The scorecard was 12 for 3 when AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis came out to bat during the first test against India in Newlands earlier this year. A solid partnership from the experienced pair at the middle helped South Africa to control the early damage caused by Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who completely decimated the Proteas’ top order. When both the batsmen were dismissed later on, India was still in a commanding position with South Africa struggling at 142 for 5. One must have expected India to dismiss South Africa below a score of 200 but they went on to gift a total of 286 runs for the hosts, in a grassy looking surface- 100 of those 286 coming from tail enders. That turned out to be too costly for the visitors as South Africa went on to win the test match by 72 runs. The South African bowlers were good enough to score some vital runs at the end to complement their batsmen. People who witnessed that test series might have expected a run feast from both the sides. All the three matches were low scoring games and ultimately the team that had better tail enders won the series.
Tail enders continue to haunt India as it fell short of 31 runs during the first test against England in Edgbaston. Despite taking a lead, England was struggling at 87 for 7 during the second innings. Thanks to a solid contribution from Sam Curran and Adil Rashid, India had to chase a target of 194. While improper batting might be the main reason for the defeat, the lower order partnership from England made sure that India had to chase 50 more runs to win the test match. Picking up the opponent’s tail is something that India might have to look upon during their upcoming fixtures. Nevertheless, India was also good enough to capitalize on lower order partnerships in some of its previous victories. A 81-run stand between Laxman and Ishant Sharma is one such contribution that took India to a 1-wicket victory against Australia in Mohali, back in 2010. While Laxman took charge and scored a match winning 73, Ishant played an anchor role by scoring 31 runs. With just 2 wickets away from a victory, Aussies failed to snatch the game, which otherwise could have been a forgettable match for India.
Speaking about Edgbaston, who can forget England’s victory against Australia during the 2005 Ashes? With 62 more runs to win, the last wicket partnership of Brett Lee and Kasprowicz almost took the Aussies home before the latter drifted a short ball straight into the gloves of wicket-keeper Geraint Jones. Aussies were 2 runs short but it was one of the most memorable matches in Test cricket. England would have been disappointed had they allowed the duo to score those 2 runs.
ODI format is no different. It was the tail enders that helped West Indies to win 2004 Champions Trophy. Playing the finals against England, West Indies had to chase a total of 219 to clinch the trophy. The top order batsmen failed to pace their innings as West Indies was reduced to 147-8. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the in-form batsman who made 47, was back to the dressing room. While the game was clearly set for England to get hold of its maiden ICC trophy, the 10th wicket partnership of Courtney Browne and Ian Bradshaw finished the game for West Indies with seven balls to spare. England did repeat the same mistake again during the 2011 World Cup when they lost by 2 wickets against Bangladesh, by allowing Bangladesh’s tail to settle.
Advent of T20 cricket could also be one of the factors for bowlers to upgrade their roles. Sri Lankan bowler Lasith Malinga, who is known for his toe-crushing Yorkers, has played a lot of T20 tournaments across the globe. As a strike bowler, he played a crucial role in winning matches for his country as well as for his franchises. At times he flourished using his bat as well. He stunned Australia in Melbourne by scoring a half-century with a strike rate of 116 (remember, we are talking about a number 10 batsman). That innings also involved a 135-run partnership with Angelo Mathews, when Sri Lanka was struggling to chase 240; when Malinga came out to bat, the score was 107-8. Also playing such a match winning knock at one of the largest stadiums of the world, makes his strike rate even more phenomenal.
Interestingly, these nail biting encounters from tail enders are not restricted to the T20 era. Yet again it was the Aussies who were at the receiving end. Australia had set a target of 216 for India during the 1996 Titan Cup at Bangalore. A score of 216 during those days was quite a difficult target. Sachin Tendulkar was dismissed after a well-made half-century and the scorecard was 167-8. It was a period when entire India used to switch off its television sets if Sachin gets dismissed. People who did switch off their televisions that day had missed a match winning partnership from the local lads Srinath and Kumble. Srinath scored 30 runs at a strike rate of 130 against an opposition that had McGrath, Gillespie and Hogg.
In a desperate attempt to clinch their opponent’s important wickets, teams tend to write-off the tail enders. Even at big stages, fielding team players get into a celebration mode once the opposition bowlers come to the crease. Cricket is that kind of a game where a single boundary could ease the pressure and bring back momentum. With some of the matches getting down to the wire, even inside edge boundaries from a number 11 batsman can make a difference. For winning games, cricketing fraternity stresses more about posting huge totals, claiming early wickets and improving the fielding standards. While the mentioned factors are equally important, tail enders’ contribution often gets overlooked. At times, teams can have flexibility in white ball matches given the number of over restrictions. If bowlers fail to take all the 10 wickets, they can at least control the flow of runs. But in test cricket, teams can’t afford to settle unless they dismiss their opposition. The skipper needs to bring his strike bowler and get the job done. Successful test teams are the ones that pick all the 20 wickets without leaking too many runs.