Sunday, May 12, 2019

1978: The glory days end not with a bang, but with a whimper

Derbyshire v Kent, 55 overs, Lord’s, 22 July 1978

We all have those times in life when we count down to the last one, knowing it is coming. Days left before school starts again, meetings to sit through before you leave a job, hugs from a child before you go to the airport. Like many readers, I am currently experiencing this with regard to one-day county cricket.

For a few years now most matches covered by Sky TV in the UK have been shown here in New Zealand, and I am working my way through this year’s collection (mostly, I know the result before I see the game, but I don’t find that this diminishes the experience significantly). Apart, I assume, from the final stages, next year’s “development” competition won’t be televised, so, like a bear preparing for winter, I feel the need to gorge while I have the chance.

Excluding overseas players and arranging a clashing ODI against Australia, we will discover, are just the beginning of the ECB’s secret plan to make watching the downgraded 50-over competition as unattractive as possible. Fierce dogs are being secretly trained in the tunnels under Lord’s as we speak, their task to patrol the gates, ready to rip out the throat of anybody carrying the scent of a Playfair annual. Playing music that only the more delinquent of the crowd’s grandchildren is under trial as I write.

Sometimes, you have no idea that it is the last time, and look back with remorse at not making more of it. So it was for Kent supporters as we made our way back to the St John’s Wood tube station on that July evening 41 summers ago. If you’d told us then that we would be the last of our kind to walk away from a Lord’s final with the taste of victory fresh in our mouths, we would have assumed that the nuclear apocalypse was upon us. That Kent would simply not be good enough for the next four decades we would have considered a more fanciful explanation.

Since 1978, only Glamorgan, the only county never to have won a Lord’s final, have not known what it is like to make that same short walk with the spring of victory in their step. Kent’s subsequent run of eight losing Lord’s finals is without equal in sport, unless someone would like to prove otherwise.

Where do we find the writer in 1978? I was on what they now call a gap year, but had passed the previous six months, not crossing the Andes or kayaking the Mekong as the bold young people of today do, but working (applying the term loosely) in an insurance broker’s office in Canterbury. I did have three weeks in Germany, most of which was spent trying to find out the cricket scores.

Exam-free, I saw four of Kent’s games leading to the final, starting on the first day of the season at St Lawrence against Boycott’s Yorkshire. What nobody would have expected when the previous season ended was that Kent would be led by Alan Ealham. Asif Iqbal had been sacked because of his association with World Series Cricket, which also ruled out Bob Woolmer. Graham Johnson had missed most of the 1977 season, so was out of the running. Along with John Shepherd, here was a trio who could and should have captained Kent but did not get the chance. Ealham did a good job, and didn’t get sacked for winning two trophies as Denness had two years before. The downside of Ealham’s appointment was that it meant the end of his career as a boundary fielder, taking impossible catches and breaking the stumps with William Tell throws.

Ealham’s captaincy career could not have started better; he took the match award for a 53 that rescued Kent from a parlous 25 for four after Graham Stevenson ran through the top order. A total of 160 was worth more than it seemed. Boycott (in his last season as captain before the outbreak of the Yorkshire Civil War) and Lumb groped their way like blind men to 35 from 21 overs, which persuaded the rest of the team that run scoring was impossible—114 all out.

Kent’s second home game in the preliminary phase was played at Hesketh Park, Dartford, the first time I went there. Kent’s most prosaic ground was by this time the only one close to the metropolitan area in which a good number of Kent’s members reside. These days there is Beckenham, which is right in London.

Essex were the opposition, a contest now ludicrously labelled the “Battle of the Bridge”. There was no bridge then, and the “Tussle of the Tunnel” didn’t have the same ring to it. Gooch and Denness (warmly welcomed) put on 106 for the first wicket. According to Wisden, McEwan and Pont “thrashed” 60 off nine overs, not a word that would be chosen these days to describe a rate of under seven an over towards the end of the innings. Essex finished on 222.

Graham Johnson anchored the chase, with 75, Asif made 65, then Ealham and Shepherd hit 52 from eight overs (“a savage stand”) to give Kent the win with two overs to spare. Shepherd, who also took three for 24, took the match award.

