Carry on batting
What was the greatest innings by a batsman carrying his bat?
The Boxing Day Test between South Africa and England in Durban saw the 50th instance in Tests of a batsman carrying his bat through a completed innings. In the same way that Barack Obama is not the 44th man to occupy the White House, so Dean Elgar is not the 50th man to have carried his bat in a Test innings: Desmond Haynes did it three times, and the Australian Bills, Woodfull and Lawry, and Glenn Turner of New Zealand, each did it twice.
Elgar's splendid 118* was an admirable innings and it was also a typical innings in a number of ways.
First, and not surprisingly , it was typical of him and the sort of player he is. Elgar represents a very specific type of left-handed batsman. He is not lordly and serene, like Frank Woolley or David Gower; he is not exquisitely audacious like Garry Sobers or Brian Lara; nor is he rapaciously aggressive like Adam Gilchrist or Chris Gayle. He is tough, nuggety, watchful - a nurdler and a nudger who saves his big shots for the special occasion. He is reminiscent of John Edrich and Allan Border; a personal favourite was the Hampshire batsman David Turner. A captain can rely on them, as Elgar showed at Durban and as he will again.
More significantly it was typical of an innings by a batsman carrying his bat. This is a very special achievement. Fifty occasions in almost 2,200 Tests makes it a rare event. When a batsman goes in first, particularly in a five-day, four-innings match, and is still undefeated at the end of that innings when all his team-mates have been got out, or got themselves out, something rather unusual has occurred. It suggests that either the unvanquished opener is some sort of superhero; or that his colleagues hopelessly under-performed (of course these options are not mutually exclusive). Even the most cursory study of human nature suggests that the latter is the more likely.
This was certainly the case at Durban. AB de Villiers made 49; nobody else reached 20. This sort of situation is very common when someone carries his bat , for obvious reasons. If one or two of the others are also playing very well the chances of an opener carrying his bat are clearly reduced - unless there is a sudden collapse. This is what happened at Port of Spain in 1992-93 when Haynes carried his bat for 143* against Pakistan. Brian Lara made 96 and Richie Richardson 68; but the last eight wickets fell for 53 and Haynes was left high and dry. (West Indies still won.) Durban is much more typical. When David Warner scored a marvellous century in a thrilling but unsuccessful run chase against New Zealand in Hobart in 2011, the next highest run scorer was Usman Khawaja with 23. When Warren Bardsley made 193* against England at Lord's in 1926 , his main support came from Charlie Macartney, with 39. It is an achievement which, though remarkable, has a hint of the fluke about it. When one considers the great openers a lot of the usual suspects are there; apart from those already mentioned, Geoff Boycott (99* at Perth in 1979), Sunil Gavaskar, Conrad Hunte, Gary Kirsten. But no Jack Hobbs, no Herbert Sutcliffe, no Hanif Mohammad, no Gordon Greenidge, no Matthew Hayden.
There was another thing about Durban that was typical: South Africa lost. Perhaps "typical" is putting it too strongly . But of those fifty games, the side whose opener carried his bat lost 25, winning 13 and drawing 12.
Which has been the greatest innings by an opener carrying his bat in Test cricket? There are a number of contenders.
Gayle made a remarkable 165* against Australia in Adelaide in 2009-10 to help secure a draw for his beleaguered team. Batting for almost eight hours and hitting 16 fours and a solitary six, Gayle's magnificent innings was so out of character that it merits a mention. Michael Atherton achieved something special against New Zealand in Christchurch in 1996-97. He carried his bat for 94* in England's first innings and, in the second, led a successful run chase in excess of 300 with a composed century. Saeed Anwar made a huge contribution to Pakistan's victory over India at Eden Gardens in 1998-99. Pakistan made a dreadful start to the match, being reduced to 26 for 6. India secured a first-innings lead of 45. In Pakistan's second innings Anwar made 188 - three more than the whole side had made first time round - and set up a platform from which Pakistan's bowlers, led by Shoaib Akhtar, could force victory. But if I had to pick one innings, it would be Graham Gooch's 154* (out of 252) for England against the West Indies at Headingley in 1991. West Indies were still the best side in the world and their attack - Curtly Ambrose, Patrick Patterson, Courtney Walsh and Malcolm Marshall - extremely formidable by any standards. Conditions were always challenging for the batsmen and there were a number of rain interruptions while Gooch was batting on the fourth day. The match situation was tense - England had secured a narrow first innings lead, and Ambrose in particular was causing apparently insoluble problems for the other batsmen.
But Gooch was indomitable. He was at the height of his powers; the previous year he had made a triple century and a century in the same match against India. But this was the West Indies. For so long Gooch had been the lugubrious Roundhead to Gower's engaging Cavalier: now he had the stage to himself and he bestrode. Batting for seven and a half hours he demonstrated formidable technique and intense concentration.
He batted himself into the pantheon of great players and he was the architect of a famous victory.
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Bill Ricquier is the author of The Indian Masters and The Pakistan Masters, both published by The History Press in England and Roli Books in India