Friday, December 31, 2010

I am not a number, I'm a cricket writer

It is now possible to search CricInfo, sorry ESPN CricInfo, by author. Turns out I'm author 160. The reports listed are the close-of-play wraps. The hourly reports are still there, but hidden deeper in the achives:;page=1

Friday, December 24, 2010

Random thoughts on the Ashes: Perth

This was an Aesop's Fable of a Test, a simple moral tale of the dangers of pride and self-regard. Though the England camp (and there are so many "support" people present that it's more of small town) would not associate itself with the premature triumphalism of the British media - even the Guardian ran an on-line poll on whether this was the worst Aussie side ever - Matt Prior's statement quoted in an earlier post that England were looking to go through the tour unbeaten showed that hubris had been asked in and given a cup of tea. Not for nothing is "we'll take each game as it comes" sport's oldest cliche.

An hour or so into the second day it appeared that complacency was justified, with England 78 without loss in reply Australia's unimpressive 268. Then Mitchell Johnson began to swing it like the Glenn Miller Orchestra, finishing with six for 38. Johnson is the Peter Sellers of contemporary cricket. A long period of nothing but rubbish, then, suddenly at the Waca, it's Being There.

In contrast to the Gabba, and to a lesser extent the Adelaide Oval, the pitch nurtured good cricket, chiefly because of its pace and trueness of bounce. It was through the air, rather than off the pitch, that the bowlers caused problems.

The less thoughtful members of the media, supported by the ignorati of the internet, will say that all is well in Australia, while England are in crisis. Neither is true. This Ashes series is unfolding like a Shakesperian drama, in five acts. Whether Ricky Ponting or Andrew Strauss is the tragic figure who will fall on his sword in the final scene is not yet clear. Both sides have weaknesses, and it is these fallabilities that are making it such a good contest.

For England, Collingwood is out of touch, Swann somewhat neutralised, and Finn tired (but still taking wickets, a happy knack). It is rumoured that he may be rested in Melbourne. England to win a Test with a four-man attack, one of whom is Bresnan? It has an improbable feel to it.

For Australia, there must be several openers available more secure than Phil Hughes, and Clarke looked as if he'd lost it in the second innings at Perth, slogging away from the start. Ponting looks vulnerable too, but Ian Chappell says that the feet are moving well, so runs will follow. The Australians may green up the pitch at Melbourne, and go without a spinner, though Beer is still in the squad, at the expense of the unfortunate Hauritz.

Much nonsense is being written about "momentum" and the "psychological advantage". At Melbourne in will simply come down to which team bats and bowls better. The issue of sledging has taken up many column inches too. Peter Siddle gave a radio interview in which he defended the aggressive use of words on the cricket field, the irony of his failure to form words into a coherent sentence at any point of the interview lost on him.

Happy Festival of the Day Before the Boxing Day Test to one and all.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wellington v Northern Districts, T20, Basin Reserve, 12 December 2010

A pleasant summer’s day for my first visit to the Basin this season. There were games on both days last weekend, but live T20 versus the Ashes on TV is no contest, and today’s match showed why.
ND knocked up 200 in their 20 overs, with a spectacular 31-ball 66 from Peter McGlashan, including a reverse-pull which fell inches short of the mid-wicket boundary. McGlashan, a certainty for the New Zealand T20 team, should also be in the ODI team, badly in need of a confident presence after 11 successive defeats. For Wellington, Luke Woodcock was the best bowler, and should be considered if Daniel Vettori is not fit at the start of the ODI series in the New Year.

Jesse Ryder played for the first time since his most recent injury, but was out-of-touch, and holed out for four.

The result was certain when Ryder went in the third over, leaving Wellington already needing more than eleven an over. That’s the flaw with T20. If, as more often than not, a team batting second chasing a big total fails to make a swift start, that’s it. Even in the 50-over format a fightback is possible, but not in T20.

The Wellington team, sponsored by a well-known pizza company, are now known as the Hell Wellington Firebirds, which, when they perform as they did today, makes the sub-editor's headline writing easy.

A note on spectating etiquette. Just as Ronald Karataina bowled during the sixth over of the day, a late arrival (see previous post) pushed past me to get to a vacant seat. Wilson was out. “What happened there?” he asked.

“I don’t know, you were blocking my view” I replied. Another chance to make a lifelong friend disappears.

There was a time when it was generally recognised that it was inconsiderate to move to or from a seat except between overs, but, like having a fielder at third man in a Test match, it’s a nicety that has disappeared.

Random thoughts on the Ashes: Adelaide

This, my friends, is why you should always be at the cricket well before the start of play.

End of over 2 (1 run) Australia 2/2

SR Watson 0* (6b) SCJ Broad 1-0-1-0

MJ Clarke 2* (5b) JM Anderson 1-0-1-1

2.1 Anderson to Clarke, OUT, 135.3 kph, Two for Anderson! Clarke departs! Another perfect, pitched-up outswinger, Clarke has looked all at sea and walks into a nothing drive that flicks the edge and flies to Swann again

MJ Clarke c Swann b Anderson 2 (7m 6b 0x4 0x6) SR: 33.33

Impossible drama at the Adelaide Oval.

(Adapted from CricInfo's ball-by-ball commentary)

All this happened in the first ten minutes of the Test match. A few moments afterwards Channel Nine showed us a queue of people waiting to get in to the Adelaide Oval. They missed the most gripping cricket of the Test, Australia's worst start to a Test innings since 1950.

These people mistook going to the cricket for a day out, and have failed to undertake the thoughtful planning that is necessary for optimum pleasure. For example, everybody knows that it takes an age to get into sports venues these days, as the security folk go about their task of hunting down illicit sandwiches and soft drinks in the manner of Simon Wiesenthal on the trail of former members of the SS. The alarm must be set half an hour earlier.

When I went to Sydney for the final Test of the 1998/9 Ashes, on the first day play started at 11. I was in my seat in the Churchill Stand by 8.35. Of course, this may be habit borne of need, as in the seventies it was desirable to get to the St Lawrence Ground early to get a decent seat, essential for big matches in the knock-out competitions. John Arlott used to call it “the Canterbury breakfast”.

I favour cricket grounds adopting the practice of the opera, with no admittance for latecomers until the interval, but I can see that would be a difficult one to get past the marketing people.

There is always plenty to occupy the mind at cricket grounds before play begins. On an unfamiliar ground there is orientation to be done, and on a familiar one old friends to meet, old conversations to be repeated and idle speculation to be indulged in. There are newspapers or a carefully chosen book to read. The first Scotch egg of the day can be put away. This way, by the time play begins, the spectator is attuned to the atmosphere, and ready to appreciate the nuances of the game.

Obviously, the same applies to leaving the ground at the close of play. There are people who, regardless of the state of the game, will leave a quarter of a hour before the close of play, even a close one-day game. Do they do this elsewhere? Do they leave theatres at the end of act four and thus go through life believing that Hamlet and Ophelia married and opened a flower shop? Or cinemas, thinking that James Garner will have no trouble getting Donald Pleasance to the Swiss border? Almost certainly not. So why leave a cricket ground early, particularly first-class cricket where anything can happen at any time?

An example. At the end of the aforementioned first day at Sydney in 1999, Darren Gough took the first hat-trick by an England bowler in Ashes Tests for a hundred years, a moment that will make those of us who saw it smile with pleasure at its memory many decades hence, even when we can’t remember our own names. Yet several thousand seats were already empty, their occupants thoroughly pleased with themselves at getting a good place in the bus queue. Some of them may have had what they regard as better excuses for leaving early. To attend their child’s birthday party perhaps, or to be by the bedside of their sick wife. But look deep into their eyes and you will see a sadness that will be with them always.

As for the rest of the Adelaide Test, the unaccustomed ease with which the English batsmen took runs off the Australian attack reminded me of the 1985 series when Gooch, Gower, Gatting and Robinson scored a heap of runs at almost four an over, a welcome increase in the tempo of Test cricket. The reaction of the Australian selectors (chairman: Lance Corporal Jones) is more redolent of England’s in 1989, when the team was changed so often that by the final Test Ted Dexter failed to recognise Alan Igglesden, who he’d picked to open the bowling. Quite what Nathan Hauritz has done wrong is unclear. In Australian conditions he has appeared to be good enough to exercise some sort of control, and is a decent bat and fine field.

