On the toughest job in sport

So who has the toughest job in sport? Some would say it’s the England football manager Sam Allardyce, some would say it is Joe Maddon as he tries to lead the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years, some would say it is José Mourinho and Pep Guadiola as they try to restore Manchester to the pinnacle of English football. But at least these four men are all qualified to do their jobs. My nomination is a totally unique job in sport that you only get if you are not good at what you do.

The job is that of nightwatchman in cricket. For those who don’t know about cricket a nightwatchman is used when a wicket falls and there are only a few minutes left in the day’s play. Nobody in cricket really likes batting for a few minutes at the end of a day – you can only score a few runs at best and at worst you can get out. So a lot of teams don’t use good batsmen and instead use bowlers since most of them are not very good at batting and therefore they are expendable. If they get out it is disappointing but not a disaster as they are not very good. So in effect – totally unlike any other job inside or outside sport – you get the nightwatchman’s job because you are not good. The equivalent in baseball would be using a pitcher as a pinch hitter – which happens far more rarely than the use of a nightwatchman in cricket.

The nightwatchman job in cricket is a tough one because not only is it done by someone who is not a good batsman but the fielding side is inevitably buoyed up by capturing a wicket near the close of play. Also one of the unwritten rules of cricket is the nightwatchman – the not good batsman – has to take most of the strike as he is the one that is expendable – which is why he is out there in the first place. Then if he survives the night he has to go out again at the start of the next day’s play to face fired up fresh fast bowlers who are out for blood and want early wickets.

One member of the “nightwatchman’s union” sums up the role perfectly. Pat Pocock played 25 Tests for England between 1968 and 1985. His career Test batting average was 6.24 which is not good (as in baseball the lower the average the worse the player is.) But because his batting average was so poor – he was in the team as a bowler – he was considered perfect for the nightwatchman’s role. As David Tossell in his book “Grovel! – The Story and Legacy of the Summer of 1976” – put it (Page 119) the role was one that Pocock “frequently filled but rarely relished”.

Here’s what the man himself had to say about the nightwatchman’s role (ibid page 119) “Nightwatchman is the absolute arse end of cricket. Generally the bowlers have had their feet up all day and they are fresh; they know they only have to bowl five overs at you and have a new ball in their hands. It is a tail gunner’s job, the worst job in the world”.

Another nightwatchman story from 1976 appears in the same book (page 38) when batsman Dennis Amiss was hit on the skull by a ball from Michael Holding near the end of the first day of the MCC v West Indies game at Lord’s. Bowler Phil Carrick was sent in as nightwatchman while Amiss’s blood was still on the pitch. The other batsman Mike Brearley greeted Carrick with a line from a “Beyond the Fringe” sketch. “The time has come, Perkins, for a useless sacrifice”. And in fact that’s what nightwatchmen are most of the time. A useless sacrifice whose only purpose is to protect better batsmen from having to bat late in the day (hence the word “nightwatchman”). A truly horrible job.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Sometimes the nightwatchman bats on well into the next day and makes a big important score. The four most famous nightwatchman innings for England are Harold Larwood’s 98 against Australia at Sydney in 1933 (he is more famous in that series for reducing Don Bradman to mere mortality with his controversial “Bodyline” bowling that nearly wrecked relations between the UK and Australia), Eddie Hemmings’ 93 in 1983 against Australia at Sydney in 1983 which helped saved the game, Jack Russell’s 94 against Sri Lanka at Lord’s in 1988 on his Test debut – ironically delayed because the selectors in their infinite (lack of) wisdom thought he could not bat! – and Alex Tudor’s 99 not out against New Zealand at Edgbaston where he was denied a century because his Surrey team mate Graham Thorpe scored so quickly England had reached their victory target before Tudor could complete his hundred.

But the most remarkable nightwatchman’s innings in Test cricket came from Australia’s Jason Gillespie in 2006. Sent in near the end of the first day’s play in the second Test against Bangladesh in Chittagong he was still batting on the fouth day when Australia declared on 581 for 4 with Gillespie on 201 not out. What makes that amazing is Gillespie is not a batsman but has a higher Test score than some of the best batsmen in history – among them famous Australia captains Ian Chappell and Steve Waugh and famous England captains Colin Cowdrey and Mike Atherton!

The Gillespie story proves one thing. Nightwatchman might be “the arse end of cricket” as Pat Pocock called it. I still say it’s the toughest job in sport. It must be the only one you get because you are not good and expendable – a “useless sacrifice”. But sometimes the useless sacrifice can have his day. As Jason Gillespie did in Chittagong on April 19 2006.

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