XI of a kind: England's unsung heroics


Sir. Jack Hobbs starred in England’s revival acts several times © Getty

At the highest level of sport, a difference between the winner and the one who succumbs to defeat could be a mere .001th of a second or a solitary run. These are the moments where even a small mistake could result in a loss. Every risk has to be thought of carefully but the subsequent decision has to be taken in a matter of seconds. The moments where athletes seem to be residing in a far away place of suffering, pushing each other to the limit before one comes out on top.

In the 141-year history of England cricket, too, we have seen numerous instances of batsmen who walked the tightrope, carefully measured every risk and stretched every nerve to pull off jailbreaks and take their team home. With England set to play their 1000th Test against India next month, we look at 11 instances where England batsmen wore pain and showed character to pilot their side to memorable victories.

In cricket, generally, more importance is given to those who crack the three-figure mark. On the other hand, even if a batsman has essayed a knock of significance before losing his wicket for 99, it perhaps doesn’t carry the same value. So in this edition of XIs, we look at sub-100 scores by England cricketers that played a key role in the side’s wins.

Jack Hobbs 68 vs South Africa, Oval, 1912

Before the start of the tri-series between Australia, South Africa and England in 1912, the Times had noted it could be a “furnish a surfeit of healthy excitement, which would defeat the purpose of wholesome cricket among those who have its best interests at heart”. Unfortunately, the subsequent tri-series held in England turned out to be a damp squib, as most of the games were washed out due to constant rain. However, the series also saw some fine performances and one of them turned out to be Jack Hobbs’s 68 at The Oval versus South Africa.

On a ‘sticky wicket’, after Sydney Barnes and Frank Woolley had cut through the opposition ranks with five wickets each in the first innings to bundle out South Africa for just 95, Hobbs stood firm despite lack of support from the other end. Hobbs, on his part, showcased his trademark pad play and presented a straight bat to top score for the home side. The significance of that knock can be capsulised by the point that the next highest score in England’s first innings was 26 by Reggie Spooner. Once England secured a lead of 81, Sydney Barnes moved it both ways on a ‘wet wicket’ to produce astonishing figures of 8 for 29, with the home side winning by 10 wickets and in two days.

Jack Hobbs 92 vs South Africa, Old Wanderers, 1914

After having already won the first two Tests versus South Africa, England were looking to wrap up the five-match series when they took on the home side in the third game at the Old Johannesburg ground. England won the toss and elected to bat on a matting wicket. It was yet again Jack Hobbs, the master batsman, who led the way with an impressive 92. The importance of that innings can be encapsulated by the point that only four other batsmen could cross the 20-run mark in the first essay. On the back of Hobbs’s knock, the visitors amassed a competitive 238. Barnes, the England mainstay, snared crucial wickets to bag eight scalps in the Test as the tourists won by 91 runs to clinch the five-match rubber.

After the completion of the series, Wisden rightly noted: “Hobbs stood out by himself as a batsman and Barnes dwarfed all the other bowlers. As on the occasion of his previous visit to South Africa in the winter of 1909-10, Hobbs proved himself an absolute master on matting wickets.”

XI Of A Kind: England's Unsung Heroics's gritty knock at The Gabba helped England win the Ashes

Eddie Paynter’s gritty knock at The Gabba helped England win the Ashes © Getty

Eddie Paynter 83 vs Australia, Gabba, 1933

The series added a new term to the cricket lexicon – Bodyline. Admonished as the most infamous man ever to land on Australian shores, England skipper Douglas Jardine devised a tactic to counter Don Bradman by bowling at the body with a packed leg-side field. Paynter did not play the first two Tests and replaced Nawab of Pataudi in the third Test after the former was dropped because he refused to take part in the Bodyline field. Paynter scored 77 in the first innings but injured his ankle crashing on to the fence. He batted in the second innings without medical consent but recovered in time for the fourth Test at the Gabba.

Australia made 340 and England were 99 without loss in response at the end of second day’s play. Paynter was suffering from acute tonsillitis and was admitted in a local hospital. The rest day followed but on Monday morning England found themselves imploding from 114/0 to 216/6. Bill Voce, who was the bystander at the hospital, intimated Paynter of the collapse and in no time he was at the ground.