But a word of caution. The two teams in this series are not that far apart in terms of quality (remember England’s loss to Pakistan at the Oval just a few months ago), and England have won only once at the Waca, and then against a weak Australia in the World Series years. I have just seem Matt Prior quoted as saying that England are aiming to go through the tour unbeaten, which is foolish talk, suggesting that some in the England camp are making the mistake of believing their own publicity. I hope that the Australians do come back, as it would be magnificent watching if the Ashes are still at stake in Sydney.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Random thoughts on the Ashes: Brisbane

There was something for everyone in the first Test at the Gabba. A hat-trick on the first day; a fighting partnership by Hussey and Haddin to push Australia ahead; an Ashes debut six-for by Finn (he'll bowl much better for less reward); and rearguard heroics from Strauss, Cook and Trott. England have yet to prove that they can win consistently against strong opposition, but they can certainly save games, which is a pleasing novelty for those of us who have lived most of our lives with an England team that had the willpower and steadfastness of Jesse Ryder in a pie shop.

The result leaves key questions unanswered, as is right in a five-match series, which should unfold like a good mystery, the full truth not being revealed until just before the end.

The most important of these questions is “can either of these attacks take twenty wickets to win a Test?”. Mitchell Johnson, with his Movember moustache, looked like Ronald Colman, and bowled like him too. Graham Swann bore little resemblance to the match-winner of recent series. An off spinner winning the Ashes in Australia? The idea begins to sound more absurd than ever.

If the bowlers are to be successful, they will need more help from the pitch than the Gabba gave them. The Channel Nine commentary team, in full every-day-is-Australia-Day mode, sang the praises of the curator (a term I rather prefer to the more rustic “groundsman”) for producing an “excellent” – Bill Lawry – surface. In fact, the pitch was difficult to stay in on in the first half of the game, and difficult to get out on for the second half, pretty much the antithesis of how a Test pitch should behave.

Despite the undoubted merits of the innings of Hussey, Haddin, Strauss, Cook and Trott, 962 runs for six wickets over the last three-and-a-bit days of a Test match means that the pitch was a poor one, in that it did not facilitate an even match between bat and ball. One or two match-saving centuries are worth celebrating. Five are merely mundane.

And then there is the question of the decision referral system (DRS), which functioned poorly in Brisbane. Anderson had Hussey lbw when he was 85, but Aleem Dar rejected the appeal (he had sound grounds for doing so, as there were two noises as the ball hit both pads on the way through) and England could not refer the decision to the third umpire because they had already had two unsuccessful referrals, the allowance for one innings.

It’s true that England had rather squandered their opportunities to refer, but the reason for the limit is to prevent frivolous referrals, not to introduce an extra tactical dimension; that sort of thing is fine for ODIs, but not Tests. When the DRS was first trialled, three unsuccessful referrals was the limit, which prevented abuse of the system, but meant that few close decisions went unscrutinised. That the two-strikes limit is too severe was further illustrated in England's second innings when Australia had two unsuccessful referrals for lbw decisions (including Strauss first ball; what a difference that would have made). Both were exactly the sort of marginal decisions that the DRS was designed for, and Ponting was right to refer them, but a serious umpiring error might have gone uncorrected as a result.

Another alternative would be to declare unsuccessful referrals as spent after, say, 50 overs. Under the present system the fielding side will almost inevitably lose their referrals in a long innings, which is exactly when they need them most.

At least the DRS is operative in Australia, which it was not for the recent series in India, presumably because the BCCI (the governing body in India) was too stingy to pay for all the necessary hardware, preferring to spend their IPL riches on asses milk for Board members to bathe in, or similar. Was this discussed by the commentators? It was not. Why? Because the BCCI is producing the TV broadcast and selling the finished product, rather than just the rights. This is a disturbing trend that would seriously affect the quality of sports coverage were it to spread.

The good news is that Jeremy Coney has replaced the dreadful Morrison on the team for the ODIs.

Can’t wait for Adelaide.

Monday, November 22, 2010

India v New Zealand: Once More into the Valley of Death

And it was all going so well. After two Test matches in the current series in India, New Zealand supporters, exiled for so long in the dark vale of batting collapse and follow ons, found themselves transported to the sunny uplands of centuries, wickets and—no, not victory, that would be more excitement than was good for us—of honourable draws. What’s more, New Zealand were well-placed to win had either game gone into a sixth day.

But, as we all expected, it’s all gone wrong at Nagpur, venue for the deciding third Test. As I write India lead by 250 with five wickets standing, wondering when they’ll have enough to declare and not have to bat again, while everybody here thinks they passed that mark fifty runs ago. Rahul Dravid (once of Kent) is batting like cream being poured over fresh strawberries.

Let us walk away from the scene of the crash and reflect on what went right at Ahmedabad and Hyderabad before we become convinced that it was all a dream.

The success of the batting was particularly pleasing. For a couple of years that’s where the real talent of the team has lain, but it has rarely delivered. So far in this series there have been four centuries by different batsmen.

In the second Test the odd couple, Tim McIntosh and Brendon McCullum, put on the first century partnership for the first wicket for New Zealand for more than six years, a measure of how bad things have been. McIntosh bagged a pair in the first Test, and might have been dropped. He has the happy knack of scoring runs in these circumstances, and produced his best Test innings, with a sound rearguard 49 to follow. He kept the score ticking over better than he has done in the past, though having McCullum at the other end reduces the pressure in this respect.

Ever since I saw McCullum score a fine hundred for New Zealand under-19s against South Africa at Pukekura Park, New Plymouth almost ten years ago (it was his third in successive games)...
...I have felt that he would become a successful top-order Test batsman (ODIs are another matter; I still think he may be more valuable in the finisher role at six or seven). He was praised for curbing his attacking instincts during his match-saving double century at Hyderabad, yet still moved along with a strike rate of 75 (four-and-a-half an over in old money), which is hardly laggardly. He passed 200 with a T20 scoop shot, probably a first for Test cricket.

Kane Williamson’s debut hundred was all efficiency and temperament. He bats like a mathematician solving a complicated equation and the pleasure of watching him rests as much in the knowledge of the runs that he will score in the years to come as in those that he is scoring now.

But it is Jesse Ryder that most pleases the eye. He reminds me of Colin Cowdrey, at the crease at least, and that is high praise from this source. So much time, and a large form moving with such grace. It becomes clear why New Zealand cricket has been so patient with him. He’s not in great shape (I know this because he’s much the same shape as me) and batted with a runner for some of his century in the first Test, which put me in mind of Guardian football writer David Lacey’s comment on the selection of a half-fit Paul Gascoigne: “the manager clearly took the view that half an oaf was better than none”.

Less is expected of the bowling, so taking 20 wickets on Ahmedabad’s flat track was the best of all these achievements, Chris Martin a revelation. Martin is one of those bowlers who always appears to be bowling into the wind, and at the age of 36 there are times when it has seemed to have risen to a force ten gale. Yet in the second innings he produced an opening spell that was pure Glenn McGrath, 135kph bowling that troubled the batsman as if it were 15 kph faster, probing lines and steep bounce. India were 15 for five at one point.

New Zealand’s undoing has come in the improbable form of the batting of Harbajan Singh, who has registered his three highest Test scores during the series, including two hundreds. He is the Errol Flynn of the crease, taking on all comers fearlessly, erasing the invisible line that separates bravery from stupidity, the outcome pre-determined. Exciting, yes, but also (and I hope that this does not come across as ungracious) staggeringly lucky. Mark Richardson pointed on TV that New Zealand has form in the matter of allowing lower-order batsmen to rise above their station. In support he cited Warne, McGrath, Gillespie, Jerome Taylor, and Geraint Jones, which is a bit harsh on Kent’s current No 3.

In coming weeks I shall be writing on the Ashes, as there are only three million Ashes blogs and the world deserves another one.

Friday, November 5, 2010

"The Best Loved Game" and the "Wisden Cricketer" 50 best books

A few editions ago the Wisden Cricketer announced its list of the 50 best cricket books, as chosen by a panel consisting of most of the world’s best cricket writers, plus a few better known in other fields, such as Michael Parkinson, Michael Billington and Simon Heffer. The choice of any edition of the Wisden Almanack was forbidden, like Shakespeare and the Bible on Desert Island Discs.

The earliest choice is John Nyren’s The Cricketers of My Time (32nd: 1833), the most recent Harold Larwood by Duncan Hamilton (18th: 2009). The Australian writer Gideon Haigh is the most popular author, with four books on the list.

I’ve read about half of those that made the final cut, but not the book chosen as the best: The Willow Wand by Derek Birley (1979), a revisionist history of the game that took on every establishment figure from Lord Harris to EW Swanton (who was very nice when I got his autograph at the Oval in 1970). Of course, I’m a sucker for lists and have determined to read all those that I’ve missed so far, as well as reminding myself of some of the best that I haven’t read for a few years.

So I was pleased to have the opportunity to fill one of these gaps when I spotted a copy of Geoffrey Moorhouse’s The Best Loved Game (8th) in a second-hand bookshop in Wellington a few weeks ago. It is an episodic account of the 1978 season, with Moorhouse travelling around England watching cricket from the village green to a Lord’s Test Match, which was where my path crossed with his for the only time, on the Saturday of the Test versus Pakistan. This is surprising, as he visited Canterbury during cricket week, but, seduced by the old lie that travel broadens the mind, I found myself in the Ruhrland at that time (actually, it’s only travel to cricket matches that achieves the desired effect).

