Sunday, February 17, 2019

A loss for New Zealand and other matters

New Zealand v India, ODI, Cake Tin, 3 February 2019

As I took my seat before the start of this game—the fifth and final of the series—I reflected that a little under four years ago from much the same spot I observed a hapless young West Indian captain fielding on the boundary in front of me, near the exit leading to the dressing rooms, his symbolic desire to get off the field as quickly as possible obvious and painful. It was the World Cup quarter-final and they had given him pop guns to deploy against the artillery of Martin Guptill, on his way to 237 not out.

So it was cheering to have started the day listening to radio commentary from Antigua of that same young captain—Jason Holder—leading the West Indies to a series victory over England, and performing so well with bat and ball. As I have written so often before, I owe much of my love of cricket to early exposure to Caribbean cricketers, who made it look such a joyful and thrilling way to pass the time. That they are on their way back is the best news.

As we all know, Holder missed the final test, suspended for not hurrying up the bowling sufficiently for the match to finish earlier than the last session of the third day. I recall Backwatersman writing that he is never aware of how fast or slowly the overs are being bowled, and isn’t much concerned about it. I’m the same. Without looking at the scoreboard, I have no idea, at lunch say, how many overs have been bowled in the session just concluded. You might as well fine a river for reaching the sea tardily. Imagine if blame-the-captain justice had been in operation in the seventies. The Yorkshire team would have moved like statues so as to get rid of Boycott for a couple of games.

I have enjoyed the Talk Sport commentary from the West Indies (in New Zealand we have no TV coverage of the series, so the radio is not geoblocked). It gets the job done, has some interesting features and is not as self-regarding as Test Match Special. Mark Nicholas is one of the best broadcasters around, as long as he is not in Australia. For a posh Pom without an international cricket pedigree he did well to front Channel Nine’s coverage for a decade or so, but the Devil (played by Kerry Packer, born to the role) demanded as his price that Nicholas had to worship Australia and all things Australians with an enthusiasm that in comparison made Dame Edna Everage look no more a patriot than Germaine Greer.

The defeat in the West Indies has shaken England’s recent confidence in itself as a test team, despite the consolation win in the final test. This one-day series against India has had much the same effect on New Zealand’s self-perception in this form of the game. It began with New Zealand ranked third in ODIs, after a comfortable three-nil win against Sri Lanka (and we know how misleading three-nil wins against Sri Lanka can be). India would be tougher test of course, but New Zealand would be competitive; a close three-two defeat, like that against England last year, was thought the worst that could happen. So the three drubbings that were the first three games sent the cricketing nation into deep introspection.

I noted during that England series that New Zealand’s strategy appeared to rely on one player, probably Williamson or Taylor, to play a world-class innings, and that this had been surprisingly successful. The solid contributions across the top half of the order that are the more conventional basis for success did not happen last year or this, but this time were not compensated for by a cricketing Popeye with his tin of spinach. The second-highest individual New Zealand scores in the first two games were 24 and 34, the third-highest in the third 28.

Like England’s test team, the problems start at the top of the order. Martin Guptill is out of form, but the hope is that class will out. Colin Munro has been his partner for a while. A dominating batsman in T20s, his technique has become exposed over 50 overs. In T20 he is bold, in ODIs he is bowled.

Henry Nicholls was moved up to open in the fourth game. Here, My Life in Cricket Scorecards boasts its first exclusive in nine years, or as close to one as it likely to get. I fell into conversation with the guy two seats along, who, it turned out, was Nicholls’ father. I can reveal that Henry is very happy to open, relishing the challenge, and would be equally happy to be reserve keeper in the World Cup squad, having kept proficiently throughout his early career. This seems the sensible way to go, better than the selectors managing to persuade themselves that Tim Seifert is good enough to take a batting slot.

New Zealand Cricket backed Nicholls’ talent early and have been vindicated. His test average is 43 and climbing. Though his ODI record is more patchy, he is more likely to offer long-term consistency than any other available candidate. It was good to hear that he has a positive team’s-needs view of his ability (cf Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and the No 3 position).

For the first three games, Munro was the sixth bowler, but he is more a seventh bowler, a Graham Gooch-style dobber (those of us who were there have never got over the disaster that was making a fifth bowler from a combination of Gooch, Boycott and Larkins in the World Cup final of ’79). In these bat-dominated times, captains need six bowlers capable of bowling a full allocation if they are to respond properly to events.