Nottinghamshire, who beat Kent at Trent Bridge in the zonal round, visited St Lawrence for the quarter-final. Alan Ealham showed again that the captaincy was not a burden. John Woodcock was there for The Times.

It was down to Taunton for the semi-final. Somerset had still not won anything, but with Richards, Garner (though he was absent here) and Botham alongside some above-average county players and the Taunton Macoute behind them, the County Ground was already a forbidding place to visit. I set off from Herne Bay on the 5 17, getting to the ground shortly before play started and long after all the seats had been taken. From a series of temporary perches I saw 41 overs before the rain came, with Kent an uncertain 149 for five, which Alan Gibson correctly judged was better than it seemed. He tells the story of the episodic continuation of the match, which ended in Kent’s favour two days later. Gibson seemed to enjoy Taunton more than any other ground, and stayed in good form through the showers.

Readers too young to remember these times will have realised that one-day cricket was a very different creature then. The 226 Kent made at Dartford was the biggest of the four winning scores in the matches discussed so far. In the games that I am watching on TV at the moment the team batting first invariably passes 300 as a matter of routine. I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Michael Henderson, whose monthly diatribe in The Cricketer was, in the April edition, a lament that sixes have become humdrum. The balance between bat and ball is out of kilter. Pushing the boundaries back to the edge of the field would be a start, and a little leeway to the bowlers outside leg stump would be worth a try too.

Back to 1978, and so to Lord’s.

There were four changes to the Kent team that had lost to Gloucestershire the previous year. Johnson returned for Clinton at the top of the order. Alan Knott took the summer off, passing on the gloves to Paul Downton, who had toured Pakistan and New Zealand with England over the winter. Bernard Julien had gone and Richard Hills was omitted. Chris Tavaré and Chris Cowdrey joined Downton in a Lord’s final debut. Fifth-bowler duties were shared between Asif and Johnson, the latter’s off spin being used more often in one-day cricket than under Ealham’s predecessors, another sign that the new captain had spent those years on the boundary observing and thinking.

It was Derbyshire’s second appearance in a Lord’s final, the first being a loss to Yorkshire over 60 overs nine years earlier. Having been soundly beaten the previous year by a team led by one powerhouse South African all-rounder, we had noted that Derbyshire were led by another—Eddie “Bunter” Barlow, brought in three years before to spark the most unfashionable of counties into life. Barlow was as every bit the all-rounder that Procter was. Not as fast a bowler, but one of the best top order batsmen of the time.

Derbyshire also had Bob Taylor, in Knott’s absence established as the England keeper; Mike Hendrick shortly to return to the test side; Geoff Miller, an England regular that summer; and Peter Kirsten another South African of international quality. Kent had lost to Derbyshire in the Sunday League at Maidstone just two weeks earlier, so there was no complacency as we took our seats in the Warner Stand.

It was a dull game, the most moribund of Kent’s fifteen finals. Derbyshire won the toss and chose to bat. Alan Hill became the first man to bat in a Lord’s final wearing a helmet. John Woodcock was unimpressed. 

Kent bowled tightly, particularly Bob Woolmer who conceded just 15 runs from ten overs, but were allowed to without challenge as Derbyshire froze on the big stage. Just 60 came from the first 30 overs. Hopes of a late-innings acceleration disappeared when Kirsten was out hooking at Asif, who looked an easier bowler than he was. The pitch was not easy—Woodcock has a sighting of the ridge, cricket’s Loch Ness monster—but 147 was well short of a winning score. Derbyshire were all out with just two balls of their 55 overs to spare.

Low scoring matches can be gripping, but that depends on the team batting second losing wickets early. There was a hint of this when Tavaré went for a duck to make it 38 for two, but Woolmer was there to nurture the innings with a third successive final half century. Of all the Packer players, it was Woolmer who missed out most on a substantive test career because of his involvement with WSC. He was comfortable in the conditions in a way that no other batsman managed to be that day, and was the best bowler too.