The memory is a curious thing. Moorhouse describes Haroon Rashid hitting a six onto the top deck of the old Grandstand that Saturday, and I have it in HD in my mind as if it were happening now. Yet I have no recall of a tenth-wicket stand of 40 between Bob Willis and Phil Edmonds in the same session, which is odd as I regard myself as a connoisseur of late-order partnerships (should you find yourself in the company of my Blean Correspondent and myself, on no account ask us about the Willis/Hendrick stand at the Oval in ’77; you will never get away and will end up wishing yourself dead).

Moorhouse’s strengths are his powers of description and imagery. He describes Ian Botham, scoring 108 in only his eighth Test, like this:

He bats the way small boys dream of batting.
And contrasting Gower with Botham:

The one excites the mind and shyly discloses grace; the other makes the heart leap and truculently has his way.
Even in later years when they were famous, the difference between the two was never more sharply put. Nor could a sentence sum up how easy Viv Richards could make batting look better than the following:

Off Imran’s third ball he drives four runs to the long-on ropes so lazily that I almost expect him to finish the stroke with hand to mouth, stifling a yawn.
But the book is a disappointment, because the prose is all there is. There are no profound insights, no astute observations, no original ideas. Cricket was in turmoil in 1978 because most of the leading players had joined Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. Moorhouse’s views on this issue are mainstream and mundane , nothing more than could be read in the papers every day that summer, and all discredited by hindsight. Like many others at that time, he allows his antipathy to Packer to cloud his judgment on other matters. He tells us that Tony Greig, Packer’s chief recruiting officer,

...wouldn’t now be able to get into the side even if he were in a position to try.
What nonsense. Greig would have walked in, for Roope, for the supposed off-spinner Miller (Greig won a Test in the West Indies bowling slower off-cutters), or even for Chris Old, leaving Botham to open the bowling with Willis.

His condemnation of the wearing of helmets, the new thing for batsmen and fielders that year, makes as much sense as if he were advocating the return of the man with the red flag to walk in front of motor cars, and they were offered in the knowledge that at least two cricketers—Roger Davis of Glamorgan and Ewen Chatfield of New Zealand—had recently come within a whisker of death for the want of cranial protection.

Alan Gibson’s Journal of the Season in The Cricketer stands as a superior account of cricket in England in 1978. The Best Loved Game has other faults too, such as the absence of an index, for which points are always deducted. Moorhouse might just cling on to a place on the list on the back of his quality as a writer, but the top ten? Never.

Which books not on the top 50 list should be? Of those mentioned on My Life In Cricket Scorecards previously, two recently published books should be there: John Major’s More Than a Game because of the hole it fills in cricket scholarship, and Alan Gibson’s Of Didcot and the Demon, near the top, of course. I’d suggest two more, just because both authors should be represented on a list of the best.

Some writers are wise, some brilliant with words. Matthew Engel has consistently been both. He is represented, but only as an editor, of The Guardian Book of Cricket (22nd, 1986). Engel is a victim of his own virtuosity. Though he has never stopped writing about cricket, the Guardian was smart enough to recognise that his talent could be deployed to other areas, including serving as the paper’s Washington correspondent. Editing twelve editions of Wisden took up time too. What little time he could spare to writing books he has devoted mostly to non-cricketing subjects, such as popular journalism and the British railway system. However, there is Ashes ’85, a collection of his reports on that series, and it should be on the list.

The other unrepresented writer is Martin “Scoop” Johnson, the inaugural cricket correspondent of The Independent, now of the Sunday Times, his output secreted behind Mr Murdoch’s paywall. Had Groucho Marx taken up cricket writing, he’d have written like Martin Johnson, a limitless stream of one-liners, all making a point and the reader laugh. Here’s part of a piece written during the 1993 Ashes series, from Can’t Bat, Can’t Bowl, Can’t Field (the only three things that, according to Johnson, were wrong with the 1986/7 England team), a collection of his cricket writing:

England’s Test team might be a waste of space, but as far as English Test cricket is concerned there is barely enough space to accommodate all those who want to watch it. England do not so much attract crowds these days as mourners at a funeral...Only in Yorkshire and Lancashire, where Venus would have to be aligned to Macclesfield and Pudsey before they stumped up in advance of the weather forecast, are there seats to be had at short notice...[England’s] domestic system generates less small change than a Saturday morning harmonica player outside Woolworth’s...
How could they leave him out?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters

The event of the year in Wellington for those of us who don’t get out much is the annual book fair, which can be relied upon to turn up an unexpected pleasure. This year’s was the The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters.
Rupert Hart-Davis was a publisher who preferred to publish books he liked, rather than those that made money, and who was thus in perpetual financial strife. George Lyttelton had been his teacher at Eton. They corresponded (and there’s a verb that’s disappearing over the horizon into obsolescence) weekly for seven years until Lyttelton’s death in 1962.

Hart-Davis writes engagingly about many subjects, particularly the literary world, and his interesting domestic arrangements: he lived with his secretary in London during the week, and with his wife (who was called Comfort) in Oxfordshire at the weekends. Was he to be envied or pitied?

But it is Lyttelton who steals the show, with more wit and wisdom at his disposal than it seems fair for one man to have, and the ability to churn out original phrases at will. Both were cricket men, which is why I mention them here. Hart-Davis closed his office whenever a Test Match was being played at Lord’s or the Oval. Lyttelton characterises himself as “an old fathead in an MCC tie”. Cricket experiences and anecdotes litter the book. I particularly enjoyed these two. The first is from Lyttelton in June 1957:

On Thursday I shall be watching Ramadhin, and Weekes, and Worrell—and yawning when Trueman bowls or Bailey bats. (Do you realise that Trueman walks thirty-five steps from the crease to the end of his run and that four balls an over the batsman leaves alone?)
This will delight anybody who suffered Fred Trueman on Test Match Special for a quarter of a century castigating any bowler who didn’t make the batsman play every ball. And:

...the only match I ever go up for is the Australian Test Match when the pavilion is cram-full one and a half hours before play begins—and I only got a seat in 1956 because a man (in the best seat of all) died ten minutes before I arrived and in Housmanly fashion I took it).

That’s how I’d like to go when the time comes for the great umpire in the sky to lift the index finger of doom, but it would be better at the close of play, rather than before the start. You could expire in the top deck of the RA Vance Stand at the Basin Reserve on the last day of the season and not be discovered until the following year’s Test Match. The southerly would nullify the decaying process.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"More Than a Game" by John Major

More Than a Game is a history of cricket from its earliest days to the First World War, by none other than Sir John Major, the former British prime minister.

Throughout his term of office Major gave the impression that he’d rather be at the cricket. When he lost the ’97 election by an innings and plenty, he dropped the keys to No 10 off at the Palace and headed straight for the Oval, for a Benson and Hedges zonal game between Surrey and the Combined Universities no less, so More Than a Game is a labour of love.

He’s done a good job; More Than a Game should be regarded as the standard work on the early history of cricket, despite the intrusion of Major’s Pooterish manner of speaking into his written style.

The best part of the book is the early chapters, in which Major subjects the accepted scholarship on the game’s origins to rigorous scrutiny, from which it does not emerge well. He can find no reference to cricket before 1700 that he is convinced by, showing that those accepted by a variety of authors are likely to be mistranslations or misinterpretations.

He also questions the pre-eminence of the Hambledon club on the South Downs, presented in histories passim as the centre of the cricketing universe in the second half of the eighteenth century. Major argues that other clubs in the south and south-east of England may have been at least as strong, but did not have a chronicler present (much of what we know of Hambledon comes from John Nyren’s The Young Cricketer’s Tutor).

By promoting good historical methodology Major has created a standard which cricket historians of this era will have to observe, sufficient in itself to give the book merit, though he is not always as careful about facts outside cricket. To describe 1832 as “the year in which the Great Reform Bill split the country” is an elementary error (1831 was when most of the trouble took place—notably the Bristol riots in which all but one building in Queen Square was destroyed). But there is plenty more to interest, particularly for Kentish readers.

I had no idea, for example, that Bourne Park, near Bishopsbourne, four miles south-east of Canterbury, was a major venue around the 1770s. Fifteen to twenty thousand spectators attended the first day of a game between Hampshire and All England in 1772. The house is still there, and I must resolve to visit it next time I’m in the frozen north.

Another strength of the book is the descriptions of the players. I particularly enjoyed portraits of three figures from Kent’s early history, all of whom had been little more than names to me.

