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Nicholas Hogg

The heroic beauty of the last-wicket stand

Nine down and battling? Now, that's romance

Nicholas Hogg
Nicholas Hogg
The 11th hour: Bangladesh interrupt the narrative of the valiant last stand in Dhaka  •  Getty Images

The 11th hour: Bangladesh interrupt the narrative of the valiant last stand in Dhaka  •  Getty Images

When the towering frame of Steven Finn took the crease at the end of England's second innings in Dhaka, I started dreaming. England, nine wickets down, needed 112 to win, or 111 to avoid defeat, which is probably a better way of phrasing the chase from this unlikely position. I hoped this could be one of the last-stand classics. I envisioned Finn blocking and nudging his way to a valiant 30-odd, while Chris Woakes, no amateur with a willow cleft, battled his way to the total. I pictured the two warriors slaked in sweat, raising their swords to the joyous Three Lions battalion celebrating on the balcony.
You might well guess, by how carried away I'm getting with the language, the military metaphors and the redundant hope, that I love a last-wicket stand. Tension, the scrapping underdog, this is cricket at its most riveting.
And why shouldn't I have hoped in Dhaka? The record tenth-wicket Test partnership is a monstrous 198 from when Jimmy Anderson baffled the bowlers, the fans, and certainly himself - his previous highest score was 49 - by notching up 81 against India at Trent Bridge in 2014. He was so surprised by his fifty, he was unsure how to celebrate. "I didn't really know what that meant, so I just did the round with the bat. I've seen people point at the dressing room, so I did that as well."
It wasn't the first time we'd watched Anderson epically hang on at the end. Only a few weeks earlier, against Sri Lanka at Headingley he'd desperately clung to his wicket for 20 overs, until the penultimate ball. Such was the hurt of losing the game, he broke down in tears.
We feel deeply for these No. 11 nearly heroes, no matter how partisan the player, fan or hack. Think of Andrew Flintoff photographed kneeling to Brett Lee in 2005, an image that was replicated when Joe Root consoled Sabbir Rahman in Chittagong two weeks ago. And who didn't want 19-year-old Ashton Agar, striking the ball with unfettered joy, to hit two more runs and make a hundred on his Test debut in 2013?
My own appreciation of these last-stand battles, particularly digging a trench and staying put no matter what artillery the opposition launches, stems from my teenage introduction to men's league cricket. Aged 14, I was sneaking into my club 2nd XI on fielding ability alone. Being able to throw, catch, run and dive were rare skills in an ageing side. Although, in reality, it was more likely my name was on the sheet because I was too young to complain about batting 11.
Not that this batting position was ever superfluous. Not on North Leicestershire minefields, where the most innocuous delivery could detonate the stumps. Back in the 1980s the league points system was set up in such a way that a losing draw was infinitely preferable to defeat, and thus giving away a precious bonus to the opposition. This meant my propping up of the tail end became more important than the runs scratched from the established batsmen. After the men went in and threw away their wickets, I was expected to save the day by blocking out the remaining overs.
I still recall a wet and windy afternoon on an exposed hillside. My fanciful memory is that we were actually playing on a farm somewhere, with cowpats in the outfield, but this is probably my imagination. I had a dozen or so overs to keep my wicket and save the game. Both their quicks got lift and bounce off a skiddy track. I either dropped my hands and left, or played that forward defensive that my coach, former pro Peter Booth, proud Yorkshireman and stickler for correct technique, drilled into us every net session. Despite being young and green, surrounded by men whose lives apparently meant no more than winning a game of cricket on a rain-swept Saturday, I resisted. And the more I resisted the more viscous became the sledging. Men sledging a boy, testing his nerve by questioning whether he'd reached puberty, had he ever kissed a girl, if he even liked girls. When this had no effect, the mumbled threats started, the swear words and promises of physical violence.
Still, the bails remained in place, and I strode off that pitch and marched into manhood. Hearty bear paws patted my back in the pavilion, and the men who'd never even spoken to me before were now buying pints of shandy for me at the bar. I was a Not Out hero.
These dashing feats of non-scoring still enthral my social cricket. Regular No. 11 for the Authors CC is historian Tom Holland, a bowler who usually takes more wickets in a game than he scores runs. A few years ago he hit a six. His first. A remarkable inside-out scythe over extra cover. He still tweets the photo of it once a week.
Yet his most heroic innings, or at least the knock that I remember, was a tenth-wicket stand we shared against the Royal Household at Windsor. Forget any visions you might have of a gentle opposition made up of effeminate butlers and dainty footmen. Strapping Aussie imports and veteran club players people a team that loves nothing more than to drub the Authors. Not this Saturday. We blocked and shouldered arms, nudged and frustrated. We got down to the last six balls, and I'd failed to get Tom off strike. No fear. Tom defended, left, and even flicked one off middle stump, and we walked, no we strode, back to a raucous welcome celebrating that single, intact wicket.
Oh, and the Woakes-Finn fairy tale in Dhaka? No. Not this time. You already know that. He was plumb lbw for a duck. That happy ending belonged to Bangladesh.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His third novel, TOKYO, is out now. @nicholas_hogg