Nicholls’ promotion to the top of the order allowed this to happen, but India’s collapse for 93 in the fourth game was, from the selectoral point of view, the worst thing that could have happened, as the recalled Todd Astle and Jimmy Neesham bowled fewer than three overs between them, no test at all.

It was five for 21 from Trent Boult that undid India in game four, which told us nothing new. Boult apart, the selection of the bowlers has been subject to rotation throughout this series. Boult takes the quaint view that the best way of maintaining form and fitness to bowl at international level is to bowl at international level, and has the mana (a useful Maori word meaning respect and status) to stand aside from the rota.

This fifth game was New Zealand’s last chance before the World Cup to test players against top opposition. Three-match series at home to Bangladesh and away to Ireland follow, but against lower-grade opposition a moderate player can do well and be difficult to drop. New Zealand should by now know what their World Cup squad will be, but have at least four bowling/all-rounder places that are undecided. Here, Henry, Neesham, Astle and Munro (back in for the injured Guptill) might be regarded as in the selectoral repecharges, with Bracewell, Ferguson and Southee also contending. The inclusion of Southee in this list will probably surprise overseas readers, but his one-day stats have been going downhill since the last World Cup. He is said to be in the rotation, but appears to be following the orbit round the sun of Pluto, so rarely is he seen.  

India are without Virat Kholi, who took a break after the third game and is on holiday elsewhere in New Zealand, and Jasprit Bumrah. Giving these two key players a rest is wise, but a disappointment for those of us who were looking forward to watching two of the current World XI. However, MS Dhoni had recovered from the injury that kept him out of the fourth game, so giving us almost certainly a last chance to see him in an ODI in New Zealand.

India won the toss and elected to bat on a pitch of uneven colour, though nothing like the lunar surface that produced such a good game against England last year. Then, 234 was, just, a winning score. In the tenth over, at 18 for four, this seemed beyond India’s dreams.

Matt Henry conceded just two runs from his first two overs, then knocked back Sharma’s off stump with killer late outswing reminiscent of Southee from the same end against England in the World Cup.

In the next over, Henry was at third man to take the catch when Darwan lashed out at a short one from Boult, a reward for both opening bowlers for keeping it so tight early on.

This brought together the tyro Shubman Gill and the old master Dhoni. Looking back at the scorecard in 20 years’ time it might be a curiosity to find them both together in the same XI. Gill played one sumptuous off drive that had “promise” written through it like “Blackpool” in a stick of rock, but was then caught at short cover, pushing leaden-footed at a Henry delivery that didn’t come on as he expected.

Those of us hoping for something magnificent from Dhoni on his farewell were to be disappointed, though it would be a fair description of the Boult inswinger that uprooted his off stump.

Rayudu and Shankar set about rebuilding. They must have made a astute estimate of what a winning score would be and realised that they did not need to go for 300 at all costs. Wicket preservation was the priority, so that sufficient reserves were in place for the final charge. They put on 98 for the fifth wicket in 22 overs before Shankar went to a Brexit of a run out: no plan, utter confusion and no majority for any course of action.

Surprisingly, Williamson opted to put Munro on ahead of Astle, who would have wanted the opportunity to make his case for the second spinner’s spot (assuming that Santner has the first because of the balance he offers). Superficially, it was the right decision. Munro bowled straight through, conceding 47 from ten (and that included two sixes in his last over). But he didn’t take a wicket, and didn’t look likely to. Rayudu in particular used him like a life raft to navigate to a secure position. The run out apart, no wicket fell between the tenth and 44th overs, when Rayudu fell ten short of a deserved hundred.

The key to success in contemporary ODI cricket is to take enough wickets through the innings so as to limit the potential of the batting side  to explode with runs in the last ten overs. Their failure to build upon an excellent start to do this cost New Zealand the game.

Hardik Pandya led the charge in the final overs with five sixes in his 45, three of them off consecutive deliveries from Astle. India finished with 252.

Matt Henry performed the best of the bowling auditionees, finishing with four for 35 from ten, almost enough to get him on the plane. Todd Astle was only given five overs finishing with nought for 35, so it was a day when Ish Sodhi did better by not playing.

