Nightwatchman not worth watching?

Last updated 09:00 24/03/2009

The real Nightwatchman: Tom MorelloKyle Mills coming in as nightwatchman at number four and then going out for 2 on Friday evening was certainly not the primary reason we lost the Test match at Hamilton. But, along with dropped catches, reckless batting, messy ground fielding, inconsistent bowling and a smidgen of bad luck, it certainly didn't help. I was despondent as I mowed into my chicken, cranberry, camembert burger and watched Mills trudge off forlornly.

The thinking behind Mills's arrival was intriguing to say the least. His confidence would have been down as he strode to the crease to avoid a golden pair - remember he was out, yorked to pieces by Munaf Patel, on ball one in the first innings and had also bowled 22 occasionally ragged overs for 98 with just the wicket of a cavalier Harbhajan Singh to his name. In previous Test matches he has batted higher than number nine on three occasions: scoring a golden duck against the West Indies in December (nightwatchman, at #3), a 2-ball duck against South Africa in April 2006 (as a "genuine" #3), and an injury-induced promotion to #7 led to a 42-ball stay for 8 runs at Manchester last year.

You could argue that on Friday he did the job in that he prevented the further loss of top-order batsmen's wickets before stumps. I don't buy that for a second. The role can only be deemed successful if the nightwatchman is there to frustrate the bowlers the following day as well. His dismissal at the end of a brilliant final over by Patel seemed inevitable - maybe the New Zealand dressing room needs to accept that Kyle just isn't Tom Morello.

New Zealand should terminate the nightwatchman theory - eradicate it, cast it aside, abandon it altogether.  If a specialist batsman is deemed to be unable to handle the bowling, what hard evidence is there that a specialist bowler is going to be able to do a better job? Or conversely, if the conditions are so easy-peasy that a bowler can hold up one end, then surely a genuine batsman ought to be able to make a pretty decent fist of it too? Given the expectation that the nightwatchman should soak up the strike to protect the batting maestro at the other end, it seems counter-intuitive that it could ever be anything other than a high-risk punt. As they say in Vegas, a gambler is nothing but a man who makes his living out of hope.

Another issue is the trickle-down-the-order side-effect, as the promotion of a lower-order player like Mills leaves McCullum and Vettori to battle away at 8 and 9 with the walking wickets of O'Brien and Martin for company. Even if we put to one side the debate about whether the captain and his deputy are too low in the order even without the insertion of a nightwatchman, this rejig just doesn't make sense. It forces New Zealand to waste run-scoring opportunities and, certainly when Tommy Martin is at the crease, the batsmen switch to slog mode. Our best batsmen should be at the crease for as long as possible, and given the best chance to score the most runs - and having a nightwatchman come in makes this a less likely prospect.

Anorak Anorak AnorakAbout a year ago a Guardian piece by Andy Bull delved into the quagmire of anoraks and calculators to ask whether cricket was being poorly served in the areas of statistical science, or sabermetrics.*  Citing baseball as the benchmark performer in this area, he also refers to cricket analysis by a chap called Charles Davis who has sought to objectively prove that the deployment of a nightwatchman by a batting team is fundamentally flawed. Davis writes in his seminal piece analysing the performance of teams across more than 200 Test innings in the 1980s and 1990s:

[We] can compare the outcomes of innings in which the nightwatchman was used, against similar situations where it was not. Firstly, we can look at the effect on the nightwatchmen themselves. Cricket watchers will probably be able to remember vividly examples of nightwatchmen made good; one (Tony Mann) has recorded a century, and Alex Tudor, without a first-class century to his credit, scored a match-winning 99 not out for England vs New Zealand. But how do nightwatchmen respond to the added responsibility?

His findings were:

* The average score by a nightwatchman was about 15;

* The promotion up the order had little effect on the nightwatchman's performance;

* A team was more likely to score less if the nightwatchman was used and the average of this shortfall was around 25 runs per innings;

* The tactic fails two out of three times. He wrote: "We can say without question that the nightwatchman cases are overall a much worse set of outcomes, especially when the nightwatchman was brought in at very low scores."

* Davis comments that the nightwatchman has proved popular "probably because most captains are batsmen, and they know the insecurity that batsmen feel about going in to bat at the end of the day". (Perhaps the Moler's influence on his bowling captain is at work here?)

Along the same lines, Y Anantha Narayanan's more recently published research found that the practice of having an inferior batsman standing in for a better one was successful slightly more often, but still only worked around 40% of the time. Out of 613 innings he zeroed in on, he deduced that 270 succeeded in the task of surviving to score either 10 runs or face a minimum of 30 balls.

He goes on to uncontroversially label Gillespie the best nightwatchman in the history of the game - his record of 9 innings, 327 runs, 1049 balls faced, and an average of 40.87 is nothing short of staggering. From a New Zealand perspective, our most frequent watcher of the night was none other than Daniel Kyle Morrison, who did the job seven times, while Eric Dempster (47 from 188 balls) and Daniel Vettori (42 from 147) both make Cricinfo's list as nightwatchmen who shone so brightly they top-scored in their team's innings.

