From this article onwards, I will incorporate an unforgettable cricket-related prose/poetry/anecdote segment for readers to savour. The following is an extract from Ray Robinson's Between Wickets, on Stan McCabe's all-time classic of 232 against England at Trent Bridge in 1938.
"Barnes: The finest innings I have seen." "Cardus: Think again, you have seen Trumper." "Barnes: I can only repeat it is the greatest I ever saw." "Cardus: I'd have liked to see you out there bowling to McCabe." "Barnes (after a moment's thought): I don't think I would have kept him quiet."
A match-saving innings is an effort of great fortitude and endurance. It is difficult to pinpoint performances in the first innings of Test matches as match-saving, as there are at least two more innings to be played in the game. Hence, match-saving innings are normally played in the third or fourth innings, when there is no comeback possible. The only exception is one of the greatest innings ever - the one by McCabe referenced above.
The selection in this article is through a combination of my own knowledge base, Ratings points, and my own preferences. It is possible that the sequence, at least for the first five or six innings, reflects my own favourites. In the graphs, the blue circles indicate the balls played by the batsman who played the innings in question, and the grey ones, balls played by the other batsmen.
My top 13 match-saving innings
In the early 1970s, West Indies had not acquired the devastating pace bowlers who would provide them years of continuous success. However, they still had a potent bowling attack, especially at home. In this Kingston Test, in 1974, England scored 353 in their first innings but still conceded a first-innings lead of 230.They started the final day at 218 for 5. Opener Dennis Amiss was batting on 123 and had only Alan Knott and the bowlers for company. A comfortable loss loomed. However, Amiss batted through the six hours on the last day and saved the match single-handedly. Derek Underwood, the nightwatchman, gave him company for 74 balls and the No. 9, Chris Old, for 104 balls. It was touch and go when Old departed at 343 for 8, but then Pat Pocock dug in for 88 balls and Bob Willis played out 41.
All these efforts were supporting acts. The cornerstones of the rescue act were the 250 balls Amiss played on the fourth day and the 300 or so he faced on the fifth. In all, he batted for nearly ten hours. The other point to note is that even at the fall of the eighth wicket England were not safe. Barring keeper Deryck Murray, the other ten West Indies players bowled, but no one could dislodge Amiss.
While evaluating these innings, the Rating points do not matter a whit. However, it must be said that Amiss' defensive masterpiece has been placed 21st in the GW-25 list, with 752 points.
India had a pretty awful 1979 World Cup, so they needed to at least compete in the Test tour against England that followed. The final Test of the series was played at The Oval. England gained a first-innings lead of over 100 and consolidated with a good third innings, which left India to score 438 to win. They finished the fourth day at 76 without loss. The fifth day was a classic in all respects. Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan took their first-wicket partnership to 213 and now the most unlikely of wins looked possible. After Chauhan's dismissal, Gavaskar found an excellent partner in Dilip Vengsarkar, and when the score reached 366 for 1, the win appeared certain. Seventy-six more were needed in 12 overs.
Then Vengsarkar was dismissed by Phil Edmonds, and India's captain, S Venkataraghavan, made a few tactical mistakes. Instead of Gundappa Viswanath, he sent in Kapil Dev, who did not last an over. Yashpal Sharma came in next and added a few useful runs, but Ian Botham dismissed Gavaskar, Yajurvindra Singh and Yashpal Sharma quickly. At the other end, Willey dismissed Viswanath. In the end, Bharath Reddy and Karsan Ghavri held on, but agonisingly, India finished nine runs short of the target.
The match was saved by Gavaskar's attacking batting. If India had defended from the beginning, they might very well have lost. Some timid captaincy decisions possibly robbed India of a historic win. If India had won, Gavaskar's innings, which secured 674 rating points, might have made it into my top 25 Test batting performances of all time.
Most cricket enthusiasts would agree that the defining innings to save a Test match has been Mike Atherton's magnum opus in 1995.
