Sunday, July 12, 2020

Iverson, Gimblett, Haigh and Foot

I have had Gideon Haigh’s Mystery Spinner on the shelves for a while now, and finally got round to reading it during the lockdown. It is one of cricket’s most remarkable stories. Jack Iverson was an unorthodox spinner who didn’t make his school’s first XI, debuted in first-class cricket at the age of 34, and for Australia a year later, in the 1950/51 Ashes series in which he became the leading wicket-taker for the winning team. Then he left as suddenly as he came.

Iverson was a mystery spinner in the technical sense. His grip is shown on the book’s cover, the middle finger tucked underneath the ball ready to propel it in a way that most batsmen could neither read or understand. But all we see of him is the hand, telling us that the mystery of Iverson is the man as much as the bowling.

That the book is a tremendous read goes without saying; it’s written by Gideon Haigh. It is also a triumph of research. There is no avenue of Iverson’s life that is unexplored, however apparently tangential to his cricket career. For example, Iverson spent a couple of years in his early twenties as a jackeroo (farmhand) 80 kilometres or so north of Melbourne. Haigh makes contact with the daughter of the owner, who remembers Iverson. The family still owns the property, so he visits. He also scours the archives. It provides Haigh with sufficient evidence to allow the reader to conclude that this was one of the happiest periods of Iverson’s life and that he was stifled by the duty of following his father into real estate.

Haigh also goes to great lengths to place Iverson in the context of the game’s history, with a chapter on the evolution of bowling from underarm days and another on the subsequent development of unorthodox spin, focusing on Iverson’s most well-known successor, Johnny Gleeson.  

Mystery Spinner passes the test for the best cricket writing, that it could be enjoyed by readers with little or no interest in the game. It sent me back to the book that is a benchmark in this regard: David Foot’s Tormented Genius, his 1982 biography of the Somerset batsman Harold Gimblett.

The two books have much in common. Gimblett’s entry to first-class cricket was even more sudden and spectacular than that of Iverson. A 20-year-old called up from the farm in Bicknoller at the last moment—it was in May; in July one of Somerset’s many jazzhat amateurs would have done the job—he hitched his way to Frome where he went in at No 8 and took the Essex attack for 123 in 79 minutes. Now, that would be noted only by the county cricket websites; then it was the story of the day, and dressed Gimblett as a golden boy, an ill-fitting suit for the introverted lad from the farm, but one that some pictured him in for the rest of his career.

Not that his batting was shy; many was the county attack that he took apart. Gimblett made 23,00 runs including 50 centuries at 36, equivalent to the mid-40s today. But he played for England only three times. The Second World War took out what might have been his best years, but a reluctance to hide his contempt for sleights (mostly real, but some imagined) from authority figures and being classified as a dasher also contributed. The latter has been a constant in English selection, through the years. Look at all the batsmen who got a few tests while Ali Brown of Surrey went capless. Somerset has a tradition of undercapped batsman, one that James Hildreth is upholding to this day.

For several decades David Foot had one of journalism’s more enviable job descriptions. For the Guardian, he wrote about cricket, football and rugby, and was the paper’s theatre reviewer in the West, and he had a column in the Western Daily Press, all of which left him time to write some terrific books, including an outstanding biography of Wally Hammond.

Some cricket readers may not realise that Gideon Haigh also has a parallel career as a business journalist. Both Foot and Haigh are examples of the CLR James principle, their cricket writing enriched by that on unrelated subjects.

Whereas Haigh had to ferret for the bulk of his content, Foot had it ready-made. He had agreed to write a book with Gimblett, but the subject died before the work began. But he left Foot his memories, honest to the point of distress, on a collection of tapes.

Haigh didn’t see his man play, of course. He was well into the research when he came across some footage and could finally watch Iverson bowl. Foot watched Gimblett play often. A childhood hero is a hero for life, though Foot got to know Gimblett well enough to know the truth of his title: Tormented Genius of Cricket. He starts with a bold assertion:

Gimblett is the greatest batsman Somerset has ever produced.

It would be interesting to know if he would concede that Marcus Trescothick now has that place in the county’s pantheon.

