A Nightwatchman’s Record from Jack Leach

George Dobell, in ESPNcricinfo, 25 July 2019, where the title is Ireland battle back after Leach falls short of nightwatchman hundred”

Jack Leach fell eight short of becoming the first England nightwatchman to make a  Test century, but Ireland retained the upper hand of their maiden Test at Lord’s. Leach made 92, easily his highest first-class score, and by the time he left the pitch – bat raised to all corners of the ground – had converted England’s first-innings deficit of 122 into a lead of 60.

And while batting looked relatively straightforward while Leach and Jason Roy, who also recorded a maiden Test 50, were putting together a partnership of 145, the dismissal of Roy precipitated something of a collapse. England lost four wickets for 23 runs, renewing Ireland’s hopes of registering a maiden Test victory. By tea, England’s lead was 87 with five second-innings wickets in hand.

o put Leach’s contribution in perspective, he came into this match averaging 4.66 in the County Championship season having made just 42 runs in 12 innings. Many at his club, Somerset, feared his confidence had been permanently damaged by a blow on the head while batting against Morne Morkel last year. He had only twice made half-centuries at first-class level – both against Lancashire at Old Trafford – and had a career first-class batting average of 10.97. He is believed to be the first nightwatchman in history to make a Test half-century as an opening batsman.

His contribution also dwarfs most of those made by England’s regular openers in recent times. Indeed, Leach’s score was the second highest – following Keaton Jennings’s century in Sri Lanka – by an England opener since the retirement of Alastair Cook in September. England’s openers recorded just three half-centuries between them in the six Tests played over the winter. He is also, at this stage, one of only two England batsmen to reach 30 in this Test.

Leach was beaten like a snare drum in the opening overs of the day. He got off the mark with a thick edge off Tim Murtagh that flew between slips and gully and was grateful for four over-throws after his quick single was rewarded by a throw that deflected off the stumps on its way to the boundary; not the first time a deflected overthrow has come to England’s aid on this ground in recent times.

But, as Leach settled, the ball softened and the attack tired in draining conditions – the temperature was soon in the mid-30s – he began to unveil some surprisingly elegant strokes. At one stage he hit five fours in nine balls – including three in four off Boyd Rankin – with some languid straight and cover drives especially eye-catching. His 50 came with his eighth boundary – another thick edge – off 82 balls and, a short while after lunch, he exceeded his previous career-best of 66.

Leach gave two clear-cut chances. On 72 he was badly dropped by Ireland’s keeper, Gary Wilson, after he fenced at a short ball from Boyd Rankin; and on 92, he was dropped at second slip by Mark Adair as he pushed at one from the admirable Murtagh. Adair made amends three balls later as Leach stared at the crease in dismay, his improbable dream over.

Five nightwatchmen (Alex Tudor, Harold Larwood, Eddie Hemmings, Jack Russell and Leach) have made it into the 90s in Test cricket for England with Tudor’s unbeaten 99 – made against New Zealand at Edgbaston in 1999 – remaining the highest score.

Leach was given increasingly assured support by Roy. While there were some nervous moments early in his innings – one attempted flick through mid-wicket resulted in a thick edge that passed just out of reach of the slip cordon – he looked increasingly like the white-ball version and was merciless on anything short, wide or over-pitched. He greeted the introduction of spin – Andy McBrine came on from the pavilion end – by skipping down the pitch and heaving his second delivery over mid-wicket for six. A short while later, a fierce sweep for four brought up England’s hundred. Shortly before lunch, he completed the quickest half-century by an England debutant in Test history. Roy reached the milestone in 47 balls; Matt Prior took 55.

Joe Denly, however, missed out. But he could be forgiven for felling somewhat blameless for his dismissal, after he was called for a sharp single by his captain and then sent back with little hope of beating Kevin O’Brien’s throw from mid-wicket. Jonny Bairstow soon followed, suffering the first pair of his Test career, as he was beaten by one that swung back to beat his expansive drive.

Earlier Rory Burns suffered his second failure of the game as he was caught behind reaching for one outside off stump. It was Burns’ sixth sub-30 score in successive Test innings and his ninth in 10. His Test batting average is now down to 22.28. With the Ashes looming, his continuing struggles will be a concern to the England management. Roy’s innings was ended when a fine inswinger beat his lavish drive.

  ****  ****

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Filed under cricketing records, English cricket, George Dobell

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