x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Rearguard innings like Sangakkara gem will get rarer still

The Sri Lankan's double century, which forced a draw against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi, is the kind of rearguard innings that will likely be less seen in an age of Twenty20 cricket.

Pakistan’s bowling, led by paceman Umar Gul, centre, was exemplary throughout the game at the Zayed Cricket Stadium.
Pakistan’s bowling, led by paceman Umar Gul, centre, was exemplary throughout the game at the Zayed Cricket Stadium.

ABU DHABI // When Hanif Mohammad played out 16 hours against the West Indies in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1958 to save Pakistan, his captain Abdul Hafeez Kardar reckoned it was unlikely a rearguard like it would be seen again.

He was probably right, but these things are difficult to compare across eras, bowling attacks and surfaces. It is difficult to say, for example, that Michael Atherton's 185 in Johannesburg in 1995 was not, in its own context, a better innings to save a Test.

Mark Greatbatch's 146 at Perth in 1989/90 is often forgotten, but made over nearly 11 hours, from a man acknowledged as one-day cricket's first pinch-hitter, could it not be better for its suppression of natural instinct?

Years from now, people might look at the scorecard of this Test, note the venue (and with it last year's run-fests here), the inexperience of Pakistan's pace attack and not think too much about Kumar Sangakkara's double hundred made over nearly 11 hours and, effectively, two full days.

That would be disservice twice over. The bowling, as Sangakkara acknowledged, was exemplary and threatening throughout. It should be recorded that they came at him with whatever they had and he saw them all off.

But if we set one parameter of the classic rearguard as a necessarily long battle, then after a while, conditions, and to an extent even the bowling, ceases to matter. After a point batsmen begin battling themselves, their own impulses, their own concentration, reviving again after an overnight break or three.

After a while, Hanif would wander off to square leg after each ball, to hum a favourite tune, to recite a quick prayer and then be back, switched on and ready. By then, the skin under his eyes started to burn from the sun shining off the pitch.

And once you start creeping towards the final destination, the stomach becomes queasy.

"This was a different sort of pressure, the worst kind," Atherton would say much later of his innings. "Now it would be a massive cock-up if we failed to save the game."

The other reason to remember Sangakkara's innings is simply because the age we are in might not allow many more. If conditions have become easier for batting, the mood and pace of Tests has changed too. Batting for draws, in the age of Twenty20, is a fading discipline.

"There are several players around now who could play that type of innings," said Atherton. "But they probably would not do so. Today they would be going for the win."

Sangakkara is, in fact, pretty adept at defiance. Twice against Pakistan, in Karachi seven years ago he almost saved a Test and in 2009 in Colombo he did; against England at the Rose Bowl this year he also did. In Hobart in 2007, came a different kind of retaliation, a counter which almost pulled off the most audacious Test chase of all time.

"He is one of the great players in international cricket," said Tillakaratne Dilshan, his captain, gratefully no doubt. "He knows how to handle pressure ... It's not easy to concentrate but I think his concentration is amazing. He knows how to handle the situation in the middle."

More epic rearguards will be seen, though they may become more infrequent. We may not see a Sangakkara again.


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