Alfred Mynn was the great all-rounder of 1830s and 40s, bowling round arm at a ferocious pace and hitting the ball with great power. Mynn was hugely popular, but rather feckless, the Freddie Flintoff of his day. “My boy”, he said to a teammate sipping tea, “beef and beer are the things to play cricket on”. He spent several spells in debtors’ prisons.

Nicholas Wanostrocht, a teacher who ran his own school at Blackheath, adopted the sobriquet “Felix” for his cricket. Felix was one of the best batsmen of his era, and another cricketer-writer, Felix on the Bat (1845) being his best known work.

Mynn and Felix played the most famous of all single-wicket contests, at Lord’s in 1846. Single-wicket matches were the T20 of their day, in terms of popular appeal, if not intensity of action. Felix faced 247 balls from which he scored three runs. The crowd were said to be “enthralled”, bless them.

Fuller Pilch was poached by Kent from his native Norfolk in 1835. In his early days he was an all-rounder, but as an underarm bowler he was called on less and less as time went on and round-arm bowling became dominant. Pilch scored ten centuries and 63 fifties, impressive figures for those times on those pitches.

As the book moves into less distant times it becomes more of a recital of well-known material. An earlier cut-off than 1914 would have been beneficial (the first test, in 1877, perhaps). But there is still much to praise, notably the account of the Grace family, which Major starts ingeniously not with WG, but EM ("the Coroner"). I had not fully realised how good EM was, deserving to be regarded as one of the leading players of the age, not merely as an adjunct to the greatest.

Major describes Grace’s parallel life as a doctor with a surgery in the working-class Bristol suburb of Southville, noting that this was at odds with his money-grabbing approach to his cricket career, and praising him for it. I take the more cynical view that WG was simply not a very good doctor, and would have practised in Clifton had he had the talent to attract a richer clientele.

For all its merits the book could have benefitted from more assertive editing. Too often Major wanders off the point, to the extent of a whole chapter on leisure activities apart from cricket that were available to mid-Victorians. Such an editor might also have spared us occasional passages that raise the suspicion that Mary Poppins was employed as a ghost writer, and curbed the quoting of dreadful contemporary verse (to call it poetry would be to misuse the term).

But enough carping. There is much to recommend More Than a Game, and its non-appearance in the Wisden Cricketer’s list of the fifty best cricket books is surely only because its publication is so recent.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Good and bad at commentating

When I left the UK I said that I’d miss two things: Radio 4 and the cricket, especially county cricket. Thanks to the internet, Radio 4 is on tap (as I type I’m listening to the wonderful Dr Jonathan Miller reviewing archive recordings of his career), and ball-by-ball coverage and commentary of county and test cricket from the BBC and CricInfo means that cricket in England can be lived in every respect, except for the joy of eating Jaffa cakes and scotch eggs in the sun.

A far cry from my early visits to New Zealand, and the first two or three years of living here. Then, finding out the score was a question of locating a faint BBC World Service signal, or relying on two-day-old potted scores in the New Zealand Herald. I was even reduced to the weekly shame of skulking into McLeod’s Bookshop in Rotorua to buy a copy of the international edition of the Daily Express.

Now, it’s very different. Last weekend I watched the end of the third test at the Oval on television, listening to the Test Match Special commentary at the same time, while keeping in touch with Kent’s latest collapse, against Lancashire, on CricInfo.

Such reliance on the media means that the quality of the commentary is crucial. Fortunately, the BSkyB and Test Match Special teams have not let me down. On other occasions in the past few weeks I have not been so fortunate.

When BSkyB took over the exclusive contract for English cricket in 2006 some tough decisions were taken about the composition of the commentary team. Paul Allott and Bob Willis, both of whom had worked for BSkyB from its inception, were relegated to the highlights and county cricket. Allott is bland, and the absence of Willis takes the heat off the Samaritans, who would otherwise be stretched to breaking point with calls from the desperate, driven to the edge by Willis’ mournful commentary spells.

What remains is the strongest commentary line-up of any around the world, with Nasser Hussain and Mike Atherton outstanding. Atherton came to BSkyB after four successful years with Channel 4, and he is a historian, so it is no surprise that he is good. But as a player and captain, Hussain came across as intense, prickly and humourless, so it is a pleasant surprise that he is an incisive, interesting commentator with dry humour and the ability to make an Essex accent sound intelligent.

And there’s Bumble, David Lloyd, who is both shrewd and funny, qualities that many commentators think they possess (see below) but few do. He provided the commentary box moment of the match at the Oval when talking passionately about Alistair Cook’s footwork having forgotten to pick up his microphone:

On the radio, Jonathan Agnew is completing twenty years as the BBC’s cricket correspondent. Agnew isn’t in the class of John Arlott or Alan Gibson as a wordsmith, but is good enough and gets the mix of analysis and humour just right. Though I’d stick with Arlott, Gibson and Mosey as my all-time line-up, I’d add Agnew as fourth commentator were I allowed one, just ahead of Brian Johnston.

Agnew’s pleasing line in self-depreciating anecdotes—there was a cracker at the Oval about how he hid in a cupboard on Test debut to avoid being sent out as night-watchman—probably leaves those who did not see him play with an unduly underwhelming idea of his ability as a player. In fact, he took more wickets than any other bowler in county cricket over several seasons in the 80s, and it is a minor scandal that he only played three Tests. In 1988 he took a stack of wickets early in the season, but was omitted from the first Test on the grounds that the pitches he had been bowling on were too bowler friendly, an argument undermined by the selection of his Leicestershire teammate Phil de Freitas instead. On the same pitches, de Freitas had taken half as many wickets as Agnew.

At the Oval, a listener emailed in a “Boycott bingo” card, consisting of a number of the great man’s most well-used phrases. Boycott was not a summariser for this match, so knew nothing about this when he arrived to record the daily podcast at the close of play. The idea had taken Agnew’s fancy, and he took the opportunity to extract as many of the phrases on the card as he could. Boycott fell for it every time, along these lines:

Agnew: Where should they bowled, Geoffrey?

Boycott: In the corridor of uncertainty...

Agnew: Different from the pitches in your day which were?

Boycott: Uncovered pitches...

Agnew: It was an easy chance. How would your Mum have caught it Geoffrey?

Boycott: In ‘er pinny...
And so it went on.

Unfortunately, Henry Blofeld has replaced the pleasant Bristolian Simon Mann in the radio team for the Lord’s Test. Blofeld would have us believe that he was created by PG Wodehouse, when really he is only one of Lord Snooty’s more irritating pals.

At the other end of the commentating spectrum, I give you Pete and Ed of Radio Bristol. I got up in time to hear last hour or so of the Radio 5 Live commentary on T20 finals day, but it cut off online a few overs from the end, so I found this pair instead. I know that T20 is supposed to attract people who have never been to the cricket before, but not to commentate, surely.

When I lived in Bristol, Radio Bristol’s cricket commentary often led me to put my head in my hands while muttering “please make it stop” and things have not improved. Neither Pete nor Ed appeared to be able to identify the type of shot played, were shaky on player identification, and didn’t know what the rule was to decide a tied game (which is how the final between Somerset and Hampshire ended). Worse, they didn’t have the vocabulary to sustain a cricket commentary. In the tense last over, the best Ed (or possibly Pete) could offer was “I shall need the toilet soon”.

And further down the food chain, there’s Danny Morrison, one of a five-man team covering the ODI tri-series between Sri Lanka, India and New Zealand in Sri Lanka. Morrison hung around the fringes of the commentary team in New Zealand for a decade or so, but was used for international games very rarely. Yet now he pops up all the time on international games from South Asia, and the IPL.

Employing a curious vocabulary of synonyms (the bat is the “willow” or “blade”, the stumps the “woodwork” and anybody over six feet is the “big fella”) and cliché, Morrison’s commentary consists of a disjointed stream of consciousness on which a Freudian analyst could base a career’s research if extracted from a patient under hypnosis. It never includes anything that is interesting, or not, in the immortal words of Basil Fawlty, “the bleeding obvious”. He pauses meaninglessly in mid-sentence, and plonks (to plonk: a verb coined by Clive James in his TV reviewing days, meaning to stress the most unimportant words in any sentence). His purpose here seems to be to make Tony Greig look literate.

He does not succeed.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

At home at The Oval with Allen Hunt

Kent played a home T20 game against Essex at The Oval last month. They lost, as they usually have this season, but it was a decent contest, Essex passing Kent’s 171 for six with two balls to spare.

Playing a home game away like this has caused a good deal of grumbling among the faithful, and may not have been a success, with a crowd of only 7,000 attracted when many more were hoped for, though this is twice the average T20 crowd at Canterbury this season, apparently.

No doubt when the game was scheduled it was anticipated that Kent would be heading for the final stages of the competition for the fourth year in a row; instead, they began the match all but eliminated.

