Cricket: Tail goes from farce to force

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a time when long last-wicket partnerships were the exception rather than the rule. In the days when number 11s batted as they were traditionally expected to and used their bats as they might have used a rolled-up newspaper to swat a mosquito, they seldom held things up for long.

Last-wicket partnerships usually produced a bit of fun: a six or two and then a swirling, skied catch. Then came the change of innings before they all got back to the serious stuff.

In this last Test of the summer, Angus Fraser and John Crawley put on 89 for England's last wicket just when Sri Lanka began to think they had done pretty well to dismiss England for not much over 350. This stand was as irritating for them as Sri Lanka's last- wicket stand of 59 on the fourth day was for England. On a pitch that was taking spin, a deficit of 146 was uncomfortably large.

These last-minute stands that are so irritating for the fielding side are the product of a number of different things. Test pitches today are generally much more predictable and benign than they used to be.

Nowadays, every member of the side makes it his business to learn the rudiments of batting. A fast bowler who can hold his bat straight and score a few runs may find that it is this that gains him selection ahead of a colleague who bowls just as efficiently but with a bat in his hands is nothing more than a mosquito swatter.

All bowlers have a duty to be able to make some sort of a fist of the job of keeping the last specialist batsman company while a few more crucial runs are scored. Sri Lanka's last wicket pair knew much more about batting than their counterparts would have done 30 years ago.

Fraser, too, has made it his business to have acquired more than just a superficial knowledge of the art as he revealed so heroically against Allan Donald at the end of the Old Trafford Test against South Africa. In 1998, tailenders no longer bat like tailenders, much to the annoyance of the fielding side.