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.