There is a dark connection between the two books. Both subjects ended their own lives. They had been born within a few months of each other in the first year of World War One, so lived at a time short of understanding of mental health. Gimblett’s melancholy (to use Foot’s word) was always apparent in hypersensitivity to criticism and a grim mood when the blackness became too strong to fight off: “He moaned more than most; he berated and he patronized. And a great deal of the time he despaired.”

David Foot describes several incidents that reveal Gimblett’s inner turmoil. He was the adjudicator for the Gold Award (man of the match) at an early-season one-day game in Bristol. For most ex-players this was the easiest of days, with food, drink and a fee in return for only a couple of minutes’ thought about who to give the medal to at the close of play. But the black dog accompanied Gimblett to the County Ground that day. For some time, he sat in his car outside the ground, wanting to turn round and go home. Foot found him wandering around the boundary in lonely anguish, dreading the moment of decision and the public disapproval that he had convinced himself was inevitable.

Jack Iverson’s insecurity was always apparent. He was forever announcing to teammates that was going to give the game away. A poor performance (and he set the bar high) would push him into a sea of self-doubt. Unlike Gimblett, Iverson generally hid his insecurity behind an affable persona, but the last ten years of his life saw a gradual decline in his wellbeing. Haigh’s meticulous account of Iverson’s life allows us to understand the context of his illness, which appears to have had a significant connection with the decline of the real estate business, that he had entered from filial obligation. His death followed his getting a disappointing business discussion out of proportion.

Foot records Gimblett’s final despair with similar detail and compassion. Both authors know that the story of the cricketer cannot be told without an understanding of the man and the times in which he lived. Duncan Hamilton’s on Harold Larwood, which I wrote about some time ago, is of the same high standard. All of three are worth a read.

NB David Foot was the subject of a recent piece on Cricket Web.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

The 2006/07 Ashes Revisited

The lockdown has been kind to us here at Scorecards Towers in Wellington. We have both been busy working from home, in a big house with plenty of books. People who watch County Championship or Plunket Shield cricket are likely to be temperamentally suited to lockdown life. What’s more, Sky TV NZ’s cricket channel has been a treasure trove of delight; archive material is filling the Sky box, lifestyle programmes and earnest dramas surreptitiously deleted to make room.

Best of all, they are reprising whole Ashes series, first 2006/07, then 2010/11. Not highlights, but full days, with the commercial breaks edited out, so the over rate cracks along.

I knew the outcome of the 2006/07 series of course: a five-nil drubbing for the old country. There was a fair smattering of memories: England losing at Adelaide when it seemed impossible to do so; Gilchrist’s onslaught at the WACA; most of all, a lunchtime pub in Wellington falling silent for the first ball of the series, then erupting in laughter as Flintoff collected it at second slip. Of the fourth and fifth tests I had almost no recall at all; I had returned to the UK for a few weeks, and saw none of it live. I didn’t look at any scorecards or reports in advance of watching these repeats, so a lot of it came fresh, despite knowing the results.

There was more that surprised than might have been expected from the first whitewashed Ashes series since Warwick Armstrong. Five-nil suggests Australian dominance from first ball to last, but that’s not how it was. In every game England were in a good position at one time or another. At the Waca Australia were all out for 244 having won the toss. Margin of victory: 206 runs. At the MCG England were 101 for two before collapsing to 159; then they had Australia at 84 for five. Margin of loss: an innings and 99. At Sydney they were 166 for two. Margin of loss: ten wickets. Worst of all, in Adelaide how could they have lost from 551 for six declared batting first?

The Adelaide defeat was because England froze on the last day, the runs drying up like grapes in the sun. Had they made 30 more, but been out at the same time, the game would have been saved. Australia were better equipped to make sure that at the turning points the match went down the green-and-gold road. There was no shame in this for England as that Australian side was one of the finest test teams ever to play the game. They had four great players: Gilchrist, McGrath, Ponting and Warne, and a few more who weren’t far off.

For McGrath and Warne, it was last-chance-to-see, in test matches anyway. With the Ashes reclaimed at the earliest possible moment, the the Melbourne and Sydney tests became a royal progress celebrating the two great bowlers, and rightly so.

McGrath rarely ventured outside the 120s in terms of kph, and was not quite the force he once was; but he was still good enough as he showed by destroying England’s middle order in Sydney. He got the timing of his retirement exactly right, past the summit but before the downward slope got steep.

