Andrew Fidel Fernando, in ESPNcricinfo, 30 August 2019, where the title is “The near-identical tales of Vishwa Fernando and Jack Leach taking their teams to epic wins”
On a warm weekend afternoon, a left-hand No. 5 batsman is on a fourth-innings warpath for the ages. There are fearsome quicks tearing in – bowlers who together form one of the most lethal attacks on the planet. They are breaking like waves but they can’t quench this inferno. The batsman is cutting, hacking, driving and reverse-bludgeoning his way through incredible odds. On the leg side, it’s open season. The area beyond the boundary is bombarded repeatedly. From the ground first, and later, thrillingly, from the air.
Heartbeats around the planet have quickened on his account. Shallow breaths are being drawn all through the stadium. But although he is batting better than he (or perhaps anyone) ever has, late in the piece, he must endure a moment of utter helplessness.
His partner, a No. 11 batsman, is sprinting full-pelt towards the non-striker’s, head down, arm jerking the bat from side to side. Behind the wicket, a fielder gets the ball to hand and makes the throw. The No. 5 watches its trajectory. As he does, he begins to fear that it has all been for nothing. That history will go unmade. That records will remain un-tumbled. His team-mate, surely, is miles out.
But on the afternoon of a mighty cricketing miracle, here was a little one, prodding the big one along on its way. In Leeds, Nathan Lyon is back behind the stumps but fumbles the throw, his hands cupping only Headingley’s electric air as he moves them towards the stumps to effect what would have been a run-out to go 2-0 up. In Durban, a Faf du Plessis throw that could have ended Sri Lanka’s game is skipping away on the Kingsmead turf all the way to the boundary.
For Vishwa Fernando it means survival, but also, five completely unexpected runs. He had edged that ball just short of third slip.
For Jack Leach it means his panic will not cost England the Ashes.
Two tailenders playing vital supporting roles in two of the most remarkable passages of cricket this century. Vishwa scoring 6 not out, and Leach 1, putting on 78 and 76 for the last wicket respectively. These are the highest fourth-innings tenth-wicket stands in victories. They both happened to come in 300-plus chases, six months apart. From among the many staggering figures, none is more consequential to the No. 11s than the number of balls faced.
Vishwa: 27. Leach: 17.
Balls that their No. 5 partners, in their otherworldly form, could do nothing but watch.
Vishwa was born in Colombo, which is host to three active Test venues (the most for any city). Leach was born in Taunton, where the biggest landmark by far is the cricket ground. Although this suggests they should both have an affinity for the game, it doesn’t follow that they should be good at batting, because they aren’t. Vishwa has played 78 first-class innings and has a top score of 35. Leach hit 92 in a Test against Ireland this month when he was beaten a bunch of times and dropped twice, but if you remove the Test runs from his record, he averages less than 12 at first-class level as well. Neither is particularly well-equipped to play quicks aiming projectiles at their heads traveling at over 140kph, but here they are, in a fourth innings, when pitches are at their most treacherous, facing down outstanding attacks; fighting. Both are wearing arm guards – equipment favoured by the barely competent.
That either of them is even here is down partly to luck, but also to great resolve. Vishwa, a victim of an atrocious domestic system that produces pitches essentially designed to force quicks to quit the game, averages 31.13 in first-class cricket. And he was only here in Durban because no fewer than three frontline Sri Lanka quicks were injured and he just happened to be fit at the time, despite injuries having plagued his own career. He had never bowled or batted in South Africa before this match.
Leach was also in the England team as a sort of replacement – for an out-of-sorts and decommissioned Moeen Ali. But he had battled through his own separate life challenges to be hanging off that second rung. He was forced to remodel his action when it was found to be suspect. A year earlier, he had also cracked his skull after fainting in the bathroom. Most of all, Leach has been living for at least half his life with Crohn’s disease, a bowel disease that can lead to pain, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition.
“It’s something I’m always battling with a little bit, even if I am very lucky to not be affected as badly as some people can be,” he had said recently. “If I was having a bad day with the ball, it would be nice to be able to blame it on the Crohn’s, but I’ve never done that. If there’s a day when I’m struggling, I know how to fight through.”
If Leach and Vishwa had to strive to be part of this game, though, those struggles were mostly to do with their bowling. At Kingsmead and Headingley, both had performed their primary roles satisfactorily (Vishwa, in fact, had excelled, taking 8 for 133 in the game), but it was with the bat that their fortitude was most required.
Only in cricket are players wildly unsuited to a certain challenge required to confront their weaknesses for the good of their team. Bowlers, who bother themselves with largely physical exertions, are forced to attempt defensive batting – a mainly technical endeavour. Such was the plight of these No. 11s. Only a few games into their careers on the strength of their bowling, they were made to bat in the toughest situations Test cricket could possibly summon.
With Leach, it is the image that remains. Stood at the non-striker’s end, helmet off, bald-headed, he cleans his spectacles with a cloth he has drawn from his pocket. He is wearing his numbered whites and that very thick arm guard in front of a baying Headingley crowd that has cheered his every dot ball like a boundary, but in this moment he could be everyman anywhere. A turtle-necked librarian preparing to read to a room full of ten-year-olds. A store manager readying himself for a difficult customer. A student in jeans about to sit an exam. “I have to make sure the glasses are clean because I’d really regret it if they were smudged,” he would later say, but is he also taking a few extra seconds to compose himself? His body obviously coursing with adrenaline towards the end of that chase, is he making time to take a few extra breaths?
With Vishwa, it is the words. “Baya venna epa,” he says to Kusal Perera during the course of their partnership. “Mama angen hari gahannang”. Don’t worry because I’ll hit the ball with my body, if with nothing else.
On a Kingsmead track on which Perera himself had been clanged on the helmet twice – by Kagiso Rabada and Duanne Olivier – earlier in the day, Vishwa manages to avoid getting hit, but nevertheless puts his body on the line, never once backing off, managing always to get bat to the full deliveries that followed the bouncers. When South Africa take the second new ball and Steyn starts swinging it, Vishwa plays, misses and edges, but never flashes.
“I wasn’t afraid I would get hit – only that I’d lose my wicket,” he says two days later.
“What Vishwa said gave me a lot of strength,” Perera later reflects. “I don’t know the number of balls he faced. But they were worth more than my runs.”
At Headingley, months later, in an absurdly a similar match situation, orchestrating a near-identical heist, England’s No. 5, Ben Stokes, is barely able to watch several of the last deliveries Leach must survive. He is, crouching, folded up like an armadillo – this colossus astride the crease when he is on strike, almost in the foetal position when he is not. The bounce at Headingley is not like it had been at Kingsmead, but the bowlers are still breathing fire, and Leach and his unsmudged spectacles duck, sway and miss their way through the worst of it. Like Vishwa, he is single-minded in his defence – no runs, really, required of his bat. He has one job. He is doing it.
And then it comes. The single. The one intentional run each of these tailenders would make. Leach tucks Pat Cummins around the corner after Stokes had failed to retain strike late in the previous over; Vishwa fends one from Steyn square on the leg side, and the ball dribbles away, into space.
Moment’s later England’s hero would crack Cummins through the covers. Sri Lanka’s would smoke Steyn up into the leg-side bank, keep the strike, then steer Rabada past slip for the winning runs. One No. 5 would punch the air as a euphoric stadium erupted. The other would raise his arms having ended a three-month drought for his team. But then who cares what they did? This is not for them.
This is for Leach and for Vishwa: a pair of the unlikeliest survivors, tethered improbably by fate, running those frenzied, freeing singles, six months and the length of two continents apart – the end of two epic shifts of courage.