Television companies might consider adapting one of those endless property restoration programmes to New Zealand cricket. “This is Kane. My, the innings is in a sorry state. Can he apply a bit of paint and bang in a few nails in the right places to rescue it?”. Today, it was 38 for three in the eleventh over, Nicholls, an unconvincing Munro and Taylor gone.

Williamson looked out-of-sorts at first, making only five from his first 24 deliveries, but the first two balls of the 18th over, bowled by Shankar, went for silky, feather-light fours, the first a cut, the second a straight drive. The partnership with Latham advanced, mostly in singles, until it reached 66, parity almost restored.

Williamson then miscalculated in a way that he rarely does, attempting to pull Jadhav over the mid-wicket boundary, only to provide an easy catch. With the required rate only just above six, there was no need to interrupt the steady flow of singles at that stage.

Latham was also out swinging across the line, lbw to Chahal. De Grandhomme followed a couple of overs later, a couple of handsome fours impressing les than the ability to work the ball around for a while would have done.

At 135 for six, much now depended upon Jimmy Neesham. Like De Grandhomme’s, his ability to crash and bash is unquestioned, but has he the repertoire for all occasions? This innings provided a good deal of evidence that he does. There were big shots, including two sixes, both over mid-wicket from deliveries that were ripe for the purpose. On 44 from 32 balls, 77 needed at under six an over, he had put New Zealand back into a position of near-equality.

“What happened next?” is a question that Neesham will wake up in the middle of the night for decades to come trying to answer, without being able to. Swinging across the line to Jadhav, he was hit on the front pad. There was a loud appeal, but the impact was clearly outside the line of off. The ball hit Dhoni’s leg and trickled a few feet behind the stumps. A couple of steps and it was in the keeper’s gloves. But Neesham had set off for a single, and had no chance of getting back before the stumps were broken. Had Santner set off from the non-striker’s end, the old cliché “they wouldn’t have crossed” would, for once, have been absolutely accurate.

A few big blows from Matt Henry notwithstanding, that was it, a 35-run defeat, New Zealand left with an uncomfortable number of uncertainties about form, selection and prospects with no more games against top-level teams before the World Cup.

There was a good turnout form the local Indian community, who brought to the occasion a generous exuberance that reminded me of the Caribbean crowds at Lord’s and (in particular) the Oval in the 1970s.


Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Lord’s Finals: 1973 & 1976 (and a little of 1974)

I went to Lord’s for 24 domestic finals (plus the first three World Cup finals). With the 50-over final moving to Trent Bridge from 2020, there will be no more. Every one of the 24 was played before a full house, even when there were two a year. Were that still the case, the question of moving it would not arise, but over-pricing, the prevalence of international cricket, the devaluing of the county game and the short attention spans of the marketing folk have conspired to devalue what were some of summer’s highest days.

To mark their passing, I hereby announce a series of posts on those 24 finals. This will involve a bit of “curating” (the name young people give to re-sorting and sticking a different label on old stuff). Just as those who played at the MCG in March 1877 were oblivious to taking part in the first test match, so these old posts turn out to be early episodes of this series.

I’ll mix the cricket reportage with a little of what was happening in the world and as much autobiography as the reader might be able to tolerate.

But anybody anticipating an eyewitness account of the 1974 Gillette Cup final between Kent and Lancashire will be disappointed. I was there on the Saturday, sitting in the sunshine to hear that there would be no play that day, thanks to heavy rain two days before and a sharp shower at 9 am.

People who hanker for the old days of cricket-watching should remember how much of the time we spent watching grass dry. Now, play would probably have started on time.

The game was played on Monday, a school day, hence my absence. Why not Sunday? Because Kent had a Sunday League game scheduled at Worcester. What’s more, the XI that played at New Road was exactly the same as turned out back at Lord’s on the Monday. Rotation then was merely a means of crop management.

I’m sorry to have missed the match—the only one of Kent’s first twelve Lord’s finals from which I was absent—not only because Kent won, but also because it was such a curiosity. Lancashire, having won the toss, lost their tenth wicket to the final ball of the 60th over to be all out for…118. That is to say, a fraction under two an over.