Playing a home game at The Oval is not a new idea. I recall it being mooted in the eighties. It made good sense then, and still does. With the disappearance from the county circuit of Blackheath, Dartford and Gravesend, a game a season near home for the county’s many London fringe supporters redresses the balance, and most train lines in Kent point to south London.

Anyway (and this will come as a surprise to most) Kent played a home game at The Oval in 1981, and I was there.

It was the Benson and Hedges quarter-final against Warwickshire, scheduled for Canterbury, but moved to the Oval on the morning of the scheduled third day after a deluge had prevented play on the first two days set aside for what was, in theory, a one-day game.

At 133 for two, Warwickshire appeared comfortable chasing Kent’s modest 193 from 50 overs. Then collapse, the remaining eight wickets falling for just 46 runs. My firmest memory of the play is of a splendid catch by Alan Ealham to dismiss “Yogi” Ferreira. I must write about Ealham, one of my favourite players.

As might be imagined in these circumstances, the crowd was sparse. Of the few present, only two were sufficiently intrepid, dedicated and lacking in perspective to watch from the top deck of the pavilion, a fine view, but grievously cold in the face of a scathing northerly. So it was that I made the acquaintance of Allen Hunt.

I was to spend a lot of time at the cricket with Allen over the years that followed, around Kent and, particularly, at away games. He cut a distinguished figure, slightly raffish even, with swept-back white hair and goatee beard; Allen would often sport a cravat, which made him stand out like a Zandra Rhodes model when compared with the sober suits favoured in the top deck of the pavilion at Canterbury. He would have been about seventy then, but could have passed for a man fifteen years younger. That remained the case for most of the time that I knew him.

Allen passed the CLR James test (“What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?”) easily. A civil servant in the Ministry of Education, he had acquired an MA from the London School of Economics in middle age, and continued to teach adult education classes at City University into his eighties. It was just that he thought cricket more interesting and rewarding than anything else.

In 1968 he won a Kent Messenger competition to pick a greatest-ever Kent XI. The prize–very exotic for those days–was a trip to South Africa to watch part of the Test series between South Africa and England. When the tour was cancelled as a result of the South African Government’s shameful refusal to accept the Cape Coloured Basil d’Oliveira as part of the touring party, Allen handed the holiday on to his niece. “No use to me with no cricket to watch”, was his view.

He divided his time between his flat in Leyton, east London and his house in Halling, north of Maidstone. I never went to either, but those that had described a somewhat chaotic existence, particularly when it came to meal times, which would consist of a fusion of whatever tinned food was available. Corned beef would share a plate with rice pudding, to save washing up.

Allen was a wonderful person to watch cricket with, drawing upon seven decades of cricket watching to analyse the game with intelligence and wit. He was my window on to cricket’s past, describing, among many other things, watching Les Ames score a century in the first Test played by New Zealand in England at Lord’s in 1931, Frank Woolley batting, and Tich Freeman bowling.

An entourage collected around him. There was “Budgie” Burgess, Brian Cheal, exiled like me in Bristol, the two Rays, and his most regular associate, George Murrell. George was a little younger than Allen, and also retired. Slim, dapper (readers of a certain age should think of the keyboard player from Sparks) and possessed of a tinderbox wit, George was also excellent company. I was sitting next to him at the Oval in 1985 when Graham Dilley took a hat-trick. He claimed, somewhat improbably, never to have seen a hat-trick before and said, rather wistfully, “I had intended to have the words ‘He never saw a hat-trick’ on my gravestone”.

Winter days were always brighter for the appearance of a letter from Allen. They would never contain small talk, but would arrow straight in on the main point. Had I heard that a particular player was thinking of leaving, or that we had signed a talented young player? Occasionally he would stray on to the subject of the fortunes of Gillingham FC (he rarely missed a home game, unless it clashed with the cricket, obviously).

I last saw Allen at the Kent v the Australians game in 1997, the week before I left for New Zealand. His health had started to go downhill, and he couldn’t manage the train any more, but had got a lift from a neighbour. So much to talk about, so little time.

The letters continued to arrive over the next couple of years, with increasingly unsteady handwriting. They became irregular, and stopped coming as the century approached its end. For me, it is still a sign that a day’s play has been interesting if I think, as I leave the ground, that I’d like to write to Allen to tell him about it.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I went to the Cricket Instead

Just as Americans a bit older than me can tell you where they were when Jack Kennedy was shot, so English people know where they were on the afternoon of 30 July 1966, the day England won the football World Cup (Scots also remember, but only because it is seared upon their soul).

Me too. I was at the cricket, the first day of Canterbury Week, Kent v Leicestershire, to be precise.

Had the World Cup started a month earlier, everything might have been very different. But by early July I was already entranced by the other great sporting event of the summer of ’66: the Test series between England and the West Indies. I watched the opening World Cup game, a monumentally dull nil-nil draw between England and Uruguay, and lost interest after that.

As far as I remember, the opportunity to go to the cricket with a family friend arose on the morning of the final. Displaying wisdom beyond my seven years, I unhesitatingly grabbed it rather than watch the biggest football match ever played in England, thus absenting myself from the most significant shared national experience between VE Day and Lady Di’s funeral.

It was an early lesson that cricket watching would require stoicism and fortitude; only 25 overs or so were possible, my hero Colin Cowdrey got a duck and the whole thing was finished by a hailstorm in mid-afternoon.

Good choice, nevertheless.

Later World Cups are also reminders of days at the cricket.

By Mexico 1970 I had developed more enthusiasm for football, but cricket still had priority whenever a choice was to be made. Hence I missed Alan Mullery’s goal that put England one-nil up against Germany in the quarter-final at Leon because I was on the way back to Herne Bay from a Sunday League game at the lovely Crabble Ground in Dover (Kent chased down Northamptonshire’s 239 in the last over). Martin Peters extended the lead, but the Germans began their long period of domination in finals games between the two countries, and came back to win three-two in extra time.

Failure to qualify in 1974 and 1978 meant that England’s next World Cup finals match did not take place until they played France on 16 June 1982, when I was watching Ian Botham reverse-sweep Somerset to victory in the Benson and Hedges quarter-final at Canterbury.

Four years later I listened to Peter Jones and Bryon Butler’s radio commentary on the “hand of God” game against Argentina on my way back to Bristol from a Sunday League game at Basingstoke.

As the years went on, other events vied with cricket for my time, and came off second best. In 1985, for example, I was offered tickets for, and transport to and from, a concert. Kent were playing Northamptonshire at Maidstone that day, so I turned it down. What was the concert? It was Live Aid, my friends, the greatest gathering together of popular musical talent in the history of the universe.

But at Mote Park, Roger Harper made a most entertaining run-a-ball century, so again, good decision.

Under duress, I might miss a match for events deemed significant, such as the marriages of friends of the family. When, some years later, the predictable news was delivered that the happy couples had separated, my reaction was always that they could have made more of an effort given that I had sacrificed a day’s cricket for their wedding.

World events occurring during the cricket season also remain indelibly associated with particular fixtures. President Nixon’s resignation, for example, occurred during the Canterbury Week of 1974, between the second and third days of the Warwickshire game. Surely others recall, as I do, the Royal Wedding of 1981 as the day Ken McEwan of Essex made an elegant hundred in John Shepherd’s last first-class game for Kent (plenty of people gave up a day’s play needlessly that day)?

On this theme, an old story. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.

A batsman pulls away just before the bowler’s delivery stride, removes his cap (I said it was an old story) and bows his head as a funeral cortege passes the ground. When it has gone, he replaces his cap and beckons the bowler to proceed. At the end of the over the wicket-keeper says “that was a nice gesture”.

“It was the least I could do”, replies the batsman. “I was married to her for thirty-five years.”

Monday, July 12, 2010

Letter to the editor

The July edition of the Wisden Cricketer arrived today, and is as entertaining and interesting as ever, particularly its list of the ten best cricket books ever published, of which more anon. However a more immediate concern was a piece by Mark Nicholas in the Expert Eye column:

It postulates a reduction in the number of first-class counties to 14, or even 12. Now, I don't like this idea, but the day will probably come, and opposition based on dogged sentimentality is unrealistic. What made me dash off a letter to the editor was the assumptions that Nicholas makes about how the change would come about.

