English cricket has always taken a lot of pride in the successful rearguard action or last-ditch stand a la Dunkirk, and why not? Outright success when a series is alive is far preferable to damage limitation when a rubber is dead, but a draw like the fourth Test can be counted half a triumph.
It also brings the whole game of cricket together when a last-wicket pair, like Stuart Broad and James Anderson, hold on for dear life and a draw. This is how village cricket has been for centuries. The fielders cluster around the last man, few of them in recognised fielding positions, just crowding the bat as a part-time leg-spinner bowls the final over. As with a hat-trick ball, this is a moment when international cricket is purely spontaneous – a passage of play which is unrehearsed, unanalysed, and uncoached.
England have made a speciality out of the last-ditch stand in recent years, perhaps because tailenders are no longer allowed to throw their wickets away with a slog. The finest (in the sense of most valuable) example of England’s last pair hanging on for a draw was when Anderson and Monty Panesar clung on at Cardiff in 2009, because the series was alive – it was indeed the first Test of that Ashes series – and Australia had been all over England throughout the game. This was the greatest escape, because it enabled England to regain the Ashes, 2-1.
When Anderson finally retires and thinks back over his England career, along with his 700 or so wickets he will surely recall that last hour in Sophia Gardens – and give thanks, not only for Panesar’s obduracy at the other end, but to Ricky Ponting, for thinking that the part-time off-spin of Marcus North, turning away from the last pair’s bats, was more threatening than Mitchell Johnson.
To set against that triumph, Anderson at the opposite extreme fended a short ball from Sri Lanka’s Shaminda Eranga to short-leg at Headingley in 2014, with one ball left of the match. Having gone to Sydney at 1-1, so to speak, Anderson is now 2-1 up in last-ditch stands after blocking out that last over from Steve Smith.