In The Times, John Woodcock described the pitch as “churlish…of uneven bounce and no pace”, but observed that “there was less good batting than one would have thought possible from so many distinguished players”. The Lancashire team contained some of the best one-day batsmen of the era—Lloyd C (& D), Wood, Pilling, Engineer—and those fine tonkers of a cricket ball Hughes and Simmons. Nobody in Kent’s innings made as many as 20, surely a record for a winning team in a final.

Kent’s bowling was apparently splendid: “Rarely did any Kent bowler drop short of a difficult length” reported Wisden. This included James Graham-Brown (his name a pleasing compendium of two other Kent bowlers of the era), who finished with 12–5–15–2. Graham-Brown was a medium-pace bowler with bouncy run up. By a lengthy street, this was the best day of his cricket career. He made only occasional appearances in 1975 and 1976 and then had a couple of years with Derbyshire (as good a euphemism as any for career failure: “Mrs May, we have arranged for you to have a couple of years with Derbyshire”). He was a headteacher for 20 years and now writes plays, including one about Colin Milburn, under the name Dougie Blaxland.

It was Kent’s fielding that won the cup that Monday. There were three run outs, including, crucially, Clive Lloyd, beaten by a 50-yard throw by Alan Ealham after slipping mid-pitch. John Shepherd was responsible for the other two, leading Woodcock to compare him to Learie Constantine.

Kent were coasting at 52 for one, but collapsed to 89 for six before being seen home by Knott and Woolmer (then batting at No 8; within a year he was scoring an Ashes century).

Those not around then would find it hard to credit how difficult it was to find out what was happening in the closing stages for those of us not at Lord’s. BBC schedules were not sufficiently flexible to take account of the delay. Radio coverage was restricted to hourly sports desks, and midweek county games had to give way to the Open University on BBC 2 from about 5 pm, so programmes on Games (sic) Theory and Pure Mathematics filled the screen as Knott and Woolmer eked their way to the target. The tension was in wondering how much tension there was. Nor could time be found to show any highlights, which is presumably so there are none on YouTube.

55-over final 1973

No two Lord’s finals were more alike than the 55-over finals of 1973 and 1976. Both were between Kent and Worcestershire. Kent batted first both times, making a good, but not insurmountable score. Worcestershire slipped behind, were given hope by D’Oliveira, but ultimately fell 40 runs or so short. I watched these games from the top deck of the Warner Stand, a largely Kent area on both days.

Kent’s glory years were now well under way, the trophies coming as easily as bonuses to bankers. This was the third of ten in the seventies. Seven of the team were test players, two of them—Knott and Underwood, obviously—in or near the World XI of the time. Woolmer had already played ODIs and was to be a test player two years later. The other three—Johnson, Graham and Ealham—were fine county players, and the former two might have been capped had the selectors actually been as biased towards Kent as supporters of other counties supposed they were.

Worcestershire had three current test players. Norman Gifford, unaccountably (to us in Kent, and many others) selected in preference to Underwood for the first two tests against New Zealand, where he had bowled to Glenn Turner, who was opening the batting here with Ron Headley, who would open for the West Indies in the first test later that week.

The loss of Johnson and Denness with the score on 23 forced Luckhurst and Asif Iqbal onto the defensive, so much so that after 20 overs the total was only 34. But they knew that if no more wickets were lost the runs would come, and so they did, in a partnership of 116.

They were a contrasting pair, the craftsman and the showman. Looking at the recording (posted by Luckhurst’s son), Brian Luckhurst reminds me a bit of Kane Williamson, so correct, and with a practical answer to every bowler’s questions. He was the least stylish of the Kent batsmen, a short backlift turning most shots into punches, but perhaps the most effective. This was a beautifully paced innings, and it turned the game Kent’s way.

Tony Greig said that Asif was the quickest runner between wickets he ever saw. There is plenty of evidence on the recording to support this contention. See how, as Luckhurst is halfway down the pitch completing his third run to pass 50, Asif is already at the other end, scoping a fourth.

Asif’s fleetness did for Luckhurst in the end, beaten by a howitzer of a throw from D’Oliveira from the general direction of Regent’s Park.