The first Test of the series was drawn with not even the first innings completed. The second Test was in the South African fortress of Johannesburg. South Africa gained a first-innings lead of 132 and batted freely in the second to set England a target of 479, or more realistically, asked them to survive about 11 hours against a bowling attack of Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Meyrick Pringle and Brian McMillan.
Survive they did, through an innings of immense concentration, technique and courage from their captain, Atherton. Alec Stewart batted attractively but was out after lunch. Then Graeme Hick, Mark Ramprakash and Graham Thorpe were dismissed before the end of the fourth day's play. At 145 for 4, the end seemed near. The only glimmer of hope was Atherton.
Robin Smith resisted for a while on the last day, before Atherton and Jack Russell forged a match-saving partnership. Russell faced 235 balls and batted for 274 minutes, which was like gold in the context of the game. But it was Atherton's magnificent and massive effort that ultimately saved the Test for England. He faced the first and last ball of the innings, which lasted 165 overs. His marathon effort secured him 588 rating points in my calculations.
Neville Cardus, CLR James and Jack Fingleton were all great cricket writers. However, for me, the best cricket book ever written is Between Wickets, by Ray Robinson. The jewel in that crown is the chapter on the three famous innings of McCabe. I urge readers to beg, borrow or steal this gem and read it.
McCabe scored 187 against England in the Bodyline series and 189 against South Africa. However his best innings was the 232 against England.
A quartet of centuries let England declare late on the second day at the massive score of 658. Australia were in some trouble at 138 for 3 at stumps. On the third day, Australia kept losing wickets and were perilously placed at 151 for 5 and 194 for 6, but McCabe serenely moved to 150. However, at 334 for 9 it looked like a certain defeat for Australia. In the company of Chuck Fleetwood-Smith, McCabe added 77 for the last wicket in 28 minutes and Australia got to 411. McCabe had come in at 111 for 2 and made 232 out of the 300 runs scored by Australia since then. Don Bradman's exhortations to his team, "Come and look at this! You've never seen anything like it", tells the story.
Australia saved the match by playing for two days in the follow-on, mainly through an uncharacteristic defensive innings by Bradman, who scored the slowest hundred of his career, and an equally dogged hundred by Bill Brown. An inexplicable rest day on the third day also helped.
McCabe's innings was a rarity - an attacking performance that saved a Test. An all-time classic, indeed. It is the only first-innings effort in this list of 13 performances. It earned 588 rating points, possibly because it came in the first innings.
A match-saving triple-century. Unbelievable indeed. Of recent vintage, this monumental effort came from Brendon McCullum during India's tour of New Zealand in early 2014.
It was a tough series for New Zealand. They won a close first Test, but India continued to fight hard in the second Test, in Wellington, and dismissed New Zealand for 192 to gain a first-innings lead of nearly 250. When New Zealand slumped to 94 for 5, just after lunch on the third day, BJ Watling joined McCullum and the two took the score past 250 by stumps. The match could have still gone India's way when Watling was dismissed with the team score on 446, a lead of less than 200, but James Neesham came in and batted attractively as New Zealand went past 600 and saved the Test. There was one other monkey to get off the collective Kiwi back: 23 years before, Martin Crowe had been dismissed one short of 300. On the fifth day here, McCullum went past 300 to become New Zealand's first triple-centurion. The match was saved and the series won.
The circumstances, at entry and beyond, make this one of the great modern innings. It was a monumental feat of endurance and one of the best innings ever, not just in the match-saving genre. McCullum clocked in with 596 rating points.
Mark Greatbatch is famous for being one of the first openers to take the attack to the bowlers. Expertly handled by Martin Crowe, he almost took New Zealand to the 1992 World Cup final. Greatbatch is also known for playing an all-time defensive classic to save New Zealand from what looked like certain defeat in Perth in 1989.