Woodcock has a few what-ifs, though doesn’t record Bob Taylor dropping Woolmer on 52 (a ball after Barlow dropped him) possibly because he didn’t believe his eyes. On the day, it didn’t seem in doubt, but the road to victory was across a featureless and unmemorable Nullarbor Plain.

No highlights of this final appear on YouTube, possibly mercifully; there was an industrial dispute which meant that the game had been shown on Grandstand without commentary, but Richie-less highlights were considered untenable, so were cancelled. We have a facility on Sky NZ that can mute the commentary from some sources. In Scorecards Towers we call it the KP button, and we wouldn’t be without it.

Kent went on to win the Championship that season, but our salad days were almost at an end and the world was changing. Mrs Thatcher would be in Downing Street within the year, though not in time to take away my student grant as I headed for Bristol University.

Given that Kent reached Lord’s last season, there was a hope that they would they would be the last Lord’s victors, tying up that loose end of defeats. But I watched their first game, against Hampshire, and it was clear that if a pop gun were added to the attack it would treble its potency. That dull match in 1978 was when the glory days ended, and our youth with them, not with a bang but with a whimper.


Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Lord’s Finals: 1977—The World turned Upside Down

Gloucestershire v Kent, 55 overs, Lord’s, 16 July 1977

With the last county final at Lord’s only a month away, this piece continues the series of accounts of those occasions at which I was present. We have reached 1977, the summer of punk rock and cricket’s Sid Vicious, Mr Kerry Packer.

It was the summer the world turned upside down. In May, Kerry Packer descended upon the game like the Angel of Death, or so one would have judged from the tone of much of the contemporary writing, as his plans for World Series Cricket (“the Packer Circus” as the weighted synonym of the time had it) became known.

Both teams in 1977’s 55-over final were affected. Asif Iqbal, Alan Knott and Derek Underwood had all signed, and Bob Woolmer was to join them before the summer was out. Gloucestershire’s Mike Procter and Zaheer Abbas had also, as EW Swanton sometimes put it, taken Mr Packer’s shilling.

Swanton was a dominant voice on the Kent committee, a group much threatened by these developments. Attempts to ban the Packer players from cricket controlled by the TCCB failed in the courts, but Asif was to lose the Kent captaincy to which he had only recently been appointed. But the dressing room, as far as we could tell, was not riven as some were. Warwickshire sent Dennis Amiss to (with due regard for historic county boundaries) Coventry over the issue. As it turned out, Amiss was to serve the club on and off the field with more distinction than anybody has.

For me, it was A level summer, which curtailed cricket watching to some extent in the first part of the season. I missed the quarter-final at Canterbury against Sussex, which was a shame as it was a cracker.

Sussex made 264 for five, enough to win most one-day games in those days. Roger Knight was top scorer with 91. Chris Cowdrey, in only his third List A game, was emergency opener, there to slog Mike Buss out of the attack. He put on 87 for the first wicket before Woolmer, Rowe and Asif went quickly, leaving Cowdrey with Alan Ealham and 155 still needed. What followed became the stuff of legend. John Woodcock wrote in The Times that he “had never seen much better running between the wickets”. Cowdrey reached his hundred and was out with victory assured, the partnership worth 146, dominated by Ealham, who finished unbeaten on 94.

Woodcock also wrote that the 19-year-old Cowdrey received the man-of-the-match award “to as enthusiastic a reception as he was ever likely to get”. Rather sadly, this proved to be all too true. It was the best day of Cowdrey’s Kent career. Never again did he have such a telling influence on a big occasion. It was probably Ealham’s biggest day too, but less poignantly as he contributed to many others and, unlike Cowdrey, was to lead the side to the County Championship.

In the semi-final at Northampton, Kent managed to defend 211, just, winning by five runs. It was played on the day of my final exam and I recall listening to radio commentary of the final over, probably on BBC Radio Medway, as Sarfraz Nawaz’s flailing fifty failed wasn’t quite enough. David Steele—BBC Sports Personality of the Year just 18 months previously—was top scorer with 64, but it took him 46 overs, a slow driver making everyone behind him late.

