David Owen ©ITG

When not concentrating on the Olympic Movement, I write the occasional article for a wonderful periodical called The Nightwatchman.

You might be forgiven for thinking that a publication with such a title offered in-depth coverage of the private security industry, or perhaps advice on owl husbandry. But no, its stock-in-trade is the game of cricket.

Why, then, The Nightwatchman, as opposed to something a bit more obvious like View from the Pavilion? Well, in a cricketing context, "nightwatchman" (or –woman) is the term for a tactic so subtle, so counter-intuitive that I am struggling to pinpoint anything else quite like it in sport. It is thus a word that encapsulates perfectly the uniqueness of a game that playwright Harold Pinter regarded as "the greatest thing that God created on earth".

Let me attempt to explain the concept by recounting what happened last week in a topsy-turvy match pitting England against Ireland at Lord's.

This was not one of those wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am short-form matches that increasingly dominate the elite cricket calendar nowadays. It was scheduled to span four days, or approximately 26 hours of playing time. The sheer length of time that a cricket-match can absorb is part of what lies behind the nightwatchman tactic: you will not find it used in a Twenty20 game.

Test match newbies Ireland started off as long-odds underdogs, yet sensationally, by lunch on the first day, just two hours in, they had skittled England for 85.

Most of the rest of that first day was spent with the visitors struggling gutsily to build a first-innings lead against a depleted, but still high-class, England bowling attack. At 6.48pm, their tenth and last wicket fell with the total on 207.

Nightwatchman Jack Leach's heroics helped England avoid an embarrassing defeat to Ireland ©Getty Images
Nightwatchman Jack Leach's heroics helped England avoid an embarrassing defeat to Ireland ©Getty Images

This left England with a few minutes – as it turned out just six balls – to negotiate before the close of play. This is classic nightwatchman territory.

What happens when the gambit is utilised, bafflingly for non-cricket habitués, is that the batting team sends out one of their least accomplished batsmen to represent them in a period of play when batting is likely to be most challenging, and frequently downright intimidating.

This is indeed what England did last Wednesday (July 24) evening, promoting spin bowler Jack Leach – whose current 2019 County Championship batting average for his team Somerset is 4.67, with a top score of nine – from number 11 to number one in their batting order.

Baffling it might be at first glance, but there is nevertheless a kind of logic to it. This holds that, especially when behind in the game, you ideally want your best batters to be at the crease when they are likeliest to be most effective.

At that moment, just before the end of one of the more embarrassing days in England’s cricketing history, sticking to the regular batting order would have had one of only two possible outcomes: either the regular opener would survive, living to face just as challenging a situation the following morning, when a) the Irish pacemen would be well-rested, b) the ball would still be new and hard and c) a touch of bowler-friendly moisture might be lingering; or he would not, heaping embarrassment on embarrassment. So poor old Leach was dispatched to face the music.

The prevailing spirit of the tactic is one of sacrifice, as when in chess you give up a piece for a perceived tactical or positional advantage. The chance of another wicket falling that evening was judged relatively high. In that circumstance, the doughty Somerset tail-ender was deemed more expendable than a bona fide batting kingpin such as World Cup hero Jason Roy. This is even though deploying Leach actually made loss of an early wicket more likely.

Who knows, the thinking in the England dressing-room may have gone, if England were really lucky, Leach might somehow bob and weave through the equally tricky first half-hour the following morning, departing the scene, head held high, to enable his more skilful team-mates to make hay in scorching, batter-friendly, conditions later in the day.

Casting around through the rest of sport, it seems to me that the ploy has something in common with the so-called "rope-a-dope" tactics used famously by Muhammad Ali against George Foreman in 1974 in their Rumble in the Jungle.

Ali covered up in the early rounds, hoping that his powerful opponent would wear himself out throwing wasted punches. This left him a spent force when Ali launched his devastating counter-attack later on.

It has nothing at all in common with baseball teams' deployment of pinch hitters, however. This generally entails replacement of a weak batter with a stronger one, and is hence, to all intents and purposes, the opposite of the nightwatchman manoeuvre.