Even in the midst of all the bad blood between the teams, the considerate Australian captain Bill Woodfull offered him the choice of a runner but was politely declined. He reached 24 at stumps, England still adrift of Australia’s first innings score by 69 runs with two wickets standing. Paynter, who returned to his hospital bed overnight, put up a 92-run stand for the ninth wicket with Hedley Verity on the fourth day morning. He was dismissed shortly after helping England to a lead, for a gritty 83 of 218 balls, batting two minutes short of four hours. He fielded briefly during Australia’s second innings and returned to bat at his usual slot in their run chase. He aptly finished off the Test with a six off Stan McCabe as England regained the Ashes, something which did not happen for the next two decades.

Wally Hammond 43 & 29* vs West Indies, Bridgetown, 1935

It was one of the weirdest Test matches ever played. The vagaries of the rainy summer weather in the Caribbean played its part, but the Test match was remarkable for its strange declarations and a series of reverses in the batting order. On a soggy pitch, the hosts were bowled out for 102 and the tourists fared little better, finding it tough to negotiate the likes of Manny Martindale and Leslie Hylton. Hammond, though, batted with remarkable poise on a virtually unplayable wicket scoring 43 in England’s first innings total of 81/7 declared.

West Indies captain Jackie Grant declared their second innings at 51 for six leaving England to chase down 73 in conditions not ideal for batting. Bob Wyatt’s tactics of reversing the batting order didn’t prove to be useful as the tail enders couldn’t negotiate a hostile Martindale. Hammond arrived at 29 for four and played with exemplary defence, content to wait for scoring opportunities. Hammond deservedly hit the winning run – a mighty six off Martindale over the extra cover. It remained West Indies’ only loss at the Kensington Oval till 1994.

Basil D’Oliveira 74 & 72 vs Pakistan, Leeds, 1971

In a see-sawing Leeds Test where the fortunes of both sides swung wildly back and forth, Basil D’Oliveira’s brilliant all-round show (five wickets in the match and knocks of 74 and 72) proved to be the telling difference as England overcame Pakistan by just 25 runs to seal the series 1-0. On a track that was rather surprisingly on the drier side, Geoffrey Boycott (112) and D’Oliveira were the bedrocks of the England batting line-up in the first essay. The duo gave a good account of themselves versus the legspin of Intikhab Alam and propelled the total to 316.

Pakistan responded with 350 to take the vital lead of 34 runs. In the second innings, D’Oliveira, renowned for his skills on tracks with variable bounce, played mostly off the back foot to essay a fine fifty. This time around, it wasn’t just Alam’s legspin but he had to counter Saleem Altaf’s swing with the old ball. Dennis Amiss was the only other England batsman to cross the 50-run mark in the second dig as Pakistan were left with a target of 231. Despite Sadiq Mohammad crunching glorious shots through the on side to end up with 91, Pakistan slid to a gut-wrenching loss.

Tony Greig played a key role in England - XI Of A Kind: England's Unsung Heroics's win over India in Delhi in 1972

Tony Greig played a key role in England’s win over India in Delhi in 1972 © Getty

Tony Greig 68* & 40* vs India, Delhi, 1972

India were on a high after winning their maiden series in West Indies and England the previous year and according to captain Ajit Wadekar’s word’s they were “Not just confident, we were a little bit over-confident.” The unavailability of Ray Illingworth and Geoffrey Boycott meant England were led by the 34-year old Glamorgan skipper Tony Lewis who was incidentally making his Test debut. India never recovered from initial burst in seam friendly conditions by pacer Geoff Arnold where he reduced the hosts to 20 for three and an eventual 173 all out.

Greig walked in at 71 for four against a rampant Bhagwat Chanrasekhar who had taken three of the four wickets to fall. Greig made full use of his height to stretch further in his forward stride to get to the pitch of the ball to smother the turn Chandrasekhar was getting. He was unbeaten on 68 as England were bowled out for exactly 200, 21 runs ahead.

