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The captain's knocks: Part 1

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Roar Guru
2nd December, 2019
6

Although cricket is a team sport, individual efforts are more important than in most others. Ben Stokes’ heroics at Headingley were just the latest example of one or two players determining the outcome of a cricket match.

Of course, the captains are often the ones the teams look for such match-winning efforts.

I have selected ten captain’s knocks from ten Test-playing nations. I must make it clear here that this article is based on only a small part of cricketing history. I only considered efforts that I myself followed intensely. Thus, Sir Don Bradman’s 173* chasing 400 at Headingley in 1948, or Nawab Pataudi’s 148 in a losing cause at the same venue in 1967 don’t come into consideration.

Among the ten efforts selected, six are from Test matches, three from World Cup matches and perhaps the most important one is from the ICC Trophy. All efforts came during the 1980s or 1990s – which is hardly surprising given my own interest in the game reached its peak during the period.

Allan Border: 196 versus England, Lord’s, 1985
Down 1-0 in the series, the young Aussie team showed great character restricting the hosts to 290 in the first innings. Midway through the second day, however, the hosts threatened to fight back as the Aussies reached 4/101. Ian Botham, so often the nemesis of the Aussies, had just taken two wickets in quick succession to put pressure on the middle order.

The Aussies needed a big effort from their captain and he duly delivered. First, he shared a mammoth double-century stand with his Queensland teammate Greg Ritchie. When Botham trapped Ritchie LBW for 94, the Aussies were already in the lead. But for Border, the job was only half done.

Australia needed a sizeable lead as they would bat last against John Emburey and Phil Edmonds. While the two Middlesex spinners didn’t enjoy great reputations as match-winning bowlers at Test level, Lord’s at least was their home ground.

Thankfully, Border received excellent support from the lower order and, in the end, the Aussies took a decisive 135-run lead. Leg spinner Bob ‘Dutchy’ Holland took 5/68 to restrict the English second innings. Botham briefly rekindled memories of Headingley 1981, dismissing the Aussie openers cheaply on the fourth evening, but Border stood firm. His 41* was enough to ensure a four-wicket victory.

This Test started a purple patch for the Aussie captain, which lasted for more than two years and culminated in a career-best 205 at Adelaide in December 1987. A year later, he produced a captain’s spell to surprise the invincible Windies at the SCG.

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Mike Gatting: 79 versus Pakistan, Faisalabad, 1987
One thing can be said about Mike Gatting’s Test career is that it was never boring and never short of incidents. The fascinating battles he fought with top-quality leg spinners was the highlight of his career.

It was a pretty even contest. While world-class leg spinners like Abdul Qadir, Anil Kumble and Shane Warne often got the better of him, his nimble footwork – especially during his mid-80s peak – frequently gave him the upper hand.

This battle started long before facing the ‘ball of the century’. In fact, in his very first Test innings at Karachi in January 1978, he spent an unhappy half an hour at the wicket before being trapped LBW by Qadir for just five.

Like Gatting, Qadir was a young man hoping to break into the big league – this was his first series and just his third Test. Both Gatting and Qadir had benefited from the exodus of key players to Kerry Packer’s circus.

A decade later, they were facing each other again, in a three-Test series in 1987. By that time, Gating had become the England captain, while Qadir enjoyed the reputation of being the best spinner in the world.

The first Test at Lahore was all about Qadir – cheered on by his hometown fans, he took 13 wickets to inflict a humiliating defeat for England.

At Faisalabad, Gatting came to the wicket on the opening day with the match well-balanced. England were 2/124; opener Chris Broad was looking solid at one end, but Qadir had just taken his first wicket and it looked like was on his way to a repeat of Lahore.

The England captain decided attack would be the best form of the defence. He decided to throw caution to the wind by repeatedly dancing down the pitch and driving through the off-side.

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It was both bold and beautiful. Fourteen gloriously executed boundaries were highlights of his 81-ball innings. Qadir eventually bowled him but, by that time, Gatting had shown he was not unplayable – even on a turning track. His strike rate was 97.53 – impressive even in today’s standards and almost unthinkable in those days.

The value of his innings can be properly understood if we consider that, following his departure, England slumped from 2/241 to 292 all out. Broad completed a fine patient hundred, but the lower middle order looked hapless against Qadir and his spinning partner, Iqbal Qasim.

Sadly, Gatting’s brilliant effort here was completely overshadowed by the infamous Shakoor Rana incident very late on the second day that Gatting was directly involved in. Although, under pressure from the board, he apologised to the umpire to ensure the continuation of the series, the incident had a profound effect on him and he was never the same player again.

Due to the ill feelings created during the series, it would be 13 years before an England team would play a Test series in Pakistan again.

Clive Lloyd: 161* versus India, Calcutta, 1983)
In the 1978-79 season, I became a regular follower of the Indian cricket team via ‘Akashbani’ – the Indian radio. Thus, I managed to follow the Indian team from Karachi to the MCG via Bombay and Kanpur. But, without doubt, the biggest attraction for me was the Tests at the Eden Gardens, Calcutta. Here, we would get commentary in Bengali – Kamal Bhattacharya, with his witty comments, was my great favourite.

So, when the fifth Test of the 1983 series started there on a December morning, I was beside my radio exactly on time. There was a sensational start as Malcolm Marshall, the fastest bowler in the world, had veteran Sunil Gavaskar caught behind off the very first delivery.

India never really recovered from this setback, reaching 241 thanks to a late order rally.

The Windies were leading the series 2-0, and their top-order batting on the second morning seemed a bit too carefree – as if they had already won the series. They paid their penalty.