Here's the letter:
If there is to be a cull of first-class counties, it must not be driven by the assumptions made by Mark Nicholas (Expert Eye, July).
First, why should the Test-staging counties be guaranteed a place in the new structure? So that it can benefit from the financial and cricketing acumen that has taken Surrey from top to bottom in less than a decade? Or so that we don't miss the one player of true international class that Glamorgan produces every 30 years? How would we manage without Yorkshire's people skills?
English cricket would do better with more influence from counties that have used scarce resources to produce young players of true international potential, as, for example, Leicestershire are doing, and less from those whose grandiose dreams have lumbered the game with more international grounds than it needs.
A knowledge of geography wider than Mr Nicholas' would also be useful. The view that a merger between Gloucestershire and Somerset is "natural" is sustainable only if you believe that everybody south and west of Swindon wears smocks and sucks straw. A more natural alliance would be between Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, given that the cricketing heart of the former is in the north of the county, half an hour from New Road, but two hours from Taunton.
And why should the south-eastern counties be inviolate? As a lifelong Kent supporter I hope the day never dawns, but with the population of the county balanced towards London and the books in dire straits, amalgamation with Surrey is every bit as realistic as any of those suggested. Nor is Brighton to Southampton an arduous journey.
I like Mark Nicholas as a broadaster and journalist. At any rate, reading and listening to him is more entertaining than watching him play ever was. As an Englishman verging on the posh, his achievement in becoming the face of cricket on Channel Nine in Australia is remarkable, even if he has adopted the every-day-is-Australia-Day commentary style which only Messrs Benaud and Chappell resist.

But he's wrong about this.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The International Cavaliers

Kent v the International Cavaliers 1966:

Kent v the International Cavaliers 1967:

Kent v the International Cavaliers 1968:

Up to the mid-sixties, the British Sunday was a grim matter, still constrained, in spirit at least, by the Sunday Observance Act of 1782, the whole population effectively under a form of house arrest. One of the best evocations of the traditional British Sunday remains the episode of Hancock’s Half Hour in which Tony Hancock, Bill Kerr and Sid James endure its tedium. There was certainly no top-class sport to watch, live or on television. The only pleasure available was the ironic one of reading in the News of the World about the indiscretions of the very vicars who insisted that Sunday be kept sacred.

Cricket, to be precise the International Cavaliers, changed all that.

The Cavaliers will mean nothing to anybody who began watching cricket after the sixties, but they were the IPL of their day, and are a vital, neglected part of cricket history, and to a lesser extent, of British social history. Without them the development of the game over the past forty years would have been very different, and we might have suffered many more years of agonisingly torpid British Sundays.

The International Cavaliers was an invitation side consisting of current and recently retired test players along with a selection of decent county cricketers and promising youngsters, the mix varying from season to season and match to match. An article by Ted Dexter from the International Cavaliers Annual 1970, exhumed on my recent visit to the frozen north, dates the foundation of the side to the summer of 1963.

However, Cricket Archive has scorecards of a tour of India and South Africa in February and March 1963 by an International Cavaliers team led by Richie Benaud, and consisting of Australians and a few county players (Phil Sharpe and Mickey Stewart among them). Another tour, to Jamaica, took place early the following year, this time comprising English players only. It seems inconceivable that these teams could not have been linked with the iteration that appeared in England, especially as they had a number of players (including Dexter) in common.

The touring side played first-class cricket, but it was as a pioneering one-day team that the International Cavaliers established itself in England. Limited-overs (List A as it is called by the statisticians) cricket began in England in 1963, with the Gillette Cup (65 overs a side at first). As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this early form of limited-overs cricket was not much different to a one-innings first-class game. Any score over 200 was likely to be a winning one. It was well-received, but only amounted at most to five days’ cricket a year for any one county. On its own, it would not have arrested the decline in public interest in cricket that had set in during the fifties.

The Cavaliers took the idea much further, devising a formula intended to produce entertaining cricket that would attract people back into the grounds, 40 overs a side, with a result in four-and-a-half hours on a Sunday afternoon, when people would be glad of the entertainment. There are clear parallels with the made-to measure T20 forty years later. However, the Cavaliers would have remained no more than a footnote in cricket history, had it not been for Huw Wheldon, Controller of Programmes, BBC Television.

A new TV channel, BBC 2, had appeared and there were broadcast hours to fill, with a gap on summer Sunday afternoons. For Wheldon the International Cavaliers was the answer.

But there was a problem. Sport was seen by some influential people as being an improper use of the medium on the Lord’s day. Wheldon was summoned before a suitably pious BBC Board of Governors to explain. He told the story of this meeting as part of his Richard Dimbleby Lecture in 1976.

Wheldon was asked who would be playing in these cricket matches, and trotted out names including Dexter, Colin Cowdrey, Garry Sobers, Denis Compton and Godfrey Evans. According to Wheldon, the Board reacted as if he had named the twelve apostles themselves. All objections to live cricket on the Sabbath were instantly removed.

So on most Sundays in the summer of 1965, and every Sunday for the following three summers, the International Cavaliers filled almost five hours of airtime on BBC 2 on Sunday afternoons.

The results were spectacular and far-reaching. Grounds up and down Britain filled to capacity every Sunday and viewing figures exceeded expectations. For a sport characterised as being run by the dead hand of the MCC at that time, cricket was surprisingly quick to learn the lessons offered.

Sunday play was trialled in the County Championship as early as 1966, the first time that a major sport had risked the vengeance of the Lord in such a manner, though play only began at 2 pm, so that people had time to go to church and have a roast lunch with the family before going to the game (a faint hope in Kent, where all the best seats were taken by noon).

This cautious precedent did not attract thunderbolts or pestilence and pushed ajar the locked door to sport on Sunday. Other sports followed in time. The Wimbledon authorities re-scheduled the washed-out 1972 Men’s Final between Stan Smith and Ilie Nastase on Sunday. Rugby league shifted to Sundays later in the seventies, and in 1981 the last day of the Open Golf (at Sandwich) was moved there too. Football, dense as ever, did not follow until the mid-eighties. Other forms of entertainment also started to open and be available on Sundays as well, all following the lead of the International Cavaliers. The British were liberated from Sunday, to the unconfined joy of all but a few.

Realising that the Cavaliers alone could not satiate the demand for instant cricket, the cricket authorities created the Sunday League, which began in 1969, with each county playing sixteen 40-over games, stealing the Cavaliers formula. It was wildly popular and probably saved county cricket. Other developments flowed from the same source. The first World Cup, in 1975, would have been delayed by a decade or more had the Cavaliers not been so successful, and Kerry Packer would never have seen the commercial potential in the game that he did.

It also began English cricket’s infatuation with the 40-overs formula that has lasted to the present day. This season the 50-over competition has been ditched in favour of 40-over cricket, and it is threatened that ODIs will go the same way too (connoisseurs believe that the shorter the game, the less interesting and more superficial it is, and we are right).

The success of what it started also did for the Cavaliers. The BBC was persuaded to cover the Sunday League instead of Cavaliers games. The Cavaliers struggled on for a couple of years, with desultory coverage by ITV, but with most of the star names playing for counties, interest wained, and at the end of the season the International Cavaliers faded away, to be quickly forgotten.

I was convinced of the need to restore the Cavaliers to cricket’s consciousness when I read in this year’s Wisden a feature by Tanya Aldred on the first season of the 40-over Sunday League in 1969. This, from the second paragraph:

The Rothman’s Cavaliers have been pottering around the country on Sunday afternoons for a few years. A sort of World XI consisting mainly of old players, they pull in full houses…wherever they go.
No credit at all, from a good writer, to the Cavaliers for starting it all. Nor is the description of the composition of the team spot-on. At no time did the Cavaliers consist of “mainly” old players.

The scorecards linked at the top of this post are of the matches the Cavaliers played against Kent in 1966, 1967 and 1968. I was present at all three, though don’t possess the scorecards to any of them.

The card for 1966 contains a couple of revelations. The Cavaliers team was a mixture of promising young players (Radley–a wonderful one-day player, by the way–and Smith, overseas players qualifying for counties (Boyce, Shepherd–so I first saw John Shepherd play against Kent) a couple of established international players (Pataudi and Dexter–though he was taking a break from first-class cricket at this point) and only three retired stars (Evans, Laker and Wright–I’d not realised that I’d seen DVP Wright play, but it turns out I did, which is quite something).

Sobers, Close (then England captain), Trueman and Boycott (how many balls he took for his nine is not recorded) featured in 1967.

In 1968 it was a stellar international line-up, including Bobby Simpson, Eddie Barlow, both Pollocks, Barry Richards, Wes Hall and Denis Lindsay (it was the rest day of a match between Kent and a Rest of the World XI, but that’s another story).

Again, it’s notable how small the scores are, and the 1966 result is curious (a win to the Cavaliers because the innings ran out of time after 39 overs, so the score was compared to what the Kent had after 39 overs– thank God for Duckworth and Lewis), but it was enough to make a small boy in Kent think that cricket was exciting, a good reason for me to remember the International Cavaliers, even if few others do.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Soul for Sale

St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury

The county cricket blog on The Guardian website has become one of the best sources of writing on county cricket, but a contribution from David Hopps on Friday was alarming:

Mention of Kent's parlous financial state – and the revisited theory that they might eventually move their HQ closer to London in search of Twenty20 riches – has brought a few emails from those in the know. A few Kent captains have observed over the years that the great error of Lord Harris, the second captain of England and a man who played for Kent for 40 years, was to choose a ground in Canterbury, which is somewhat out on a limb.

