacobs was the rock at one end but Edwards, with a defensive classic of 1 in 33 balls, was equally effective. Zimbabwe would surely have rued the unnecessary overs they batted on the final morning. In the end, Edwards kept away a delivery from Trevor Gripper to save the Test.
18. Pakistan v Bangladesh, Multan, 2003
Pakistan won by one wicket
Last pair: Inzamam-ul-Haq 138* and Yasir Ali 1*
This was the rarest of rare Tests - Bangladesh outplaying a top team away from home. They gained a lead of over 100 and set Pakistan difficult target of 260. Inzamam was serene at one end but lost partners just as each one looked to be blossoming - scores of 99 for 5, 132 for 6, 164 for 7 and 205 for 8 tell the story. Inzamam and Umar Gul added 52 in 22 overs, Gul's contribution being a 50-ball 5. When he was run out, four runs were still needed. Yasir Ali held firm for four balls and at the first opportunity, Inzamam scored a boundary and Pakistan completed a terrific win. Inzamam's innings was an all-time great.
19. West Indies v Pakistan, Antigua, 2000
West Indies won by one wicket
Last pair: Jimmy Adams: 48* and Courtney Walsh 4*
Three middling innings set a low target for West Indies, but from a comfortable 144 for 3, they slumped to 197 for 9. Adams played a magnificent defensive innings and took them home with useful partnerships with the lower order, batting 13 overs with Walsh, who had similarly survived (but for 19 fewer balls) with Brian Lara in the famous win over Australia in Barbados in 1999 (see below). Adams scored a single off Wasim Akram to seal the win.
20. West Indies v Australia, Barbados, 1998-99
West Indies won by one wicket
Last pair: Brian Lara 153* and Walsh 0*
This is one of the most written-about Tests and innings ever, hence its special inclusion. Australia's big first-inning lead was diluted by a poor second innings and West Indies were set 308. They were 105 for 5 and 248 for 8 when Curtly Ambrose walked in to join Lara, playing the innings of his life - surely among the top ten in any list of great innings. Ambrose faced 39 balls and helped add 54 for the ninth wicket in 17 overs. He was dismissed six runs short of the target but Walsh managed to fend off the ball for five crucial deliveries. The scores were level when Lara cover-drove Jason Gillespie to the fence.
What is with West Indies? They have been involved in seven of these 20 Tests and they have not failed in even one of them.
An update
A reader has commented that the four by Stokes was not off the last ball of the Test. Strictly speaking, he is correct. However, that is applicable for all the seven one-wicket wins which are featured. There were balls available afterwards. I have gone on the basis that the last ball of the match was the last ball bowled. If we go by the last ball possible to be bowled, only the nine-wickets-lost draws would qualify. Not even the two ties.
Another reader has suggested that the West Indies-Pakistan Test in which Shannon Gabriel was bowled by Yasir Shah could be considered. On balance, I agree with him, even though one more over was still to be bowled.
My next article - Simulated Test Championship
In my previous article I had looked into the ICC World Test Championship from a historical analytical perspective and suggested significant changes to the format. Most of the responses were supportive of the same. One reader, Jimut Dhar, agreed that while this was far from a perfect system, any negative comments would turn off fans. My point is that if we do not start looking at the current system's shortcomings now and planning for revisions in the next cycle, nothing will ever get done. A faulty system has to be rectified sooner than later. In any case, my influence on followers of the game is minimal.
There were many good suggestions, all having some merit. I have summarised these below.
  • Let only the first three Tests count towards the WTC. But all Tests could count towards the series at stake - Ashes, Border Gavaskar Trophy, Pataudi Trophy etc
  • Make the cycle longer, say, four years and have three-Test series, home and away
  • Create composite series of three Tests, three ODIs and three T20Is, so that all formats have relevance - like the women's Ashes
  • Use the relative points in the ICC Test rankings to award bonus points for weaker teams getting good results
However, a very significant suggestion came from a few readers, starting with Shankar Krishnan. They remembered that I have a Test Championship system that allocates points for each Test based on Result, Team Performance and Location/Team Strength. They wanted me to simulate a Test Championship for the recent "x" years, based on this system. This is an excellent idea. It also allows me to walk the talk. In other words, how to handle the problems faced by the ICC - differing number of Tests, differing number of series, home/away imbalance etc.
So my next article, the first one for the next decade, will be a Simulated Test Championship covering the 130-plus Tests of the last three years - from January 2017 to December 2019. It will be interesting to see which two teams would have contested the final of the STC. It will be nice if a series between these two teams is on the anvil in the near future.
Email me with your comments and I will respond. This email id is to be used only for posting comments.

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