These days they call a batsman coming in for the final ten overs or so a “closer”. Kent’s unlikely closer that day was Colin Cowdrey, whose appearance was greeted with a certain amount of derision by Worcestershire folk, who spoke of blocking and maiden overs. What followed was a short masterclass of placement and timing, enough weight taken off the shot to get two even with seven boundary fielders (no fielding restrictions yet, of course). He was puffed by the end mind, particularly when joined by Alan Knott, perhaps the only Kent player who could challenge Asif in a short sprint. Who would blame Cowdrey for turning down a second from the last ball of the innings, given that would have placed him 22 yards further away from the pavilion, to which he was by then so keen to return? Cowdrey refuted another misconception—that he was a liability away from slip—early in the Worcestershire innings when he threw down the stumps from side on.

Kent’s opening bowlers were Norman Graham and Asif Iqbal. Like Jasprit Bumrah’s now, Norman Graham’s run up was no more than an administrative necessity, but batsmen were unused to seeing the ball from the angle that his six foot seven frame delivered it from. The effect was of a bowler faster than he actually was. Asif’s handling of the new ball was a surprise in that he had bowled only three overs in the competition thus far that season, and did not bowl at all in the first nine games of the Sunday League season. But then Bernard Julien headed off to join the West Indies touring team and somebody remembered that Asif had first emerged as in international cricket as an opening bowler. He did the job very well, with a slingly action and busy arms that looked as if they wanted to dispatch the ball long before reaching the bowling crease.

Worcestershire were going along quite well at 57 for one when Ted Hemsley made a mistake that many had made before and many would after: he took a single to the little dumpy guy at mid on. He was a yard short when the ball hit the base of the middle stump, as it tended to when thrown by Alan Ealham.

A couple more wickets fell quickly. Worcestershire were behind the clock and mesmerised by Underwood. It was a surprise to see the captain, Norman Gifford coming in at six, promoting himself above D’Oliveira and Yardley. This may have had something to do with the fashionable theory that Underwood was less effective against left-handers.

D’Oliveira soon joined him and they came close to turning the game, with a partnership of 70 in 12 overs, massive productivity in the year of the three-day week. Gifford slogged effectively, but some of D’Oliveira’s shots were sublime. All the political business that his name evokes can get in the way of remembering what a fine cricketer he was; a man Peter Oborne reckoned would have toured England in 1951, but for apartheid. As we will see, he wasn’t done with Lord’s finals yet.

The rest of the Worcestershire order folded, leaving them 39 runs short with 20 balls spare. Asif had four wickets to add to his half-century and was named man of the match by Sir Leonard Hutton (“I saw Hutton past his prime…”).

The highlights package on YouTube was posted by Tim Luckhurst, Brian’s son. No highlights package is shown in the schedules for that day on BBC Genome, so it would seem to be a piece of individual enterprise for which we nostalgists are grateful.

How shining white their kit is in those pictures; they look like angels descended from heaven, but your childhood heroes always do, I suppose.

55-over final 1976

For those of us of a certain age, the summer of ’76 will never be beaten. Lazy, hazy, crazy days, the sun relentless and dazzling, the West Indies cricket team the same. Viv Richards announced his greatness with two double hundreds. I was at the Oval for some of Mikey Holding’s 14 wickets on a pitch so flat it would be an exaggeration to call it three-dimensional.

Zaheer Abbas with a double hundred and a hundred at Canterbury…a helicopter landing at Mote Park as Kent won the Sunday League…Cowdrey’s last game…and another Lord’s cup final win.

Kent’s XI for the 1976 final had three changes from that of three years before. Cowdrey had retired (but was to reappear once during Canterbury Week); Luckhurst and Graham had already had their seasons ended by injury, and were both to retire that year (prematurely in Luckhurst’s case). Leading the attack was Kevin Jarvis, like Graham a fine county bowler unlucky not to get a few England caps along the way. When the two played together Graham was promoted to the No 10 position, a promotion that the introduction of no player I have seen other Jarvis could have achieved.  

Cowdrey and Luckhurst were replaced by Charles Rowe and Richard Hills. Here was a straw in the wind, though we didn’t recognise it as such at the time: two players of proven international quality succeeded by two decent county pros. Rowe was embarking on the unenviable sequence of three Lord’s finals in successive years in which he would not score a run, bowl a ball or take a catch.

Only five returned from Worcestershire’s 1973 XI: Turner, D’Oliveira, Gifford, Ormrod and Hemsley. There was plenty of talent among the replacements, most of whom would become well-known county names: Phil Neale, Gordon Willcock, Paul Pridgeon and John Inchmore. The least familiar is all-rounder Cedric Boyns, who had made his way from the Drones Club specially.