Warne might have carried on for years on this evidence. By this time, he was part spin bowler, part hypnotist and part PT Barnum. He certainly had a sense of theatre and the gift of timing: his 700th wicket was taken at Melbourne on Boxing Day and his 1000th in international cricket at Sydney in the New Year (though it seemed wrong to have him bowling defensively down the legside at Adelaide, like commissioning Canaletto to whitewash the ceiling).

The biggest difference between test cricket then and now was the absence of the DRS system. Over the series as a whole the umpiring was pretty good, but there were plenty of mistakes, and most of the critical ones went against England. Andrew Strauss copped a couple in Perth, caught behind off the thigh pad in the first innings and given lbw in the second for a duck off Lee, when the ball would have cleared the stumps as comfortably as a literary joke passing over the heads of the Barmy Army. Australians will make the point that, had the DRS been available in that era, it would have spotted that Michael Kasprowicz’s hand was off the bat at the climax of Edgbaston ’05, removing that series from the legendary category in a couple of frames.

Rudi Koertzen had a poor game at Melbourne. Hayden was stone-cold lbw against Hoggard twice in the same over early in his innings; Symonds was reprieved in the fifties. Both made 150s and put on 279 for the sixth wicket from 89 for five. That’s the biggest difference between then and now—putting up with poor decisions.

I’d forgotten about Koertzen’s self-indulgent manner of giving batsmen out, drawing the left arm from behind the back with cruel slowness; a man could be halfway back to the rooms before the finger was fully extended. In comparison, Billy Bowden’s crooked finger of fate appeared understated. Alim Dar also officiated, the only umpire from that time still on the international circuit (though Bowden still favours the domestic audience here with displays of his powers of rain divination, I am pleased to say).

Symonds achieved his maiden test hundred with a straight six off Collingwood. Reaching the landmark had taken him longer than expected and there was to be only one more century. I had the pleasure of seeing Symonds often when he came to play for Gloucestershire as a teenager, the most talented player of that age that I have seen. He had a good international record, with averages of 40 in both tests and 198 ODIs, yet there remains a feeling of what-might-have-been.

Symonds isn’t the only player who evokes that emotion in this series. Monty Panesar had been England’s leading test wicket taker in the 2006 season, but Ashley Giles was picked ahead of him for the first two tests of this series, continuing England’s long tradition of picking the lesser player in search of that elusive quality, balance (Giles had once been a worthy first choice, but that time had passed). As I write, somebody on Twitter is asking (out of genuine perplexity) how come Derek Pringle was ever picked for England.

Picked for the third test, Panesar finished second in the bowling averages, a fraction behind Hoggard, though the fact that they were both on 37 tells us much about the series. One of the commentators (I think Benaud, though it sounds a little acerbic for him) said that England had replaced a slow bowler with a spinner. They were critical of how Flintoff handled him at times. Ian Chappell said at Sydney that Panesar should introduce himself to his captain to remind him that his name was not Ashley Giles, and that Flintoff should stop setting fields as if he was.

Panesar was 24, and appeared set for a distinguished career. He finished with 167 wickets from 50 tests, which is not bad, but the exuberant, popular young man who bowled with such imagination and confidence here was capable of so much more. Of course, the emergence of Graeme Swann as a top-class spinner limited his opportunities, and he has faced some mental health issues bravely. At 38, he is two years younger than Jeetan Patel, and could have been mesmerising the best batsmen in the Championship still.

The biggest unexpected pleasure of rediscovering this series was the wicketkeeping of Chris Read, unexpected not because there is any doubt about Read’s quality, but because I had forgotten that he replaced Geraint Jones in the final two tests. Ian Healy said that Read’s was “the most convincing, efficient, technical display I’ve seen from an England keeper for 20 years”, and went on to say he was just as good as Alan Knott, which caused Bill Lawry to say “You’ve just made me fall off my chair”. Knott remains the gold standard of keeping for those who played with or against him, but the fact that the comparison is not fanciful is compliment enough.

Read never played test cricket again. Utility, in the form of Matt Prior, was preferred over beauty. Read continued in county cricket for another ten years, becoming, almost certainly, the last keeper to make more than a thousand first-class dismissals, and finishing with 27 centuries and a career average just a couple under Prior’s. That he did not have at least a hundred test caps is a scandal.