David Boon's 200 helped Australia reach an imposing first-innings total of 521. New Zealand were dismissed for 231. More than 11 hours of play remained in the match, and New Zealand, following on, were not expected to last the fourth day. Greatbatch had entered at 11 for 1. Two middling partnerships with the Crowe brothers took the match to the fifth day, and then No. 9 batsman Martin Snedden's vigil of over three hours helped Greatbatch save the Test.
Greatbatch's innings was an effort of intense concentration and the utmost defensive skill. The numbers are mind-boggling, considering the bowling attack - Terry Alderman, Geoff Lawson, Carl Rackemann, Merv Hughes and Tom Moody - and the venue.
When he was picked to make his debut against Australia in 2012, Faf du Plessis was known to be a big hitter. Little would anyone have imagined that he was going to leave an indelible impression on the Test scene in a match-saving situation.
In his first Test, in Adelaide, Australia batted first and amassed 550. Du Plessis scored an invaluable 78 in the South African reply of 388. Australia's declaration on the fourth day left South Africa needing to bat out nearly 150 overs to save the Test. They ended the day at a precarious 77 for 4, with AB de Villiers and du Plessis at the crease.
On the fifth day, de Villiers left after lunch, having made a slow 33. Du Plessis found an effective partner in Jacques Kallis but lost him after tea. Each of the next three batsmen hung on and du Plessis remained not out at 110 at close of play, when South Africa were couple of wickets away from defeat.
It was an amazing display of endurance by du Plessis, who batted for more than seven and a half hours. He came in at 45 for 4 and was the rock on which the South African innings was built. Let us also not forget that he was making his Test debut. The innings secured him 580 rating points.
I give special credence to attacking, stroke-making batsmen who completely change their mindsets and buckle down to play defensive, match-saving innings. It is not easy for a de Villiers or a McCullum to suddenly change their perspectives. It was similar with Mark Waugh, at Adelaide Oval in 1998.
South Africa gained a first-innings lead of 167 and then set Australia 361 to win, or needing to bat out more than seven hours to draw. Australia lost Mark Taylor and Matthew Elliott by close of play on day four, and Mark Waugh came in at a desperate 17 for 2. He and Greg Blewett survived till close of play, but the odds were on South Africa to wrap things up by tea on the fifth day.
On the final day, Waugh was assisted by Blewett, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, but when Ian Healy fell at 202, 15 overs were still available and things looked bleak. Andy Bichel and Shane Warne held firm during the last half an hour, while Mark Waugh batted serenely throughout. The drawn Test gave Australia the series. Mark Waugh, considered a lightweight in handling pressure, proved that there was steel behind the handsome exterior.
Zimbabwe have always been a fair-to-middling team. However, they had a genuinely world-class player around the turn of the millennium. Andy Flower could have walked into most other teams as a batsman or a wicketkeeper. With average support, he did wonders for Zimbabwe.
Perhaps his best rearguard innings came in Nagpur in 2000. India made 609 and Zimbabwe finished with a deficit of 227 and batted again.
India's bowlers then reduced Zimbabwe to 61 for 3, after which Alastair Campbell and Andy Flower got together and added 209 for the fourth wicket. When Campbell was out early on the fifth day, the door was opened slightly. But Flower found a good partner in Dirk Viljoen, who stayed on for two and a half hours.
Flower batted through to save the Test comfortably. The Indian spin attack was in transition, but there is no doubting the magnitude of Flower's innings and his magnificent contribution towards saving a tough away Test.
When a first-innings score of 579 gets a response of 106 and the follow-on is enforced, you expect an easy innings victory.
What happened in Barbados in 1958 was a miracle. A pint-sized batsman dropped anchor and batted for over 16 hours. It was, arguably, the greatest effort of stamina and concentration seen on a cricket field. The bowling was nowhere near the pace-driven blitzkrieg that became the norm for West Indies a few decades later. However, it still required intense concentration, to bat for hours on end. When Hanif Mohammad was dismissed at 626 for 6, the match had been already saved before the sixth day's play had started.
