These days, if a batsman makes a century, joy is unconfined, with many taking their cue from Peter Griffin’s celebration of his touchdown for the New England Patriots to punch the air, confirm their religion or, with great wit, drop and give me 10. The half-century is greeted with a little more restraint, with the bat raised and the applause acknowledged. But what about those innings that terminate before even that opportunity arises? What are the great innings under 50? Here’s three that I saw – you may have your own favourites.
Andy Bichel 34* England vs Australia ODI Port Elizabeth 2003
I was out shopping en familie and had manipulated a situation with the younger one asleep in his buggy and the elder one playing computer games in a creche. I had positioned myself in sight of a television screen in a department store, the one tuned into Sky’s coverage of the World Cup match between England and Australia. Earlier, at home, I had seen England reined in from muscular 66-0 inside the first 10 overs, to a flaccid 204-8 after 50, the Aussie hero an unheralded bustling English style seamer, Andy Bichel, whose figures of 10-0-20-7 would have been an ODI best had Glenn McGrath not bullied seven Namibian wickets for five fewer runs just a few days earlier.
Incredibly, England had not rolled over, but had fought back with the reigning champions eight down with 70 to get. Okay, Michael Bevan was still there and he could be awkward, but Brett Lee had spent 23 balls compiling 6, run out as England turned the screw. Just Bichel and McGrath to get I thought, as I pretended to take an interest in the new HD format.
“I’m okay. Not sure when it’ll be finished. Ten minutes or so I guess. I’ll call you back and we can get the kids a drink and something to eat before we get the 77 home”. But Bichel and Bevan (a right pair of Bs as it happens) kept going, the boundary in almost every over keeping the asking rate below a run a ball. England, and I, started to worry.
I shouldn’t have been surprised (but I was) when the Aussies went into the last two overs with 14 required, a young Jimmy Anderson with ball in hand. Bevan took one off the first delivery – mistake, I thought, smirking. Then Bichel, in the days when this sort of thing just didn’t happen, went six, four, one and Andrew Flintoff’s last over might as well have been bowled by me. Bichel finished 34*, Bevan 74*, their ninth wicket stand carrying their side from 135-8 to 208-8 at exactly a run a ball.
“Yes – finished now. Sorry it took so long. Australia yeah. Again yeah. Well, we got closer than we usually do. Okay – I’ll wake him up. See you at the bus stop.”
Matthew Hoggard 8* Fourth Test England vs Australia 2005
I was with my father in his nursing home, grateful at last to have something to talk about other than variants on “Well, they’re treating you very well and, I know it’s not much fun, but you have to put a brave face on it, after all”. We were watching the closing stages of a great day’s play in a great Test match in the greatest Ashes series. England, after a decent start by Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick, had come up against their nemesis yet again, and Shane Warne had got amongst us and the game was suddenly in the balance. “Why didn’t Ponting open with Warne?” asked my father, and I talked about the shiny hard new ball and spinners’ reluctance to use it, and I was pleased, because it’s the kind of question he would have asked me five years earlier – before the stroke. But we didn’t talk much – things were too tense.
It looked like England’s champion, Andrew Flintoff (who had made a brilliant first innings century) and champion-in-waiting, Kevin Pietersen, would get the home side over the line, but a fired up Brett Lee won the testosterone-off with both of them and Geraint Jones arrived in a panic and left in a hurry. England were seven down with 13 required and the Aussies bad-rashing us with three wickets gone in less than four overs.
In a team not short of star quality, England’s most prosaic players were at the crease, charged with transforming themselves from Clark Kents into Supermen to keep The Ashes alive. Ashley Giles prodded and pushed and watched the ball – but he was (praise Duncan Fletcher) an authentic Number Eight and had some technique to fall back on. Matthew Hoggard was a blocker, in at Number Nine, but more a Number Eleven, shambling around as journalists reached for the “yeoman” descriptor one more time. And then, like a butterfly suddenly soaring from its chrysalis, he got a full toss from Brett Lee, striving for the 150kph yorker, and push-drove it through the covers for four, prompting ecstatic scenes all round Trent Bridge. It was one of the greatest shots ever played by an Englishman, the day seized in the most astonishing fashion. Hoggy grinned, the blond hair poking out under his helmet – we all grinned along with him.
There was still four to get, but everyone knew the game was up. I looked at my father and said something utterly bland like, “That’s it!”, and he said something equally unremarkable. It was probably the last proper conversation I had with him – certainly the last not spoken through the curtain of stroke, pain and resignation – and it wasn’t a bad one. Thank you Matthew Hoggard.
Carlos Brathwaite 34* England vs West Indies T20I Kolkata 2016
He looked, in one of Frank Bruno’s endearing catchphrases, “A big, strong boy ‘Arry”, but he had only played a handful of T20Is and had a highest score of 13. He’d bowled well, snaring Joe Root, Jos Buttler and David Willey, but even with Marlon Samuels beginning to stir at the other end, surely 49 runs from 27 deliveries was too loaded towards the bowling side with the pressure on? In fact, scrap that – twenty minutes or so later, it was 19 from six. In a World T20 Final? Ain’t gonna happen, mate.
Ben Stokes must have felt like a man stuck in an overturned bobsleigh as it careers down the run, battered and bruised, just waiting for it to stop. Carlos Brathwaite had middled – or middled enough – the first four balls of Stokes’ over to rip the trophy from Eoin Morgan’s grasp when he hand two thumbs and seven fingers wrapped round it. The big man was, in the words of another who had turned over enormous odds, The King Of The World (okay, the World T20) and even the most one-eyed of England fans would not begrudge him his glory.
Brathwaite has notched three half centuries in his three Tests, so he’s no mug, but those four deliveries mean that he’ll never have to buy his own rum in a Caribbean bar if he lives until he’s 100. And that’s just from the English tourists.