Coverage was from Channel Nine, close to its peak. In Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell they had two of the great commentators and the rest were more than the sum of their parts. They each had a distinctive voice and style, from Mark Nicholas’s plumed hat to Bill Lawry’s excited-falsetto. Nicholas spent much of the first test explaining the innovation of Hot Spot in the manner of someone introducing fire to the Neanderthals. In Nine’s final years, it was difficult to tell which of Clarke, Hussey, Lee and Brayshaw was at the microphone; they weren’t bad commentators, but they all sounded much the same. The common criticism that they looked at the game as if every day were Australia Day could not be levelled in 2006/07, it being difficult to over-praise a team that won five-nil.

Finally, what of Andrew Flintoff? The memory, and a superficial look at the numbers, says that his captaincy was a disaster from first to last. As ever, the reality was more complex. The commentators were quite impressed early on, at least in terms of setting an example and leading from the front. His handling of Panesar was astute when the spinner returned to the side in Perth. Many captains would have pulled Panesar out of the attack when Symonds took him for 17 in an over, but Flintoff showed confidence in a bowler who went on to take only the third five-for by a spinner in a Waca test. But the captain’s self-belief waned with each missed opportunity. It was that Hayden/Symonds partnership at the MCG that finally brought him down like a slaver’s statue. From that time on, he had the crestfallen look of a man who knew that there was a pedalo out there, waiting for him.


Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Lord’s finals of 1980

I can’t recall a wetter English summer than that of 1980. Rain made a nonsense of the Sunday League game that was part of Maidstone week, and not another ball was bowled until 5 pm on the Thursday. The Saturday of the Centenary Test Match was largely spent with Dickie Bird and David Constant agonising over the constraining effects of wetness, something that Mrs Thatcher spent a lot of 1980 doing in Downing Street.

The rain was the reason why I spent the afternoon of Saturday 19 July not at Lord’s for the scheduled 55-over final, but at the Criterion Theatre on Piccadilly Circus for the matinĂ©e of Tomfoolery, a collection of the satirical songs of Tom Lehrer starring Robin Ray of Face the Music fame. Lehrer said that he gave up satire when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, on the basis that life was making a better job of it than art ever could. I think of that whenever the ECB makes another announcement about The Hundred.

For Kent, the change from the sensational seventies to the egregious eighties could not have been more stark. I returned to Canterbury for a 55-over group game against Somerset that resulted in a defeat as shattering as the 60-all-out at Taunton in the previous year’s 60-over quarter-final. As in that game, all seemed relatively well at the halfway stage. Kent made 242, with fifties from Alan Ealham and Chris Cowdrey. But after only a few overs of the reply the inadequacy of the target had become all too clear.

Opening for Somerset were the captain Brian Rose and Sunil Gavaskar, on debut for Somerset as replacement for the touring Viv Richards. Gavaskar had now got past his apparent belief—36 not out in 60 overs on the opening day of the 1975 World Cup—that this one-day stuff was not worthy of an artist of his calibre, and made as easy a 90 as one could hope to see. However, he was the minority partner in the first-wicket stand of 241. At the other end Brian Rose was unbeaten on 137 as Somerset reached their target with more than 11 overs to spare.

Back in Bristol the following weekend, I watched the home team upset the holders Essex. Graham Gooch went off quickly, but after he went for 62 the innings lost momentum, as it was to do in the final. Mike Procter, took two for 26, but it was four wickets from Alan Wilkins that did most to limit Essex to 224. Wilkins became better known as a TV commentator than he was for playing; I had forgotten that he had brought his left-arm seam across to the other side of the Severn Estuary for three seasons. Andy Stovold guided Gloucestershire home with an unbeaten 73, supported by his brother Martin with whom he put on 57 for the fifth wicket.

Essex nevertheless made it to Lord’s once more. Their opponents were Northamptonshire, who had lost the 60-over final to Somerset the previous September.

There were sufficient of we, the indolent and workshy, to come close to filling Lord’s on the Monday. Northamptonshire won the toss and chose to bat. Both XIs were unchanged from those that appeared in Lord’s finals the year before, something else that would be improbable these days (aside from the obvious detail that there are no Lord’s finals now).

It one of those games that is more interesting in retrospect than it seemed at the time, because the team that looked routine winners for 85% of the match ended up losing it. 