The nightwatchman tactic has similarities with Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy at the Rumble in the Jungle ©Getty Images
The nightwatchman tactic has similarities with Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy at the Rumble in the Jungle ©Getty Images

Returning to Lord's, Leach duly played out the concluding over of that remarkable first day, looking none too convincing, but earning the right to resume his place at the crease the following morning. Thereupon, as the heatwave that has afflicted much of Western Europe settled on north-west London, something utterly glorious happened. The bespectacled 28-year-old left-hander started to look to the manor born.

In the end he contrived to extend his stay far beyond that tricky opening half-an-hour, falling finally at a little after 3.15pm for a stupendous – and ultimately match-winning – 92. It was a little bit like an athlete picked to run in the 400 metres somehow winning the shot put.

Leach's feat is not unprecedented, but it is rare enough, even in these days when a certain amount of all-round ability is expected of professional cricketers.

The first Test match was played in 1877. Yet it was not until 1962 that a nightwatchman – Pakistan's Nasim-ul-Ghani – managed to make a century.

There are quite a few parallels with Leach's big match last week: it was also at Lord's; ul-Ghani was another slow left-arm bowler; like Leach, he failed to take a wicket in the game.

The Pakistani's exploit, however, involved a far less dramatic promotion up the batting order: he had gone in at eight in the first innings and six in the second, when he managed to accompany his captain, Javed Burki, in a partnership of 197.

Prior to that, the England fast bowler Harold Larwood had played perhaps the most noteworthy nightwatchman's innings, making 98 at Sydney in February 1933, in the final Test of the notorious bodyline series.

Larwood partnered Wally Hammond and then Maurice Leyland in a two hours-plus stay at the crease that spanned the game's second and third days. 

This was after he had bowled 30-odd overs at express pace in the Australian first innings, collecting four wickets including the great Donald Bradman, whom he clean bowled for 48.

Alex Tudor is another England player who excelled as a nightwatchman, scoring 99 not out to lift his team to a comeback victory over New Zealand in 1999 at Edgbaston. This after opener Alec Stewart had fallen for nought near the end of the second day.

The most remarkable nightwatchman's innings of all dates from 13 years ago and was played at Chittagong in Bangladesh.

Sent in at three towards the end of the first day, upon the dismissal of opener Matthew Hayden, Australian fast bowler Jason Gillespie was still batting as day four got under way. By the time he finally walked off, with his side a towering 581 for four declared, he had compiled a double century.

The effort might well have affected his bowling: he managed only four overs in Bangladesh's second innings. But the visitors had a certain Shane Warne in their line-up. The master leg-spinner’s five wickets ensured that Australia went on to a comfortable victory.

Jason Gillespie's double century remains the most impressive nightwatchman's innings ©Getty Images
Jason Gillespie's double century remains the most impressive nightwatchman's innings ©Getty Images

For some reason, captains rarely seem to resort to a second nightwatchman if the first fails with the desired job only part-accomplished. On one occasion, however – Australia versus England in 1936-37 – the outcome of an entire series seemed to hinge on a skipper's decision to use not one but three nightwatchmen.

Bradman was the skipper concerned, and his stroke of genius came in the Third Test at Melbourne with his team already 2-0 behind.

Faced with difficult conditions and wickets tumbling cheaply, Bradman's opposite number Gubby Allen actually declared the England first innings closed, hoping to dismiss some key Australian batsmen in the final minutes of play with the wicket still treacherous.

Bradman countered by opening up with Bill O’Reilly, who had batted number nine in the first innings, and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith, his number 11.

O'Reilly perished first ball, whereupon Frank Ward, the first innings number ten, duly appeared. He and Fleetwood-Smith made it through to the close without further damage.

The next day was a rest day, during which conditions for batting improved markedly. When play resumed, though the remaining nightwatchmen got out relatively quickly, Bradman and the other recognised batsmen, who might have been dismissed cheaply had the Don not changed the batting order, laid waste to the England attack. Not only did Australia win the match, they came back to clinch the series 3-2.

These are some of the members of the exclusive club that Leach, with his 92, has now joined. There is a certain poetic justice in this.

In May 2018, a couple of months after making his Test debut, Leach broke his thumb with a game against Pakistan approaching, thus losing any immediate chance of cementing his place in the England team.

How did the injury occur? According to the Somerset County Cricket Club website, "whilst batting in the nets on the outfield".

That commitment to practising his secondary skills might not have seemed such a good idea at that time. But it has more than paid off now.