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No-one wants to be the 12th man

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9th June, 2020

You can imagine what it’s like.

You’ve arrived at the ground and begin unpacking your equipment. There’s an intense buzz in the room as players go through their preparations and rituals before the first session begins. Before fielding practice starts, Justin Langer comes over to you, fixes you with that stare of his and lightly slaps you on the back.

“Unfortunately, mate, you’re carrying the drinks today,” he said. “We’ve had a chat and taken into account the conditions out there. We think (insert name) will be a bit better equipped for this Test.

“I know you’ll be disappointed, but keep doing what you’re doing. You’re still in the mix.”

You’re let down but assure him you understand. Later your mind may turn to driving the drinks vehicle without taking out part of the picket fence or, worse, a fielder.

Like umpires, if the 12th man does a good job, you barely notice them. They slip seamlessly in and out of play as needed. But despite that, there have been some memorable 12th man performances, although not all of them for the right reasons.

Alan ‘Froggy’ Thomson was 12th man during the fourth Ashes Test in Sydney during 1971. Thomson had become a popular character during the series and had the responsibility of carrying the drinks through the crowd to reach the field. The fast bowler was all but mobbed. People patted him on the back expecting he would stop for a chat as he made his way through with many others.


The drinks break was delayed for two overs as the umpires allowed play to continue, waiting for Thomson. There’d been few occasions where the 12th man had been so noticed and it was a display of the affection Australians so often feel for their sporting heroes.

Another memorable 12th man performance also occurred in Sydney, this time during 2017. Playing against Pakistan, Matthew Renshaw was taken to the dressing room suffering concussion. Plucked from local club Manly-Warringah, Mickey Edwards found himself in a baggy green fielding in front of a crowd exceeding 17,000. Whether it was their love of an underdog, his mop of blonde hair or his desperate lunge in an attempt to cut off a boundary, the crowd quickly took to the newcomer, cheering wildly every time he approached the ball.

Edwards later conceded the experience had been scary and that his baggy green had barely fitted over his abundance of hair. He also owned up to “nicking a shirt” from the dressing room.

The experience may well pay later dividends for Australia. Edwards is keen to rejoin the national team but in a capacity that goes beyond being 12th man. He is certainly on his way, representing New South Wales against the touring English Lions earlier in 2020.

Matt Renshaw bats during a test match against India

Matt Renshaw (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

It’s easy to underestimate the difficulties of fielding as 12th man. The player may have been sitting comfortably in the stands. Something then happens and they immediately need to be on the field, but they still need time to adjust to the light and switch on to be alert and ready.

Peter Siddle is an example of how tough this can be. Siddle is a much-loved fast bowler, having played in 67 Test matches and taking 221 wickets. In 2018 against India he took his place on the field, replacing Pat Cummins. He had been on the ground for only four balls when a top edge from Rohit Sharma headed towards him. While the catch appeared simple, the ball spilt from his hands.


The moment was made even more memorable by Nathan Lyon holding his baggy green over his face to hide his expression, and a clearly disgusted Peter Siddle leaving the field shortly after. The many triumphs and the sheer likeability of Peter Siddle make it easy to forgive him.

Peter Siddle

Peter Siddle (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

But the award for the greatest 12th man performance surely goes to South African Jonty Rhodes. Rhodes was such a brilliant fielder that he could have passed as a contortionist. During 1993 South Africa faced the West Indies in a one-day international. Rhodes was named as a substitute, although at that time the 12th man could be used for batting or bowling. (Trust me, that system was more complicated than trying to explain Duckworth-Lewis.)

In any case, Rhodes was able to contribute 40 runs in that role. But it was his fielding performance that was so stunning. He took five catches, including Brian Lara, showing incredible athleticism that won him the man of the match award. To this day Rhodes remains the only 12th man to have won a man of the match award.

No-one wants to be 12th man – well, except for that time I’d been out all night and turned up hoping I’d be carrying the drinks instead of bowling with a throbbing head. But being 12th man is better than the alternative – and that of course is being dropped.