Jim Woodhouse, a former Kent chairman of cricket, suggested a move towards London 20 years ago and there was so much huffing and puffing from EW Swanton and the like that nothing was heard of it again. It could only ever happen if Kent went bankrupt and began again with a wholly different philosophy. Kent's entire ethos is based upon cricket played on beautiful, tree-lined grounds and for that perhaps cricket should be grateful.
What makes this apocalyptic vision scary is that the possibility of bankruptcy cannot be dismissed, such is the state of the county’s finances and the epic scale of the mismanagement over several decades that has brought this about (see previous post on the foray into the world of pop promotion).

However, David Hopps’ interpretation of the history is very wide of the mark. By the time of the modern county club’s formation in 1870 (when organisations centred on Canterbury and Maidstone merged) the St Lawrence Ground had been established as the county’s leading venue for several decades, through the success of Canterbury Cricket Week (which had not always included a county team). Lord Harris may be condemned for many reasons, but the choice of Canterbury as the county’s headquarters was obvious and, for more than a century, meant nothing in terms of where Kent played cricket.

As recently as the Championship season of 1970 Kent’s home championship fixtures were played on nine grounds around the county: Blackheath, Canterbury, Dartford, Dover, Folkestone, Gillingham, Gravesend, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells (with a Sunday League game at Beckenham bringing the overall total into double figures). Canterbury had only the two games of Canterbury week, one Sunday game, and one Gillette Cup fixture (incidentally, neither Hesketh Park, Dartford, nor the Garrison Ground, Gillingham could be described as “beautiful”, nor, fond of it as I was, could Cheriton Road, Folkestone).

Quality of pitches and facilities, and the cost of transporting increasing amounts of paraphernalia from ground to ground (especially after the dreaded advertising hoardings came into fashion in the mid-seventies) meant that that Blackheath, Dover, Gillingham and Gravesend had been lost by the end of the seventies, but Folkestone and Dartford (on and off) hung on into the nineties, and Maidstone until just a few seasons ago.

The Mote, Maidstone

There is an issue here; the majority of the Kent population (and the membership) lives in the west of the county, including the south-eastern suburbs of London. It is reasonable that more cricket should be played in this area, though whether investing heavily in the Beckenham ground is the way to bring this about is questionable. I support the decision to play a home T20 game at the Oval (not a new idea, incidentally, and I have seen Kent play a home game at the Oval – any guesses?).

However, the view that the county would necessarily be better off by shifting needs to be challenged before it gains hold. Firstly, the St Lawrence Ground is not in the middle of Romney Marsh, nor on the Goodwin Sands. Neither the fording of rivers nor the transfer of bags to a team of sure-footed yaks is necessary to get to it. It is about a mile off the A2, the main route out of London to the south and east, and is easily accessible from everywhere else in the county.

People managed to get there easily enough in the seventies, when Kent had a winning, attractive team. Attendances were consistently higher than they were at the Oval or Lord’s for county games (and probably still are). And as I can testify from two decades spent watching county games in the wasteland of the County Ground, Bristol, being located in a large population centre does not guarantee crowds. Come to think of it, Gloucestershire makes a relevant case study; more money is made from the Cheltenham festival (location comparable with Canterbury) than most of the rest of the season at Bristol.

But more than that, cricket is a game with a soul. The suits who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing must never be in a majority of those in charge. County cricket, if it is to remain in existence, must respect its history and its roots as it looks ahead. If it is not prepared to do that, then we may as well adopt a franchise system, and run a combined Kent/Surrey team (the Whitbread Flat Vowlers, perhaps).

In the meantime, I hope that it won’t only be the ghost of Jim Swanton who is huffing and puffing at the possibility of for-sale notices going up along the Old Dover Road.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Of Didcot and the Demon, the cricket journalism of Alan Gibson

Even before the jetlag had worn off on my recent trip to the frozen north, I was off to Waterstone’s to buy Of Didcot and the Demon. It’s a delight.

The bulk of the book is taken up with Gibson’s reports in The Times of county matches from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties. I’ve spent many days at the cricket that were less entertaining than Alan Gibson’s learned, funny, elegant, idiosyncratic reports on them in the following morning’s paper.

On-field events were not necessarily his main focus. Plenty of reports in this collection make no mention of the game until several paragraphs in. A Gibson report would often begin with an account of his journey to the ground, an often tortuous one at the hands of British Rail, leaving him stranded on the platform of Didcot station at about the time play was due to start.

He had a fondness for the game’s spear carriers, and seemed to prefer to write about what was going on near the wings than what was happening downstage centre. His favourites were identified by the names he chose for them, and their achievements would be assiduously recorded, however insignificant they might be. Chief among them was the eponymous Demon of Frome, Somerset’s medium-fast bowler Colin Dredge. A Dredge 34 not out against Surry in 1982 took up half the report, Viv Richards’ 181 not out a few lines.

The stirring deeds of tail-end batsmen generally were a pleasing weakness of Gibson’s. On Dredge again:

Dredge, looking every inch a Frome opening batsman, was bowled, although he had played one stylish stroke which staggered the infield and produced four byes.
He was good on boring batting too. PJK Gibbs, the Derbyshire opener, was a regular target:

The evening was enlivened by a characteristic innings from Fireman Gibbs, who had scored one in half an hour when I stopped counting.
As befits a man with a first (in history) from Oxford, he was not afraid of scattering literary and classical allusions around:

This morning was commandingly, but, as it turned out, delusively attractive, like a fairy woman of the Hebrides, or a call by Boycott.
But his writing was much more than a collection of one-liners. His profiles of cricketers past and present showed not only a deep understanding of cricket, but also the ability to discern the character of men through the way they approach the game. His piece on the Graveneys, Ken, Tom and David, is the best of these.

A Yorkshireman by birth, Gibson spent most of his adult life in the west, and places that I know well crop up throughout. At the start of the book we find him newly married to his second wife, a young woman from the BBC, and living in Queen’s Court, Clifton, the big, sweeping building that resembles an ocean liner aground on the Victoria Rooms.

In the late seventies the Gibsons moved to High Littleton in north Somerset, and the village pub, the Star, began to feature regularly in his reports:

I left High Littleton with some reluctance, for the Star were due to play the Butcher’s Arms in the final of the Chew Valley shove-halfpenny competition.
For seven years my route to work took me through High Littleton, past the Star. I would always think of Alan Gibson and fortify myself for the unequal daily struggle with the youth of north Somerset by recalling some of his best lines.

Alan Gibson was also a radio commentator, one of the best. My ideal line-up of Test Match Special commentators would be Gibson, John Arlott and Don Mosey, troubled men all. His radio career came to an abrupt end at the Headingley test of 1975, when he turned up worse for wear for a late afternoon commentary stint.

And there’s the problem. The impression you get of Gibson from his writing would be that of a genial, contented man, and that could not be more misleading. He was an alcoholic, prone to serious depression. His eldest son Anthony Gibson, who put this collection together, writes a narrative at the start of each year’s selection. It is an affectionate, honest catalogue of his father’s decline, which by 1985 found him back at Queen’s Court, but now alone and living on whisky and tinned corned beef.

I last saw him either that year or the next. He was in his early sixties, but looked twenty years older as he shuffled on the arm of the catering manager from the Hammond Room at the County Ground, Bristol (he preferred writing in bars to press boxes) to his taxi. The business of reporting was almost beyond him (and the exasperated sub-editors of The Times) at that stage, but he could still turn out a memorable line, such as this about one of his regular cast members, Rev Andrew Wingfield Digby, bowling for Dorset against Somerset in the 60-over knock-out competition:

Wingfield Digby looked much the same, with those long legs consorting so oddly with his short strides in the run-up, like an evangelical curate approaching a session with the Bishop of London.
The beauty of the writing is matched by the book’s presentation, 315 large-format pages on high-quality paper, superbly designed with a fine selection of photographs. This is the work of Stephen Chalke’s Fairfield Books. Chalke has done more than anybody to maintain cricket’s literary tradition in the face of the digital revolution, and deserves thanks and admiration for returning the words of Alan Gibson to print.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

One Lynne Truss, there’s only one Lynne Truss...