A 103-run sixth wicket stand from Eknath Solkar and Farokh Engineer helped India to set a target of 207 on a track which had plenty to keep the Indian spin trio of Chandra, Bedi and Venkat in play. England finished the fourth day on 106 for three with skipper Lewis on 17. They lost opener Wood early in the next morning on his overnight score to Bedi. Greig joined Lewis in the middle and the pair rotated the strike by smartly placing the ball in the gaps which eventually forced Wadekar to retreat his close-in fielders. The two put together an unbeaten 101 runs for the fifth wicket as England romped home by six wickets to take a 1-0 lead in what could be almost termed as an “upset”.

Phil DeFreitas 88 vs Australia, Adelaide, 1995

Despite a gritty performance at the SCG, in the third Test, England were in a mess when they faced their traditional foes, Australia, in the fourth game of the Ashes in Adelaide in 1995. Australia had already retained the Ashes by winning the first two Tests and drawing the third. England were ravaged by injuries to key players and both the senior pros in the batting line-up – Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting – were going through a bad patch. So they needed a spark, or a soul-lifting performance from one of the members of the side when they locked horns with Australia in Adelaide. DeFreitas provided that spark for England with a willow in hand by smashing a 95-ball 88 to power the visitors to a moral-boosting 106-run victory. Interestingly, Defreitas, better known for his outswingers, was averaging just around 15 with the bat before that Test.

On a batting-friendly surface, England accumulated 353 in the first innings but Australia secured a 66-run first innings lead. In England’s second innings, despite Australia’s pace spearhead, Craig McDermott, struggling with stomach cramps, the visitors had dipped to 181 for 6. Mark Waugh, with clever use of short-pitched deliveries and fuller ones, had done most of the damage. At that juncture, Defreitas took over by landing powerful blows. He gave a sign of his positive intent by pulling Australia’s trump card, Shane Warne, for a couple of boundaries through mid wicket. When McDermott was introduced into the attack, he hoicked one to the mid-wicket stands. Damien Fleming, the swing bowler, tried to tempt Defreitas with a fuller delivery but was met with a forceful drive through covers.

With the score reading 283 for 7 and John Crawley, who had stitched a stand of 89 with DeFreitas, back in the hut, the bowling all-rounder took his game to an elevated level. The former Lancashire cricketer laid into McDermott by pulling and driving the Queensland fast bowler, and explored different parts of the ground to collect 22 runs in a single over. After DeFreitas pulled the first ball of the over for a boundary, the commentator on air, had said: “Viv Richards like”. Finally, he was dismissed by Mark Waugh but he had piloted his team to 328 in the second innings, leaving the home team with 263 to get. Devon Malcolm and Chris Lewis shared four scalps apiece in the second dig to seal the deal for the tourists.

Alec Stewart 44 & 83 vs West Indies, Port of Spain, 1998

After West Indies had taken a 1-0 lead in the six-match Test series (first Test at Kingston was abandoned due to a dangerous pitch) against England at Port of Spain in 1998, the visitors were aiming to level the rubber in the third Test at the same venue. Just like the second Test at the Queen’s Park Oval, the third Test too turned out to be a classic game of cricket before Mark Butcher’s gutsy 103-ball, unbeaten 24 guided the visitors home.

On a dicey surface but without the extra pace of the Kingston track, West Indies were shot out for 159 in their first essay. However. Curtly Ambrose landed the vital blows on an up and down surface to bag a five-for as the tourists were bundled out for a mere 145. Stewart, who played some fine shots off the back foot, top-scored with 44. Just when Stewart was looking set for a substantial score, he was caught behind trying a cut shot off Carl Hooper.

England, though, made a sterling comeback with the ball as the trio of Dean Headley, Angus Fraser and Andy Caddick shared the spoils to leave the visitors with a target of 225. During the tense final session of Day 3, Ambrose and Courtney Walsh were expected to dent England. Michael Atherton and Stewart, however, were able to paddle through the threat to steer the side to 52 for no loss at close. It was on the next day when Stewart showed his class and quality with a flurry of shots mainly through the off-side. The highlight of the innings was perhaps the sumptuous drive he cracked of the back foot while facing Nixon McLean. The Surrey batsman looked set to notch up a brilliant hundred but was dislodged by a fine delivery from Walsh that seemed to be slanting in before seaming away from the batsman after pitching to catch the edge. Walsh and Ambrose caused a flutter in the England camp by snaring scalps at regular intervals but Butcher held firm to ensure a thrilling victory by three wickets.

