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Henry Nicholls has mastered the art of playing career-saving knocks

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Last updated on 20 Mar 2023 | 07:40 AM
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Henry Nicholls has mastered the art of playing career-saving knocks

The left-hander has pulled off perfectly-timed Houdini acts so many times that you can’t help but think that it’s just destiny working its magic

Henry Nicholls has played 54 Test matches for New Zealand, and will more than likely add to this tally.

Here’s the thing, though: it could very well have stopped at 53. Or 44. Or 34. Heck, even at 9.

But it didn’t. 

New Zealand having a limited talent pool has played a part in Nicholls continuing to be a Test regular. As has NZC’s obsession to give incumbents the longest of ropes possible before dumping them.

But why Nicholls is still a part of the Test side isn’t only down to the above-mentioned reasons. 

Nicholls is still a Test regular in 2023 because he simply has mastered the art of playing career-saving knocks, like nobody else has in the history of this sport.

***

Nicholls entered the second Test against Sri Lanka in Wellington with a realistic possibility of it being his last — in a while, if not ever. 

In the 15 innings that preceded the Test, he’d amassed only 250 runs at an average of 16.66. 

To give some context, among 42 players who’d batted at least 15 times in this period, only Tim Southee (14.31), Kagiso Rabada (13.66), Jack Leach (12.20) and Khaled Ahmed (0.50) fared worse.

He wasn’t simply bad. He was spectacularly bad.

We all know what followed: Nicholls smashed a double-ton, his first-ever in Test cricket (what a time to do so!), and broke the rut in style. In the process, he ended up saving his Test career. Again.

The ‘again’ is being emphasized here for a reason — the Houdini act in Wellington was the fourth-time Nicholls, in his 54-Test career, had pulled off something special while on the verge of being dropped.

We’ve heard of batters playing career-saving turnaround knocks once, maybe twice. Here was Nicholls doing it for a fourth time. 

The first of the four came on 12th January, 2017, against Bangladesh in Wellington. 

Some may perhaps argue that calling this a career-saving knock is a bit of a stretch, but after a middling start to his Test career, averaging 24.23 after nine Tests with two fifty-plus scores in 14 innings, Nicholls was in desperate need of a score. 

Particularly having scored more than 30 only twice in his previous 12 innings, both coming in the same Test against South Africa in Centurion.

It wasn’t a dashing double-ton or a match-defining half-century. It was a gruelingly slow 53 on a flat wicket in a team score of 539. 

In the context of the match, it was important but not game-turning. In the context of his career, though, it was vital, for it ensured he’d get at least one more go.

And of course he made it count, scoring 98 in the second Test of the series in Christchurch before notching up a maiden Test ton two months later to seal his spot in the side.

The ton against South Africa, in fact, would prove to be the start of a golden phase for Nicholls in Tests — he would end up averaging 60.47 across a 13-Test period, scoring a total of five tons, the most impressive of the lot being an unbeaten 126 in the third innings against Pakistan away in the UAE. 

***

In an ideal world, Nicholls’ dream run turns out to be more than just a wild purple patch, and he goes on to become a rock in the BlackCaps’ middle-order. But you and I both know that’s not how sport or life works.

As it would turn out, Nicholls would go on to endure a horrifying 16 months post the aforementioned golden period, averaging 20.33 and posting no fifty-plus scores across 13 innings.

By now, Nicholls had enough credit in the bank, so the management were willing to give him a pretty long rope. But at the same time, New Zealand were gunning for a spot in the World Test Championship (WTC) final and the last thing they needed was a passenger in the batting unit.  

Then there was also Will Young seriously knocking on the door: during the same period, Young averaged 60.73 in 10 first-class matches, smashing three hundreds.     

So when Nicholls entered the second Test of the series against West Indies, in December 2020, having scored 7 in the only innings he batted in the first, there was genuine pressure on him to make runs.

Another failure and he probably does not make it to the starting XI of the Pakistan Tests.

But Nicholls is no stranger to this situation, and so with his immediate Test spot on the line, he smashes his highest Test score — 174 in an innings in which no other Top 7 Kiwi batter manages to pass 50. 

Better yet, he backs it up with another 150+ score three innings later, against Pakistan.

Nicholls was confronted by the god of death, but he coolly said:


***

In the aftermath of his 174 versus the Windies, Nicholls would probably have hoped to not find himself in a similar situation again in the near future.

But a year later, he somehow managed to land in a precarious position again, albeit this time the lean patch being a relatively small one.

A seven-Test period between June 2021 and January 2022 saw the southpaw average 21.90 and he entered the Tests against South Africa at home under a fair bit of pressure, especially having registered back-to-back ducks against Bangladesh; the first of those two ducks came in the fateful second innings of the Mount Maunganui Test in which Ebadot Hossain ran through the Kiwi batting line-up on a placid wicket. 

The absence of skipper Williamson meant that Nicholls played the South Africa series in February — not that his spot was under real jeopardy in the lead-up to it — but there was a good chance of him getting axed for the England series had he failed. 

For Williamson was guaranteed to take one middle-order spot once he regained fitness, and the shoot-out was hence between Nicholls and Daryl Mitchell.

No prizes for guessing what happened next.

With the bowlers bundling out South Africa for 95 on the morning of Day 1, Nicholls smashed his 8th Test ton on Day 2 to set-up victory for his side. 

More importantly, though, he once again smashed his way to starting XI security with the grim reaper staring right at his face.

***

At this point, you can’t help but think that it’s just destiny working its magic.

That he’s managed to play four career-saving knocks is ridiculous enough.

But the absurdity does not end there.

In three of these knocks, Nicholls has been put down behind the wicket.

En route to the 174 against the Windies, Nicholls was dropped not once, not twice, but thrice in his first 87 deliveries. 

Then against the Proteas in Christchurch, he was put down on his 11th ball by Zubayr Hamza, when he was batting on five.

On Friday, meanwhile, he was handed two reprieves, the first on his 20th ball thanks to debutant wicket-keeper Nishan Madushka misjudging a sitter.

Frankly, what are the odds?

Henry Nicholls has played 54 Test matches for New Zealand. But by the looks of things, he seems fated to play hundred.

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