And there was Imran Khan, now in the final year of a spasmodic six-season career at New Road. Worcestershire folk chanted his name to the tune of the chorus of You’ll Never Walk Alone (“Imran” for “walk on”) as he opened the bowling, but the volume diminished as the Kent openers Johnson and Woolmer saw off the new ball.

In 1973 Woolmer had been a bowling all-rounder. Three years later, he was an England batsman, his 61 here part of the reason he was promoted to open in the fourth test later that week as the selectors hit upon the notion that it would be a good idea to have openers with a combined age lower than 84, as it had been when Close and Edrich opened in the third test, at Old Trafford.

It was always more fun when a county pro who never experienced international glory turned in the key performance at a Lord’s final. Here, it was Graham Johnson’s day, the high day of a 20-year career (though I’ve written before about the scandal that was Geoff Miller playing 34 tests while Johnson played none). With Woolmer, he put on 110, the first century opening partnership in a Lord’s final. “Watching Johnson and Woolmer…no one would know that English cricket is in the doldrums” reported Woodcock.

Kent didn’t build the big total that might have followed this fine start. There were no boundaries between the 36th to 52nd overs. Woodcock described Gifford’s field settings as “as much like rounders as cricket” and suggested that there might be an inner ring containing a specified number of fielders, as has become standard. But there was also some good tight bowling, notably by Gifford himself, but also from Boyns, who had to step up to a full 11-over contribution after D’Oliveira limped off having torn his 44-year-old hamstring. That Kent got as many as 236 was largely thanks again to Asif’s scampering in the last ten overs.

Worcestershire started well enough, with Turner and Ormrod putting on 40 in 12 overs, but Shepherd had the New Zealander caught behind. He dismissed Neale soon after and a tourniquet was applied first by Woolmer, whose first seven overs cost only four runs, then Underwood playing the fifth of his ten finals.

The difficulty that Underwood presented can be judged by the fact that three batsmen in a row were caught by Johnson at deep square leg as they desperately sought to escape the Alcatraz that Underwood built on the line of leg stump.

There is a curiosity around the first of these catches, to dismiss Ormrod. Johnson took the catch inside the rope, but clearly continued across it. For a few years in that era, that constituted a fair catch. That clearly had not been the case in 1968, when Roger Davis caught the fifth of Sobers’ six sixes at Swansea, only to fall over the boundary for the catch to be overruled. The variation to the law that did not last long, or the gymnastic displays that are now a regular feature of boundary fielding would not be necessary.

When D’Oliveira limped in, accompanied by Turner as runner, Worcestershire were 90 for four and well behind the clock, as good as done if all they had to offer was an elderly disabled man and his carer. D’Oliveira proceeded to play what I still regard as the finest one-legged innings I have seen, rivalled perhaps by Chris Gayle’s equally futile effort in the World Cup quarter-final of 2015 (when he was not allowed a runner). With mobility unavailable, he relied on eye and power, one that of an eagle, the other what would get a small town through an afternoon.

“With short-arm jabs, D’Oliveira struck four after four and he straight drove Hills to the pavilion seats for six” reports Wisden. He never quite caught Worcestershire up with the required rate—all those fielders on the boundary saw to that—but he certainly had us worried. Only when he was out for 50 in the 47th over did we relax, after we had stood to see him on his slow way back to the pavilion. There has never been a cricketer who has attracted such universal goodwill as Basil D’Oliveira.

Kevin Jarvis cleaned up the tail, giving him four wickets on his Lord’s final debut. The 43-run victory margin was a touch flattering to Kent. Graham Johnson won the gold award by Sir Garry Sobers.

Except for certain members of the committee, none of the Kent people at Lord’s that day would have believed that Mike Denness was in the final couple of months of his Kent career. Nobody would have thought that when we returned a year later our world would have been turned upside down by Kerry Packer (or rather the establishment’s blimpish reaction to him). In a way, that happy day was the last of our childhood, the only time in our lives that we had a full hand of illusions, none yet shattered.

The golden summer of ’76.

A loss for New Zealand and other matters

New Zealand v India, ODI, Cake Tin, 3 February 2019 Scorecard (links to video) As I took my seat before the start of this game—t...