John Lever set the tone by conceding just seven runs from his first six overs, but it was seamer Keith Pont who took the first three wickets. At 110 for three just before lunch, Northamptonshire had the capacity to reach a reasonable total, if they increased the tempo urgently. But three quick wickets meant that the rest of the innings would be attritional. That they struggled past 200 was thanks to a seventh-wicket stand of 59 between Allan Lamb and Jim Watt.

Watt had been recalled to the Northamptonshire colours from his second retirement two years before for his second spell as captain. This was in the era before counties acquired coaching staffs the size of royal courts. The choice of captain was crucial, in a way which is no longer the case. From 1969 to 1981 the England selectors went outside the team five times so as to get the right captain: Illingworth, Lewis, Denness, Brearley, Fletcher. These days, some captains have to have serious strength of personality just to avoid being controlled from the dressing room like a PlayStation character. Later in the afternoon Jim Watt was to show the value of good captaincy.

For the second year in a row, Allan Lamb played a Lord’s final innings of striking quality. Wisden called it “a match-winning innings of beautifully executed strokes, refreshing footwork and well-judged running between the wickets” while John Woodcock in The Times described Lamb as a “strong, orthodox and forceful batsman of high class”. It was thanks to Lamb that Northamptonshire reached 209.

Lamb was in the third of four seasons spent qualifying to play for England and was building quite a reputation. Of course, he went on to have a good international career, playing in 79 tests, but he didn’t quite live up to the hype. His average of 36 was decent, but ten or so fewer than might have been expected of him after two commanding Lord’s final innings and three successive seasons averaging 60. Not the anti-climax of Hick or Ramprakash, but neither the new Barry Richards for whom we hoped.

With little more than a hundred needed off 24 overs and nine wickets left, Essex were favourites of the magnitude of Shergar in a donkey derby. What went wrong? Perhaps Essex themselves were taken in by the situation as much as the rest of us and didn’t notice that the match was being taken away from them like a scammer emptying a bank account until it was too late.

In the next 19 overs Essex scored only 50 runs and lost four wickets. As well as bowling tightly and taking Hardie’s wicket, Jim Watts changed his bowlers cannily. As well as bringing Sarfraz Nawaz (three for 23) back early, he introduced Richard Williams’ off spin late and decisively, just as he had in the semi-final at Lord’s a few weeks before. A look through the scorecards of era tells us that, much more often than now, captains used only the minimum five bowlers, and to a formula at that. A skipper like Watts who was prepared to put the template aside and rely on his wits, was a huge asset.

Norbert Phillip took 30 off two overs from Jim Griffiths, leaving 11 needed from the last, but Phillip could not get the strike until the fourth ball of the over. Essex finished six short to give Northamptonshire their second Lord’s win following the Gillette Cup in 1976. It was the closest Lord’s final so far.

The week before I had paid my one, and so far only, visit to Headingley, for the second round of the 60-over competition between Yorkshire and Kent. It had been a sobering year for us in the Garden of England with our team spending the summer in the disreputable areas of the Championship and Sunday League tables and the 60-over competition was our last chance of glory.

There was early hope with Geoffrey Boycott in one of his more funereal moods. After 12 overs Yorkshire were only 29 for one. But he put on 202 for the second wicket with Bill Athey, and that was just about that.

Athey was hailed as the rising star of his generation when he made his debut in 1976, but his career stalled as will happen to careers caught in a civil war like the one that preoccupied Yorkshire CCC in these years. Only now did he receive his county cap, which carried more status and financial significance then than now. Most counties indicated uncapped status discretely; Kent players had a small II under the horse on the sweater and cap. Yorkshire went for ritual humiliation. Uncapped players wore navy-blue banding on their sweaters rather than the sky-blue, yellow and navy combination of the capped players. Athey had waited only four years. Arnie Sidebottom, capped on the same day, had made his debut seven years before. Athey stuck the atmosphere in the Ridings for a couple more years then moved to Bristol, where I enjoyed his stylish, organised batting for nine years.

Boycott made 87, Athey 115 and Yorkshire finished on 279 for six, a mountain for a side whose confidence was as low as Kent’s at this time. The report in The Times (by Keith Macklin, better known as a commentator on football on TV and rugby league on the radio) says that the third-wicket stand of 96 between Asif Iqbal and Woolmer had the match on a “knife-edge”, but my memory is that the required rate climb prohibitively throughout the partnership. The last eight wickets fell for 90, leaving Yorkshire 46-run winners. Sidebottom celebrated his cap with four wickets and that fine bowler Chris Old took three.