Hussain walked back to the dressing room oblivious of the standing ovation, his head bowed and hiding his tears with his hand - XI Of A Kind: England's Unsung Heroics

Hussain walked back to the dressing room oblivious of the standing ovation, his head bowed and hiding his tears with his hand © Getty

Nasser Hussain 94 vs South Africa, Leeds, 1998

The series ebbed and flowed and fortunes fluctuated umpteen times with nothing much to separate the two teams coming to the final Test of a riveting series squared 1-1. The Test was intriguingly poised at the end of the second day with South Africa noses ahead thanks to the 22-run lead in the first innings. Allan Donald, who as the peak of his powers, trapped the man in form Michael Atherton off his first ball to leave England 1/1. The track had uneven bounce with the odd ball stopping off the pitch.

Hussain has played more flamboyant knocks in his career, but this particular one presented a picture of intense concentration and immense grit. He kept the wide balls away and cut, drove and hooked with precision when the opportunities were presented. He batted a little over seven hours, faced 341 deliveries (only once he batted longer) and added invaluable 94 runs. He was the eight batsman dismissed with England 207 runs ahead when he was caught at covers driving a ball which held up on the pitch. Hussain walked back to the dressing room oblivious of the standing ovation, his head bowed and hiding his tears with his hand through the visor. England won the humdinger by 23 runs to wrap up the series 2-1.

Graham Thorpe 64* vs Pakistan, Karachi, 2000

On the last day of the series decider, England were up against all odds – history, fading light, time wasting tactics by Moin Khan and a superb Pakistan bowling lineup. Under Nasser Hussain’s attritional nature of captaincy, England drew the first two Tests and the third was meandering towards another after four days. Staring the final day 88 ahead with seven wickets in hand, Pakistan wilted under England’s gritty bowling in the first session of the final day, losing their last six wickets for just 30 runs to set England a target of 176 in 44 overs.

Graeme Hick joined Graham Thorpe in the middle with England in a slight wobble at 65/3. The duo pinched singles by putting balls in the gaps and running hard, hitting the occasional boundary. Light was fading fast as England inched closer to the target as Waqar Younis came back to the attack to nip out his bunny Hick for the umpteenth time. In conditions where is was near impossible to spot the ball for fielder, let alone the batsman, Thorpe was seeing it like a football and kept finding gaps off Saqlain Mushtaq. The match ended with less than three overs to spare with a Chinese cut off Saqlain by Thorpe as England romped home by six wickets to register their second Test win in Pakistan and first since 1960/61.

Andrew Flintoff 50 & 50 vs India, Mumbai WS, 2006

After a historic summer back home in 2005, England were brought down to earth in Pakistan in a 0-2 series defeat. Coming to the third Test at the Wankhede 0-1 down, England were battered and bruised with defeat, injury and illness. The side boasted fewer than half the number of Test caps that India possessed, and several of their first choices players unavailable. After a solid start from the top order, a stroke filled 85-ball 50 from the stand-in skipper Andrew Flintoff ensured the tourists posted a respectable 400. A spirited bowling performance shot India out for 279 but England were in dire straits in the second innings five wickets down with 206 runs ahead.

India were still in with a chance on a crumbling pitch as England’s two spinners had a combined experience of five Tests and seven wickets between them. In walked Flintoff and he carried the tail with him scoring a defiant 50 which took him 146 balls – the slowest 50-plus knock in his entire career. In the process, he became the seventh player to bat on all five days of a Test. Set a target of 391 in the fourth innings, India’s innings lasted just 48.2 overs with Flintoff taking three top order wickets. For the first time in 21 years, England left India’s shores without conceding the series. While Flintoff’s heroics in the previous home summer was his magnum opus, the Mumbai Test was inarguably his finest performance away from home.

© Cricbuzz

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