The BBC cameras were at Southampton for the other semi-final, fortunately for posterity, as they recorded a Mike Procter hat-trick. Two of the three were round-the-wicket lbws, Tommy Spencer’s finger rising faster than the Retail Price Index, which was saying something for 1977.

Woodcock’s preview of the final emphasised Procter’s importance to Gloucestershire:

Gloucestershire have had some good overseas players, not just in terms of runs scored and wickets taken, but of commitment to the team. In 1977 there was Zaheer Abbas, and Sadiq Mohammad. Later there was Courtney Walsh, and then Hamish Marshall, all of whom came to be as Bristol as the Suspension Bridge. But no foreign player has ever been as closely identified with a county as Procter, nor committed themselves so firmly to its cause. The fact that his bowling action apparently required a small act of nuclear fusion to power each delivery added to the impression of effort on the team’s behalf.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Woodcock’s preview shrewdly went on to suggest that the gap between the teams was not as big as might have been thought, though it was Kent’s sixth final (with only one defeat) and only Gloucestershire’s second. That was in 1973 when they had beaten another fancied team, Sussex. Procter led the way then too, with 94. Gloucestershire had the best batsman in the match too: Zaheer Abbas, who, the previous year, we had seen batting as well as anyone ever has at St Lawrence in making double and single hundreds in the same game. However, Kent had not lost to Gloucestershire in a one-day game for eight years, so we took our usual final seats on the top deck of the Warner full of confidence.

Kent had two changes from the side that had beaten Worcestershire the previous year. Mike Denness’s leading the county to two trophies had not impressed the committee sufficiently for them to reappoint him, and he had gone to Essex. Graham Johnson, vice-captain to Asif in 1977, spent much of the season injured, which put him out of the running when a new captain was needed for the following season. In came Bernard Julien, who had missed both the 1973 and 1976 finals on tour with the West Indians. Opening the batting was Grahame Clinton, the choice of whom ahead of Cowdrey seems surprising given the quarter-final century, but Cowdrey had barely scored a run since.

Clinton was an obdurate (I mean that kindly) left-hander. Just as Cowdrey had been picked to slog Mike Buss, so the idea may have been that Clinton would block Procter, though it was only the second time that season that he had been selected in the one-day side, the first having been in April. Thanks to Johnson’s absence, Clinton became a regular in the County Championship team in 1977, but played only the first four games in 1978 and at the end of the season left for Surrey, where he spent a successful decade or so.

The pattern of the 1977 final was similar to those of 1973 and 1976, but the world was turned upside down, so it was Kent who batted second, to stand on the quay watching the game sail off over the horizon. Of Kent’s ten (ten!) Lord’s final defeats, this one was rivalled in comprehensiveness only by the eight-wicket drubbing by Surrey in 1997.

I always enjoyed a Lord’s final more when one of county cricket’s support players found their way to centre stage. Here, it was Andy Stovold. It would be hard to place Stovold in time by looking at a photograph of him. In unlogoed kit and with a haircut uninfluenced by fashion, he could belong to any decade of the twentieth century (apart, possibly, from the last), but none of the twenty-first. His rotund body shape, once the most common in cricket, is now as obsolete as black-and-white television. His career lasted for eighteen years and 647 first-class and List A matches, all but a small handful of them for Gloucestershire.

That day at Lord’s, Stovold opened with Sadiq Mohammad and started at a cracking pace, with two fours off Julien’s opening over. Sadiq made only 24 of the first-wicket partnership of 79, making us wonder if his more circumspect older brother Hanif had turned up instead. The balance of the second-wicket partnership of 65 with Zaheer was more even. Stovold had reached 71 when he was caught at midwicket.

Predictably enough, Procter’s entry did nothing to slow down the scoring and at 190 for two it seemed that the 264 that Kent had chased in the quarter-final might be small beer, but the final overs of the inniings were Kent’s best period of the game. Gloucestershire finished on 237 for six, not as many as they should have got, but still highest score made in any of in the previous five 55-over finals, and, as were were quite aware, more than Kent had twice defended with something to spare.