Hanif's 337 was the only hundred in the innings. However, almost everyone contributed and the first four wickets each produced century partnerships.
This is one of two innings for which I could not get the balls-played information from any source, so I had to extrapolate. It comes to 981 balls for Hanif. However, it is certain that he must actually have played well over 1100 balls, since he would have had more than 50% of the strike in the innings. Hanif's super-marathon effort secured him a high 651 rating points.
This was the last Test played by Pakistan in Dacca (as a home venue). Two middling innings meant that their lead was only 17. Then the Pakistani spinners, Pervez Sajjad and Intikhab Alam, wreaked havoc and reduced New Zealand to 25 for 4, whereupon Mark Burgess walked in. He and Glenn Turner took the score to 55 for 4 at the close of the third day of a four-day Test.
On the final day, four wickets fell quickly and New Zealand were tottering at 101 for 8, with a lead of less than 100. Then Burgess and Bob Cunis embarked on a match-saving partnership of 96. These were priceless runs and took about 50 overs to accumulate. Burgess remained not out on 119 at the end. Pakistan were left with 15 overs in which they managed to lose four wickets.
What was important was that New Zealand were leading 1-0 in the three-Test series, and this fighting draw gave them victory in a tough series, a rarity for them in those days. Burgess' classic (for which balls-played information was extrapolated, just as it was for Hanif's) was rated quite high in the GW-25 table, with 687 rating points.
When a team scores 849 in just over two days and then dismisses the other team for 286, you would expect the follow-on to be enforced. Maybe Freddie Calthorpe, the England captain in this Test, had to take into account the fact that two of the players were over 50 (yes, you heard it correct - Wilfred Rhodes and George Gunn), and the average age was probably over 40. So England batted again and declared around lunch on the fifth day, setting West Indies 836 to win, with over four days' play remaining before their ship sailed home.
Headley played a magnificent attacking innings of 223 to save the Test. It was indeed a truly match-saving one since England could well have dismissed West Indies twice over in the 164 overs bowled in their second innings. Even though Headley was dismissed before close on day seven, he had held on for a long time, till rain came in and washed away the eighth and ninth days.
Headley just about managed to cross 500 rating points for this innings.
This recent innings in Dubai is truly a vintage one. Australia made 202 in reply to Pakistan's 482. The follow-on was not enforced (it often hasn't been after Australia lost, after having enforced the follow-on in Kolkata in 2001) and Pakistan set Australia 462 to win, or, more importantly, needing to survive 140 overs to save the Test.
And Australia did survive, thanks to a monumental effort by Usman Khawaja, who batted for well over eight hours. The bowling was top class: Mohammad Abbas, Wahab Riaz, Yasir Shah and Bilal Asif. After a first-wicket stand of 87 with Aaron Finch, Khawaja watched the Marsh brothers depart within ten balls of each other. He then played wonderfully well, well supported by Travis Head and Tim Paine. When Khawaja was dismissed at 331 and two more wickets fell inside two runs, Australia looked shaky, but Paine and Nathan Lyon held on.
A peculiar feature of the innings was that Khawaja faced only 302 balls, which is very low for an innings lasting over eight and a half hours. This shows that Head and Paine, who faced 370 balls between them, played very important parts in achieving the draw. However, Khawaja's innings was the anchoring one.
I cannot close this chapter without making special mention of a magnificent but ultimately futile fightback by South Africa in Delhi in 2015.
South Africa were set 481 to win in 158 overs and they played all but 15 of the allotted overs, being finally dismissed for 143 in 143.1 overs, only the second time in history that an innings of 50 or more overs had a run rate of less than 1. Two batsmen stood out: Hashim Amla scored 25 runs in 244 balls and AB de Villiers 43 runs in 297 balls. These two batted for just over 90 overs. Unfortunately neither could stay till the end to save South Africa, who lost the series 0-3 because India batted and bowled better. However, on this day South Africa, in general, and Amla and de Villiers, in particular, won many Indian hearts.
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