*Sabermetrics is the analysis of baseball through objective evidence, derived from the acronym SABR which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research. It was coined by Bill James, its most prominent and advocate.

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35 comments
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Dr Zoidberg   #1   10:42 am Mar 24 2009

Couldn't agree more Holden. Nightwatchmen are a complete myth and I cringe when i see the BCs employing them. I think the comment about most captains being batsmen is pertinent. You also raise an interesting and much debated issue about whether McCullum and Vettori are too far down the order. Clearly 5 was too high for Bazza but he does seem to end up battling away with the tail more often than not in test matches. I think Oram is the key to our lineup, or in his absence, Elliott. There needs to be a genuine allrounder in the mix and Franklin/Mills aren't up for the job right now.

Ben A.   #2   10:46 am Mar 24 2009

Agreed. The nightwatchman concept does seem fundamentally flawed.

I totally understand from playing that going in with a couple of overs left in the day definitely does feel like you're on a hiding to nothing, though. But that should be regarded as a potential part of a batsman's job.

Stef   #3   10:48 am Mar 24 2009

I've never really understood the nightwatchmen thing myself. Even harder to understand though is the lack of Oram and Southee for the 2nd test. WTF?? And why is it reported in the media that the NZ selectors are refusing to make "rash changes". Really? Are those the only options?? Rash changes or no changes? What about "necessary changes"?? Ok, rant over. I feel a lot better now.

Alex   #4   11:20 am Mar 24 2009

I can't stand nightwatchment, it's the height of pussiness by batsmen and their captains. I was so suprised to see Dan give our underperfroming batsmen such a luxury.

You could argue that our top 4 the last few years are just nightwatchmen taking the shine off the ball for our allrounders. To protect quasi-nightwatchmen with a real nightwatchman, which relegates our allrounders down the list, is indeed the height of madness.

What next? protect our bowlers from risking their backs by using part-timers.

paulimus_prime   #5   12:35 pm Mar 24 2009

Bat Vettori ahead of McCullum until he can man up and get the balls to make at least one ton against a slightly decent team - Vettori has proved again that in tests he is a genuine all rounder and it puts even more workload on him but he has to do for the benefit of the team - just like he did when he promoted himself to 4 against Bangladesh and won us the game!

Unwell   #6   01:58 pm Mar 24 2009

#3 Stef - Oram doesn't really look up to it at present. His return against Canterbury has been pretty average so far. As for Southee a reasonable case could be made for his inclusion (replace Mills) but they're both bowlers that require swing to be on offer otherwise they're fruit for the sideboard.

sirNathe   #7   04:06 pm Mar 24 2009

So how come you guys all know better about nightwatchmen than most test captains in history? A batsman is most vulnerable when starting his innings. When he has to come in before stumps, you are asking him to make a start, then come back 18 hours later and make another start, in effect doubling his most vulnerable period. If you can avoid this by chucking in someone expendable then why not? Plus there is nothing like frustrating the opposing captain the next morning when he can;t get the nightwatchman out. I wouldn;t use Mills tho, we expect some runs out of Mills towards the end of an innings. I reckon O'Brien is the best bet, we never expect any from him and he can hang around as we saw on Saturday.

brad   #8   05:45 pm Mar 24 2009

I agree 100% about the nightwatchman rubbish. What a complete waste of time. And sending in Mills after his golden duck surely wasn't the best choice of nightwatchman. Munaf has Mills' number. Surely Dhoni will throw the ball to Munaf everytime Mills strolls out to bat.

Vettori should send himself in as nightwatchman if he's going to use one.

Dr Ziodberg - Elliot surely can not be classed as a genuine allrounder. Not in my book anyway. ODI team yes. Test team no.

milkywayrocks   #9   06:10 pm Mar 24 2009

Good post as usual Holden. Glad you brought up Morello Holden, awesome guitar player.

All evidence and statistics aside, the idea of a Night watchman is not all that bad. The way I see it, with uncertainties in the light and pitch and the bowler, batting and staying in late in the day requires more than a hint of luck. So, its less damaging when bad luck hits that a lower rather than higher order batsman gets out -- I know I definitely felt that way when Kyle Mills got out. My immediate reaction was: that could've been Ross Taylor, phew. Although given Ross was out on 4 the next day, it really didn't matter that much.

Remember that Dan Vettori had a great Night watchman's innings in Bangladesh that won that test.

Reg Corres   #10   10:36 pm Mar 24 2009

I suspect Dizzys unbeaten double ton against Bangledesh is the primary reason for his high average. Take Bangledesh and Zimbabwe out of it for a more accurate comparison. By the way who was the batsman that got Dizzy to go in against the mighty Bangledesh attack? That is a very embarrassing moment in any batsmans career!


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