So to Lord’s on the first Saturday in September for an all-London final between Middlesex and Surrey, the top two in the Championship in 1980. The absence of bucolic partiality was to the liking of Woodcock of The Times, who described the atmosphere as “pleasantly orderly, smacking more of the saloon bar than the skittle alley”.

Three valedictories took place that day. It was the end of Gillette’s sponsorship of the county knockout competition (though my Blean correspondent and myself refer to any domestic one-day competition as ”the Gillette Cup” to this day).

It was John Langridge’s last weekend on the first-class umpires list (he also officiated at the Sunday League game at Canterbury the next day, where I was also present). Langridge should be in any XI of the best players not selected for England. He made 34,380 runs at 37.45, almost all for Sussex, and contended with Hammond as the best slip fielder of the era. Langridge was 70, but returned occasionally for a few seasons to come. Now, umpires have to retire at 65, an unnecessarily ageist rule, brought in, it was said, to usher umpire Bird from the stage without too many curtain calls.  

It was also the occasion of John Arlott’s last commentary. He had famously ended his final test match commentary the previous Tuesday with “and after Trevor Bailey it will be Christopher Martin-Jenkins”, but returned for an encore this day. Arlott’s departure created a tremendous fuss, including a front-page piece in The Times by his friend Alan Gibson, who wrote that Arlott had “a gift of phrase such as no other cricket commentator has possessed”. During one of his spells that day Arlott authenticated this by describing the tall, bald South African fast bowler Vintcent van der Bijl as being “like a young Lord Longford, only not as benevolent”.

The game resembled the earlier 55-over final closely, but without the late negligence that cost Essex that game. Surrey never really got going against an attack that Woodcock rated as superior to England’s: Daniel, van der Bijl, Selvey, Emburey, supported by Hughes (Edmonds did not play here). They only passed 200 (just) thanks to some late aggression from David Smith and Intikhab Alam.

Woodcock noted that Intikhab’s 12 overs were the first leg spin he had seen all summer. As I write, I am still working my way through the 2006/7 Ashes, Shane Warne’s last, magnificent, bow. Leg spin was not dead. The best was yet to come.

Mike Brearley adopted the same cautious approach that had been so disastrous in the World Cup final the previous year, but on a slow pitch with 90 fewer to chase, it was more appropriate here. Brearley finished unbeaten on 96. Middlesex had been at Canterbury for the previous three days and the scorecard of that game tells me that Brearley had made 104 the previous day. I was there and generally have a good memory for events, something on which these pieces are predicated, but I can’t recall anything of that century. I was going to make a crack about Brearley’s academic style of batting, but here was the game’s highest score on a turning pitch against Underwood, who finished with seven wickets, so this was quite an innings, worthy of memory. I’m pretty sure that, unlike Boycott at Folkestone in 1977, Brearley won’t have loitered behind the lines at the non-striker’s end, partly because he is a man of integrity and partly because Phil Edmonds would have run him out had he tried.

Two hundred runs under pressure in two days shows that Brearley was a better batsman than his England record suggests. It prompts me to issue my periodic reminder that Brearley once scored 300 in a day. It was at Peshawar on the North-West Frontier, captaining MCC Under 25s against North Zone. It wasn’t a club attack either; Intikhab Alam bowled that day too. Brearley reached his hundreds in 155, 125 and 50 minutes respectively. To add to the quizzicality of the occasion, his opening partner was none other than Alan Knott, who scored his maiden century. Knott was the second-highest scorer in the Championship match that preceded the final, sweeping Emburey and Edmonds like Franz Beckenbauer.

Back at Lord’s, Roland Butcher provided the game’s most attractive batting to finish the match off with six overs to spare. His 50 included three sixes and five fours. Butcher became one of a series of cricketers around this time to be selected for the winter tour after a good September final performance. He made his test debut in his birthplace of Barbados a few months later.

It wasn’t all bad in the sodden summer of 1980. I was at the Oval for the final day of the fourth test, when Peter Willey and, less probably, Bob Willis batted long enough to save the game. Also at Lord’s for the fourth and best day of the Centenary Test against Australia. We hoped that 1981 would be a better year, but could not have hoped it would be that much better.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Last of the Cricket?