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Gordon Greenidge lofted Roger Binny for a six early on his innings, but the Karnataka all-rounder had the last laugh dismissing him for 25.

At the other end, Kapil Dev ran through the top order and, when off-spinner Shiv Lal Yadav bowled Larry Gomes, the home team was right back in the match with the visitors struggling at 5/88.

With the Windies playing an extra bowler in the form of debutant Roger Harper, skipper Clive Lloyd was the only recognised batsman left. He was joined at the wicket by Marshall; a capable but not recognised batsman.

They gave up the cavalier approach of the top order and batted with proper caution. Fully aware of the value of his wicket, the Windies captain decided to take no risk. Most of the aggression came from the other end. The pair was helped by the inexperience of the Indian spin attack.

Yadav was an ‘English type off-spinner’, more keen to keep things quiet than try to run through the batting lineups. Ravi Shastri was mainly playing as a batting all-rounder at the time.

Maninder Singh, the other left arm spinner was perhaps the most threatening; but he was still very young and very raw.

In the end, the partnership was broken when Maninder trapped Marshall LBW; but not before the fast bowler had contributed a valuable 54 runs. The West Indies finished the day at 6/179, with Lloyd on 58*. The match was evenly balanced.

India felt they had taken the initiative early on the third day; Michael Holding and Harper perished quickly as the tourists were restricted to 8/213. While the skipper was batting beautifully at one end, it appeared that he would run out of partners. Unexpectedly, he received great support from another veteran – Andy Roberts.

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Almost a decade ago, they were part of the West Indies team that won a had fought series 3-2 in India. Lloyd made his captaincy debut then and Roberts made his first impression in international cricket, taking 32 wickets.

Here, they joined hands again to deny the hosts. The 161-run stand effectively sealed the match and the series. While batting with Marshall, Lloyd was happy to play the second fiddle. Here, on the third day, he was the man in supreme control. Back foot drives, mostly through the off-side, was the major feature of his batting. With time, the power behind the shots seemed to become greater and greater.

Roberts was mostly batting defensively but, as the Windies lead grew, he too came out of his shell smashing three sixes off the spinners. Yadav took the last two wickets to end the innings at 377, but Lloyd remained unconquered at 161.

After the heroics of their skipper, Holding and Marshall quickly got on the job, restricting the hosts to 5/36 before the close of play. After the rest day, the job was quickly completed on the fourth morning to give the Windies an unassailable 3-0 series lead.

Geoff Howarth: 137* versus India, Wellington, 1981)
Howarth, the Kiwi captain batted at No.4 in this match. Ahead of him were three left-handers; Bruce Edgar, John Wright and John Reid. On the opening day, all three got going and then got out without getting a big score.

Thankfully, Howarth was in superb form and when the New Zealand innings ended, he was still unbeaten on 137. Overall, he batted for almost six hours and struck 15 well-timed boundaries. The team total was 375 and, on seamer-friendly conditions, that was enough to ensure a comfortable victory for the home side.

Howarth and all the other Kiwi batsmen benefitted from the inexperience of the Indian attack, in which two bowlers Yograj Singh – father of Yuvraj – and Ravi Shastri were making their Test debuts. More importantly for India, their main strike bowler – Kapil – wasn’t quite at his best. Just weeks earlier, an injured Kapil had run through the Australian middle-order at MCG. But here, he was experimenting a bit too much.

Interestingly, Richard Hadlee, New Zealand’s greatest cricketer of all time, made the same mistake when the Indians batted. In fact, he went wicketless in the first innings. Instead, it was his new-ball partner, Lance Cairns who stole the show taking 5/33 to restrict India to 223.

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Although the Indian bowlers produced an impressive show to bowl New Zealand out for just 100 in the second innings, the Kiwis still won by 62 runs. Sir Hadlee redeemed himself somewhat by taking 4/65 in the second innings.

Kepler Wessels: 81* versus Australia, SCG, World Cup 1992)
Normally, an unbeaten 81 from 148 deliveries chasing a modest target of 171 in a 50-over match would not be something to write about. But it was the gravity of the occasion that made this innings so special.

This was South Africa’s first ever World Cup match. They were included in the event at the 11th hour after their return to international cricket just a few months before. The full house at the SCG saw a thumping nine-wicket win for the new boys.

Batting first, too many Aussie batsmen threw it away after getting a start as they posted a poor total of 9/170. One man who didn’t get going was the skipper Allan Border, who left a big gap between his bat and pad and Adrain Kuiper, the South Africa seamer, got the ball to move back into the left-hander to hit the timber. It was a Golden Duck for the Aussie skipper.

The target for South Africa was very modest but, as I watched the game on TV, I wondered whether the internationally inexperienced batting lineup would capitulate under pressure.

Well, the South Africa skipper ensured that his team was never under pressure. He was there from beginning to end.

First, with Andrew Hudson, he shared an opening stand of 74. Hudson, a true opener, was always lot happier facing pace rather than spin, so Peter Taylor comprehensively bowled him for 28 to give the home side a ray of hope. But Wessels, accompanied by another veteran in Peter Kirsten, stood firm and slowly but surely, they took the game away from the Aussies.

Earlier in the season, these two had shared a century stand at Delhi to help record South Africa’s maiden ODI win. But the SCG was a much bigger occasion and a much bigger success.

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As for Wessels’ batting on the day; it was measured and effective rather than exciting. In fact, he was always an accumulator of runs more than an attractive stroke-maker.

The pressure on him at the SCG was compounded by the fact that he wasn’t the most popular cricketer among the Aussie fans, having turned his back on his adopted country a few years earlier.

Nevertheless, no one could complain about his efforts at SCG on this historic day and he was the obvious choice for man of the match.