Given the ease with which runs were scored for all but the last part of the innings, it seems odd that Kent used only five bowlers, and odder that Richard Hills was not one of them. Hills was a dependable purveyor of accurate, unspectacular medium pace. At No 9, he was a couple of places lower in the order than his batting ability merited, but his role was plainly as a bowler. He had bowled well throughout the group stage of the competition, except at Hove where he went for 42 off seven. Yet, he bowled only three overs combined in the quarter and semi finals suggesting that captain Asif lacked faith in him. It will not have helped that he had had his worst bowl of the season in the Sunday League at Leicester the previous weekend.

Procter was every bit as fearsome as his reputation and he was superbly supported by Brian Brain, accurate as the Greenwich time pips from the Nursery End. Only four runs had come by the sixth over, none of them by Clinton, when Brain brought one back into the left-hander down the slope to bowl him.

Charles Rowe was caught behind off Procter for the second of his three successive scoreless finals (to be fair, this was the only one in which he had the opportunity for a proper bat) and from that point on the feeling in the Warner Stand was that of sitting a three-hour exam that you hadn’t revised for.

Bob Woolmer and Alan Ealham put on 40 for the fourth wicket, but the runs had to be prised from the Gloucestershire attack like teeth from a live tiger and the required rate reached fanciful proportions. Woolmer made 64, the second of three successive half centuries in these finals. Only John Shepherd, with 55, resisted meaningfully in the later part of the innings.

David Graveney kept the pressure up superbly, with one for 26, but it was the opening pair who won the game, though neither had to use all their overs, Kent being bowled out for 173. It might be said that Kent did well to lose only one wicket to Procter, but the thought of him undermined Kent’s collective resistance and was a wind behind all the other bowlers. Brain finished with three for nine, five of his seven completed overs being maidens. For Worcestershire in 1973 he had bowled his 11 overs for 26, so this was a bowler who was not intimidated by a full house at Lord’s. Bowlers no better than him got test caps.

Stovold, who FS Trueman nominated as man of the match, supplemented his innings with three catches, one of which, to dismiss Ealham, was spectacular.

I started at Bristol University the following year and became a regular at the County Ground, living in Bristol until 1997. But there were no Lord’s finals for Gloucestershire throughout those years. It wasn’t until 1999, the curse of My Life in Cricket Scorecards no longer being upon them, that the county returned to Lord’s on a finals day, and liked it so much that they kept going back: seven times in six years, making Gloucestershire’s overall record nine wins in ten appearances, the most impressive record of any county (though Durham have won both finals that they appeared in, so are the only unbeaten Lord’s finalist).

The 1977 game was the foundation of the legend of the Gloucestershire chicken. Supporter Paul Brimble picked up the wrong bag as he left home, and only when he got to Lord’s discovered that it contained a frozen chicken rather than his sandwiches (he was later to claim that the chicken was alive on this, its first appearance, but must be forgiven the embellishment). Now with talismanic status, the chicken was returned to the freezer to await Gloucestershire’s next final. Though then several decades past its best-before date by that time, the chicken maintained its hundred percent record, being passed around its devotees as they sang “He’s got the whole chicken in his hands”, until being replaced by a sea bass early in the new century.

Having spent a lot of time watching both counties, I would observe that while an element of the Kent crowd seemed not to be satisfied until they found something of which to disapprove, Gloucestershire folk were content to find enjoyment however it presented itself.

Kent went on to share the Championship with Middlesex in that wet summer. Gloucestershire went into the last day in pole position, but Hampshire chased down 271 for the loss of only four wickets at Bristol, while Kent won at Edgbaston, as did Middlesex at Blackpool. Gloucestershire lost two games entirely to rain compared to one for Kent and none for Middlesex (no points were offered in compensation then) and to this day remain without a Championship since the competition was regularised in 1890.

1978: The glory days end not with a bang, but with a whimper

Derbyshire v Kent, 55 overs, Lord’s, 22 July 1978 We all have those times in life when we count down to the last one, knowing it ...