Wellington v Central Districts, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 1–3 March 2020

The last of the cricket of the season is forever poignant, the more so as the years pass by. There is a question mark added to the heading of this piece, because nobody knows how cricket will emerge at the far end of all this. Already there is talk of counties folding and of England’s test and one-day teams playing concurrently. Not even the most Blimpish of us could argue that the T20 should not have priority in the English season, to keep the people coming through the gates and the money going into the bank.

The immediate consequences for cricket here in New Zealand will be fewer than for the UK, as the suspension here came at the end of the season, costing only a T20 series against Australia and two rounds of the Plunket Shield. The national team has had a series in Ireland cancelled, but is not scheduled for test cricket until Bangladesh in August.

The game against Central Districts just over a month ago was my last cricket for the season anyway, Wellington’s final three fixtures all being away. I was able to attend only on the first day. Central were top going into the game, and Wellington were second, so we knew that the game would go some way to deciding the Plunket Shield, but we didn’t realise quite how far.

The pitch was greener than that for the test, and a degree more helpful, but not nearly as much as what ensued might suggest after Central were put in. It demonstrated the principle that I have just heard expounded once more by Richie Benaud as Sky Sports New Zealand start their rerun of the 2006/07 Ashes (the whole match, not just highlights—first day at Brisbane and it’s not going well for England)—that the ball only has to move an inch, not a foot, to get a batsman out. 

No assistance whatsoever was needed from the pitch for the first Central wicket, a gorgeous yorker from McPeake to remove Worker.

Had he been fit, Will Young would have opened for New Zealand in the Boxing Day test, just as he would against Bangladesh at Hagley Park last March had the test not been cancelled following the 15 March atrocity. He is Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, continually just missing Meg Ryan playing the role of his unborn test career. Young was soon lbw shuffling across to Neesham, the pick of a strong seam attack.

It was a day on which the bowling was more intelligent than the batting, the verdant pitch an unconvincing defence for unconvincing defence. The fifth-wicket partnership of 28 between Hay and Cleaver was the biggest of the innings.

It was when Cleaver was dismissed that it first occurred to me that I had a chance of ticking off one of my unfulfilled ambitions in cricket watching: to see an opener carry his bat, that is to bat all through an innings, remaining not out when his side is all out.

I have seen batsmen on their way to this achievement, but have never seen it completed. At Canterbury in 1987, Neil Taylor, an underrated Kent opening batsman, was five not out at the close of play of the first day against Nottinghamshire, but I was back at work in Bristol when the bat carrying was done on the Monday. Ten years later, on what remains my most recent visit to Lord’s, I watched Mark Ramprakash get Middlesex’s second innings under way; he also went on to get an unbeaten hundred the next day, unperturbed by the foot traffic at the other end.

But the closest I had previously come to seeing an opener carry his bat was at Folkestone in 1977. When the Yorkshire team awoke and looked out of their hotel-room windows on the third morning they would have experienced the sinking feeling felt by a soldier about to go over the top, a pilot as an engine fails or, in their case, cricketers who find that it has rained overnight and that Derek Underwood is in the other team, for this was the time of uncovered pitches, with no protection permitted after the first ball of the game was bowled.

The opening batsman concerned was Geoffrey Boycott, in the very week in which he ended his self-imposed exile from the England team. If mention of Boycott fosters the notion that this was some sort of masterclass in batting on a drying pitch against Underwood, think again. Boycott did indeed show immense command and skill, but only in manipulating the strike. He spent so much of Underwood’s spell watching from the non-striker’s end that he might reasonably have been charged admission.

No 11 Mike Bore somehow broke Boycott’s bubble (as we would say these days), whereupon the Great Resistor became Underwood’s seventh victim. He was caught behind by Knott, with whom, just two days later, he was to put on 215 for the sixth wicket on his test return, though not before he had run out local Trent Bridge hero Derek Randall.

Logan van Beek stoked my hopes with three quick wickets. Now only two tailenders with only two previous first-class appearances between them stood between Greg Hay and his achievement (though by now I was regarding it as much my achievement as his).

