Nightwatchman in cricket: The strategy used by a batting team to protect a specialist batsman receives mixed response from the cricketing fraternity.
During the third day of the second Test of the ongoing England’s tour of India in Chennai, England promoted spinner Jack Leach to No. 4 in the last 15 minutes (or so) of the day in a bid to protect captain Joe Root from batting under daunting circumstances.
The move backfired substantially as Leach ended up hitting the ball straight to India opening batsman Rohit Sharma at leg slip. Having walked back to the pavilion after facing a solitary delivery, Leach couldn’t perform the job assigned to him on a day in which he had already been overloaded with bowling duties.
Root eventually walked in to bat at No. 5 for the 31st time in his Test career. While the right-handed batsman somehow managed to survive the day, he couldn’t stop cricket experts and fans from criticizing his team’s decision of sending a nightwatchman.
nightwatchman J Root comes to the crease
— Rick Eyre on cricket (@rickeyrecricket) February 15, 2021
What is Nightwatchman in cricket?
A nightwatchman is defined as a strategy when a batting team promotes a lower-order batsman (mostly a specialist bowler) to protect its specialist batsman from batting at the end of the day’s play. Having said that, there is no defined rule or number of overs left in day’s play with respect to sending a nightwatchman.
Let us understand the same by the aforementioned example of England sending in Leach before Root. When Leach came in to bat, only three overs were left in the day. In such a situation, a team management decides to send a nightwatchman to ensure that its specialist batsman doesn’t have to face the opposition’s bowlers in a period of play when the ball tends to do more due to various reasons.
Assuming that the nightwatchman lasts the remaining period of play, the same batsman will then walk out to bat the following day which means that the specialist batsman will bat with a fresh mindset on a new day.
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A primary reason why the ploy of sending a nightwatchman faces criticism is because it puts someone less equipped to bat in to bat under difficult circumstances. The critics often highlight how bowlers don’t ask their batting teammates to bowl when the ball does nothing or the opposition batsmen dictate terms.
Because batting and bowling are two completely different departments, critics of this concept don’t find logic in sending a bowler in place of a specialist batsman. Knowing that someone is less capable in one department, promoting him over someone who is more capable is considered as unfair on the former.
Who decides if a nightwatchman is required?
There’s a general belief that a particular batsman himself expresses the desire of not going in to bat in the last 15-30 minutes of a day’s play. Hence, asks the team management to send in a nightwatchman.
While the same holds true in many cases, opting for a nightwatchman can also be a collective decision taken the whole team management than just the batsman in question. As mentioned above, there is nothing illegal about opting for a nightwatchman in the rule book. Therefore, teams often don’t mind even if a lesser-capable batsman is sacrificed to protect a specialist batsman.
I know it helped me…but I am not a fan of the nightwatchman!! just don’t see how an lower order player is going to negotiate these deliveries better than a top order player specially on these wkts!! you don’t see Non bowlers bowling with 5 overs left in a day 🤷🏾♂️ #INDvsENG
— Alex Tudor (@alextudorcoach) February 15, 2021
Can a nightwatchman open the batting?
Yes. Since nothing against the move is mentioned in the rule book, teams can send a bowler(s) as an opening batsman to protect one or both their opening batsmen especially if a few overs remain in the day.
Former India opening batsman Gautam Gambhir, who was one of the commentators on Star Sports when Leach had come in to bat, had questioned the move stating how opening batsmen never ask for a nightwatchman but it is only the others who get the privilege of skipping a difficult period of play.
In a way, Gambhir’s words were true because teams rarely send a nightwatchman to open the batting. That being said, the last one remembers the same happening had involved Leach.
As surprising and rare as it sounds, Leach has opened the batting twice after being promoted as a nightwatchman. During the second Test of England’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2018 in Kandy and a one-off Test against Ireland at Lord’s the following year, Leach had accompanied Rory Burns’ as his opening partner.
Knowing that England had to bat a lone over in the day, Leach had taken the strike and successfully countered Dilruwan Perera and Tim Murtagh on both the occasions respectively. Against Ireland, the southpaw had gone on to score a career-best 92 (162) comprising of 16 boundaries.