Mahinda Wijesinghe, in the Island, 7 April 2012
At the end of the third day in the ongoing second Test against England, Sri Lanka used the services of a night-watchman (Dhammika Prasad) to open the innings to face just one over. What was even more strange was the fact that the night-watchman shielded the more skilled batsman (Lahiru Thirimanne), by refusing singles! This begs the question, why should a lesser skilled batsman be expected to face the music, while his more skilled team-mate is cooling his heels in the pavilion?
However, there was a very interesting instance when the legendary Don Bradman used the same ploy – but look at the circumstances and the reasoning behind the tactic. It was the third Ashes Test in the 1936-37 series played at Melbourne. Australia, captained by Bradman for the first time, had lost the first two Tests in the 5-Test series. Indeed, an inquiry had been instituted by the Australian Cricket Board that certain members of the Australian team were not supporting Bradman! Incidentally, Bradman’s scores in the first two Tests were as follows: 38, 0, 0 and 82. Australia had lost the first Test by 322 runs and the second by an innings and 22 runs.
The Third Test began. Batting first, on a dicey pitch, Bradman declared the innings at 200/9, since he realised the pitch was getting difficult. It was a ‘glue-pot’ of a pitch. England found the going even more difficult, and England skipper ‘Gubby’ Allen countered by declaring their innings at 76/9.
This was the first instance in Test cricket when each side declared their innings closed.
Not to be outdone, Bradman decided to send his No.11 (Fleetwood-Smith) and No.9 (Bill O’Reilly) to open the Australian innings during the half-hour’s play left on Saturday evening. During this era, on Sundays, Test cricket was not played. Obviously, Bradman was banking that the pitch would improve by Monday when the game resumeD.
Let Bradman take the story as related in his autobiography ‘Farewell to Cricket’: “In a bad light and with rain again threatening, I countered Allen’s strategy by sending ‘Chuck’ Fleetwood-Smith and O’Reilly to open up. I can still picture the look of incredulity on Fleetwood’s face when I told him to put the pads on. He said: “Why do you want me to open?,” and at the risk of offending his dignity, I told him the truth. “Chuck” I said, “the only way you can get out on this wicket is to hit the ball. You can’t hit it on a good one, so you have no chance on this one.” My theory was so absolutely right that not only did he fail to get out that evening, but when the game resumed Monday morning, he lost his wicket to the first ball which touched his bat.”
Bradman also shielded opener Fingleton (on Monday), by sending him at No. 6 and followed him at No.7 by which time the pitch had improved further. Then Bradman and Fingleton were associated in a match-winning, record 6th wicket partnership of 346 runs. (Incidentally, this partnership record stood for 72 years, until our own Mahela and Prasanna Jayawardena eclipsed it by 5 runs, against India at Ahmedabad in 2009!)Australia eventually totalled 564 runs and dismissed England for 323 and won the game by 365 runs. Now the series tally was 1-2 in favour of England.
Bradman’s personal contribution was 270 (Fingleton scored 136). Bradman’s score, even after 75 years, is still the highest-ever made by a No.7 in Test cricket.
In the fourth Test at Adelaide, Bradman scored 212 and the hosts won by 148 runs (squaring the series 2-2) while in the fifth Test at Melbourne, Bradman again top scored with 169 runs and beat England by an innings and 200 runs, thereby winning the series 3-2.
This is the first and last occasion – in a 5-Test series – when a side having lost the first two games won the next three and thereby clinched the series as well.
It was the only occasion that Bradman used a night-watchman. He had a good reason; the reason being that he was hoping the pitch would improve the next day when there was not going to be any play and events proved him right!