There remains confusion about the identity of the debutant No 10. On the day, the board had him as Hook, as does the NZ Cricket scorecard linked to at the top of this piece. But CricInfo says that he is Stefan Hook-Sporry, possibly a friend of Bertie Wooster’s. What seemed clear on the day is that he is no batsman. He scooped a ball from off stump to behind square on the legside, where he was caught by van Beek off Sears.

Ray Toole was Central’s last man. Surely a man whose batting ability could promote Hook-Sporry to No 10 could not divert the course of history? But he was good, or lucky, enough to survive nine deliveries, at which point Hay was late with the shot to Neesham and was hit on the pad. The umpire thought for a moment, then decided that it would have hit leg and so Hay failed at the last, just as Boycott had at Folkestone. As things stand, I can still have the words “He never saw anyone carry their bat” on my headstone.

Central’s total was just 96. It was unusual in that only Hay reached double figures, his 62 constituting 65percent of the whole.

Ninety-six looked a fair score after the first over of the Wellington innings in which Colson and Conway were both dismissed without scoring. Both fell caught behind to testing deliveries that moved away just enough. The bowler was Blair Tickner, whose exuberant celebrations rile an element of the Basin faithful.

There was no need for concern. Just one wicket fell in the remaining 52 overs of the day. Left-handed opener Rachin Ravindra led the recovery. Ravindra, still only 20-years-old, was identified as a future international at an early age. He made his first-class debut for New Zealand A before he had appeared in the Plunket Shield. Here, he showed why. It was a composed, classy innings, made as if he was at a different venue from the rest of the batsmen. Look out for Ravindra in the Black Caps team very soon.

He was well supported, first by Troy Johnson then by the captain Michael Bracewell, who has had a season good enough to have placed him in international contention (if there is any international cricket to contend for). My cricket watching for the season finished with Wellington 79 ahead with seven wickets standing. It was a day that had settled the question of the Plunket Shield.

Next day, the lead was extended to 202. Though Central did better in their second innings, Wellington had to make only 53 to win the game by nine wickets. In the next round, sixth of a scheduled eight, Wellington beat Auckland by an innings while Central lost to Otago. This left Wellington with a 26-point lead (with 20 the most attainable in any one game). Thus when Coronavirus forced the cancellation of the final two rounds Wellington were declared to be champions, an odd way to achieve their first title in 16 years, to add to the T20 trophy won in January.

It has been a good season for me, the most enjoyable since 2014–15, which I picked as my vintage summer. Three test matches were at the heart of it, in Hamilton, Sydney and at home in Wellington. Fine batting by Latham, Burns, Labuschagne, Warner and Williamson; excellent bowling from Wagner, Boult, Southee, Cummins and Lyon, amongst others.

The domestic schedule was kinder to me than for some time, particularly in providing four 50-over games early in the year. I didn’t have time to blog on these, but they were most enjoyable. There was some good Plunket Shield too, notably Devon Conway’s triple hundred early on the season. Also, Wellington’s T20 victory.

What will it be like when we next meet at the cricket? The current emergency will change all sorts of things in all sorts of ways. Cricket, more than many sports, has international contests at its core. It will suffer from the restrictions on international travel, which may last much longer than is generally recognised, with 14-day quarantine periods at either end even when the planes start taking off again. I’ll be happy if I’m wrong, but England will be fortunate to see any international cricket in the coming season. When domestic cricket begins it is to be hoped that the ECB sticks to its promise to put domestic T20 at the heart of the schedule. If there are no tests, what about a little imagination to keep the longer form going? I suppose that Smokers v Non-Smokers might be a bit one-sided these days, perhaps less so if what was being smoked wasn’t specified. North v South would be pretty good. Or Born in England v Born Somewhere Else.

Here at Scorecards Towers we feel very fortunate. Both of us are working full-time from home in a large house with a well-stocked library in a country that is doing much better than most at dealing with the virus. You do so much better if you have a good captain.

My main concern at the moment is that this year’s Wisden won’t get here for a while. As mentioned above, Sky Sports New Zealand is running a stack of old cricket in full, (but with most of the ads edited out so it moves along at an old-school over rate). It’s now lunch on the third day at Brisbane 2006 on my timeline, and England are in a tricky spot.

See you at the cricket, sometime.

Iverson, Gimblett, Haigh and Foot

I have had Gideon Haigh’s Mystery Spinner on the shelves for a while now, and finally got round to reading it during the lockdown. It is ...