Numbers come with their own individual baggage. Lucky seven and unlucky 13. Three is a magic number, but also a crowd. Sixteen is sweet and life begins at 40.
History and culture play their role, be it Douglas Adams asserting that 42 is the meaning of “life, the universe and everything” or St John the Apostle decrying 666 as the number of the beast, fear of which is known as Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia – a swine to spell (or say) but it does get you value for money on your word count.
Cricket has its own numerical lexicon. Nought is obviously bad, the duck or blob. The dreaded 111 is ‘Nelson’ and 87 gives Aussies the willies. A bowler is lauded for a five- or 10-wicket haul and a batter is judged on their ability to compile hundreds.
In the Nightwatchman, Andy Zaltzman writes that cricketers particularly can feel aggrieved that “human beings irritatingly evolved with 10 digits on their hands and thus developed a decimal system of counting”. There is one particular number that teeters between joy and disaster. It induces clammy hands and quickened pulses in players and spectators alike. The twitchiest number of the nervous nineties: 99.
Clem Hill has the dubious honour of notching the first 99 in Tests, against England at Melbourne in 1902. Pleasingly for stattos but no doubt vexing to him, he followed up with scores of 98 and 97 in the next game at Adelaide. There have been 95 scores of 99 in Test matches. On 89 of those occasions, when within a sniff of a century, the batter perished. Six were left stranded on it.
One of the six is Alex Tudor, whose 99 not out against New Zealand in 1999 still rankles, becoming more of a Miss Havisham innings with each passing year. Tudor was sent in as a nightwatchman and biffed his way majestically to 84. Graham Thorpe arrived at the crease with 34 required to win; he was in no mood for sentimentality. Instead of seeing Tudor through to a remarkable century, Thorpe hit a rapid 21 and Tudor was left one run shy of the milestone. “My mum is still fuming,” says Tudor, booming down the phone.
Thorpe wrote that he regretted his approach that day. Five years later he shepherded Nasser Hussain to a century in his final innings, Hussain’s 14th ton. Tudor never made one.
“I was 21 at the time, I kept thinking I’d get the opportunity again. As the years go on, it does get more frustrating. It would be incredible to say ‘I’ve got a Test match hundred’. But I can’t.”
One of the most wretched 99s is Michael Atherton’s at Lord’s in 1993. “Tragedy. Tragedy.” Atherton mimics Tony Lewis’s commentary line as he reflects on the incident. He says it was the decision to bat in half-rubbers and half-spikes that proved fatal. A dodgy call from his batting partner didn’t help either. Mike Gatting came barrelling down for a third run before aborting, sending Atherton clambering back to his crease. He slipped. Twice. A gleeful Ian Healy whipped off the bails to seal his fate. “I’ve never held it against [Gatting], we have a chuckle about it when we see each other.”
Atherton made two Test 99s and confides that he was nearly the first man in history to chalk up three. In his 185 not out at Johannesburg he was one shy of a century when Gary Kirsten missed a sharp chance at short-leg off Allan Donald.
He scored 16 Test centuries but never did make one at Lord’s, his name remaining absent from the honours board. “Looking back, it makes it more poignant,”he says. “They have now put a one-day honours board up, so my name is on there somewhere.”
Tudor too has his own method of solace. “I was not out in the first innings so I do tell people I was 131 not out from the Test match as a way of getting round it.”
Three women have scored 99 in Test cricket. Betty Snowball was the first, run out at the Oval in 1937, followed by Jill Kennare in Mumbai 62 Tests and 47 years later. Both have Test centuries to their name. Jess Jonassen scored 99 on debut against England at St Lawrence in 2015. She is yet to shake off the numerical shackles, it remains her highest Test score.
Jonassen found herself on 95 not out overnight and even did the press conference that evening. Was she not worried that might jinx it? “I wasn’t dwelling on the potential to bring up three figures, which looking back is bizarre,” she says down the line from Brisbane. “It’s more after the fact that you feel like ‘Arghhh! What would it have felt like, what would my celebration have been, silly things like that.’
“I still blame my partner [who was in the crowd] a little bit. When I got to 99, she got her camera out …”
Can she remember the feeling of being on 99? “I did have a little moment where I thought, ‘oh, is this the ball?’ The ball that was then bowled to me was one that I had faced thousands of in my life and I just missed it. I remember looking up at the umpire and thinking ‘please don’t’. Then I saw his finger starting to move … It hit me straight away. What have I done?”
Jonassen’s partner did get a picture, of her hauling herself from the field utterly disconsolate. She chuckles as she notes the photo is now in her childhood bedroom, framed. “A 99 is a perfect analogy for what cricket is, there’s disappointment and poignancy but something keeps you coming back for more.” She still has hope her day will come, she’ll go one run better and be able to replace the image in the frame.
Atherton, though, is as phlegmatic as ever. “I don’t think about my playing career at all, unless I’m probed by people like you.”
As Atherton trudged off that day in 1993, Tony Lewis lamented that “those few yards are going to live with him for ever”.
“Well, they don’t,” says Atherton. “I do remember the gutting feeling though. It is impossible to know why that one run matters so much. But it does.”