...For you might be forgiven for thinking that there were several. There’s Lynne Truss the TV reviewer (in The Times in the nineties). Also Lynne Truss the novelist (I’ve just finished Tennyson’s Gift, a novel predicated on the concurrent presence on the Isle of Wight in the summer 1864 of Lewis Carroll, the young Ellen Terry, her husband GF Watts (the artist) and the eponymous Poet Laureate, among others). Not forgetting Lynne Truss the radio playwright. Obviously, there’s Lynne Truss, preserver of the apostrophe for the nations (Eats, Shoots and Leaves), not to mention the Lynne Trusses the broadcaster and the award-winning columnist.

And then there’s Lynne Truss the sportswriter.

I remember being surprised when Lynne Truss started to turn up on the sports pages in 1996. Not as surprised as she was, apparently. In May 1996 the sports editor of The Times invited Truss to join the team covering Euro ’96, the biggest feast of international football held in England since the 1966 World Cup, and an event the existence of which she was, at that point, unaware.

Truss speculates that she was seen as “a trundling wooden horse freighting a few new readers into the sports section”. No doubt the expectation was for nothing more than for a few columns of light relief among pages of serious football analysis. If so, it was a considerable underestimate of a writer who, a few short years later, would have the intelligentsia of the English-speaking world whooping with joy over semi-colons and parentheses. Compared to that, getting a few laughs out of blokes in lurid shirts chasing a ball about was like asking Michelangelo to distemper the ceiling.

The result was so pleasing that her foray into the sports pages was extended into the following domestic football season, and from there her range spread, embracing everything from world heavyweight title fights at Madison Square Garden to the Ryder Cup and (her favourite) the World Darts Championship. She recalls her experiences in Get Her Off the Pitch!, her memoir of her press box years, which I have just finished.
Her presence was not always welcomed by the hacks of the sports pages, though she took to cricket writers more easily than many of the others:

cricket writers are generally quite tall, very amusing [I recognise myself already], a bit Aspergers [ah...], and well informed on highbrow topics like art and music [well, up to a point].
She puts the hostility she encountered down to simple misogyny, but I think that it was because they’d read her stuff and were annoyed that, though she might know about 1% of what they did about their sport, she could still write about it better than they could.

Take her account of the Cricket World Cup semi-final between South Africa and Australia at Edgbaston in 1999 (the one where Allan Donald forgets to run so handing the match to Aussie). She describes the events of the day perfectly adequately. But she also captures the increasing tension as only a very few could, still in her deceptively conversational style:

Six balls left in this semi-final. Nine runs required. The contents of our brains are starting to dribble out of our noses. I am pressing wads of tissue to all the orifices of my head. Fleming bowls to Klusener, and he smashes it as if he were playing baseball. It’s a four. A four! All one can do is whimper, watch it fly, absorb the cheering, and keep trusting the Kleenex.
Truss admits her ignorance about cricket freely. When she took her place in the Headingley press box for the Ashes test of 1997 she had to ask what all the talk of “Headingley 1981” was about.* She may not understand cricket (she is heavily dependent on the radio commentary to make any sense of what she witnesses), but she gets it completely:

But the main reason I could never feel comfortable about cricket is that there is clearly no substitute for a lifetime of enthusiasm. It can’t be faked or mugged up, no matter how many times you pick up CLR James or Neville Cardus...This stuff has to go deep, you see.

One of the attractions of cricket, surely, is that it requires a lot of thinking about afterwards. In fact it’s a sport that largely takes place after it’s finished, in the splendid and reassuring comfort of the inside of one’s head.
I don’t think it could be put better than that.

Lynne Truss gave up sport for punctuation when she concluded that she had no capacity for the massive recall of obscure facts that sports journalists and fans have, and that her emotional memory (“the sturdy means by which I navigate my life”) got in the way.

It’s touchingly simple. One week you are a Spurs Fan so devoted to Dimitar Berbatov that you get the Bulgarian national flag tattooed across your face; and the next week, when he’s signed to Manchester United, you go out and buy a balaclava. You don’t dwell on it, that’s the main thing. You might shout "Judas!" at him on his first re-visit, but then you let it go. I suppose you are too happily occupied recollecting every Leicester-Liverpool score since the dawn of football. Or maybe you are too busy studying a straggly frond in your goldfish bowl for the hundredth time today and saying "Blimey, that’s attractive. Is it new?”.

If you get the chance to read anything by Lynne Truss, take it, even if it means ransacking her dustbin for old shopping lists.

*England’s most famous test victory against Australia. Australians who saw it have “Headingley ’81” engraved on their hearts as Mary Tudor did "Calais".

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Why I can’t take Sunil Gavaskar seriously as a T20 commentator

Sunil Gavaskar was a great player. In my team of test players who I have enjoyed watching the most, he would open the batting with Gordon Greenidge. His 221, chasing 438 to win at the Oval in 1979, was one of the finest innings I have seen (saw it on TV, having attended the third day of the game):

But when I listen to him commentating on the T20 World Cup, in the West Indies currently, I can’t take him seriously, and here’s why:

It was opening day of the first World Cup. England played India at Lord’s, batted first and racked up 334 for four , an immense score at the time, quite the equivalent of 400-plus in a 50-over ODI today. They were 60-over matches, but there were no fielding restrictions, no powerplays, and as I’ve explained before, one-day cricket remained a stately affair in those days, first-class cricket with a slightly fast pulse.

The innings was built around a Denis Amiss century, and Chris Old scored 51 at the end of the innings at a timewarp strike rate of 170.00.

So how would India, with the great Gavaskar opening, go about the chase? Would they risk all from the start, or would they build towards an all-out onslaught in the second half of the innings? What a wonderful start to the World Cup it would be if they got even close.

He batted throughout the 60 overs for 36 not out.

I shall repeat that for effect.

Thirty-six not out.

It was as if Sir Edmund Hillary had looked up at Mount Everest, decided it was a bit steep, and gone for a cup of tea instead. Unwilling to compromise his dignity by essaying unorthodox strokes, Gavaskar opted for practice instead, no matter that 25,000 people had paid in expectation of something wonderful.

His teammates tried to lay the blame solely on Gavaskar, but the total of 132 for three does not suggest that all caution was thrown to the four winds (and did it occur to nobody to run him out?). Only Gundappa Vishwanath, a batsman incapable of truly dull play, scored at more than three an over.

India, more than any of the cricketing nations, did not take one-day cricket seriously in those days, when 90,000 would fill Eden Gardens in Calcutta for the most irretrievably dull test match. That changed, literally overnight, when India surprised everybody, but most of all themselves, by winning the 1983 World Cup, a victory that initiated a chain of events culminating in the Mardi gras that is the IPL (S Gavaskar commentating).

You can tell, even now, that his heart isn’t in it. Today, there were two games that imitated the pattern of that match at Lord’s, the teams batting first scoring a very high total that almost immediately became beyond the teams batting second. He kept talking about the need to keep the scoring rate up, and to take risks, when what he really wanted to say was “Keep your bat straight, play yourself in, give nothing away and improve your average. Like I did.”

And that is why I can’t take Sunil Gavaskar seriously as a T20 commentator.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Brightly Fades the Don by Jack Fingleton

I’ve just finished reading Brightly Fades the Don, Jack Fingleton’s account of the Australian tour of England in 1948, Don Bradman’s last appearances in test cricket as captain of a team that crushed the hosts four-nil in the tests.

Fingleton was a test batsman himself, and a good one, with an average of 42 from 18 Tests, three of which were in the Bodyline series of 1932/3. He was also a trained journalist who covered national politics when not at the cricket, and the reporter’s eye that he casts over post-war Britain makes the book much more than just an account of cricket matches.

Inevitably, Bradman is the book’s central character. It is known that Bradman did not get on with Fingleton when they were teammates (or with Bill O’Reilly, the great leg-spinner who was also reporting on the ’48 tour). Religious differences were thought by some (probably including Bradman) to be behind this, but it might be that their different denominations merely signposted contrasts of character that were at the heart of the matter: Bradman was of work-ethic Presbyterian stock, while Fingleton and O’Reilly were feisty Irish Catholics. Bradman’s experiences with the press had led him to distrust journalists, which wouldn’t have helped.

A notorious incident during the Bodyline series compounded matters. Australian captain Bill Woodfull entered the England dressing room at the end of a fraught day on which he and several teammates had endured painful blows, the worst of which was an agonizing strike to wicketkeeper Oldfield’s face (the British newsreel commentator said “Larwood was the unlucky bowler”). He famously told the hapless England manager Pelham Warner “there are two teams out there, but only one is playing cricket”.

We know this because someone told the press. Fingleton, the journalist, was the prime suspect but always denied it (he repeats the denial here). He thought it the reason for his omission from the 1934 English tour. But if not Fingleton, then who? The writer and cricket historian David Frith, who knew Fingleton well in his later years, has concluded that it was Bradman, a view that Fingleton almost certainly shared.

The depth of the animosity between the two is not evident in Fingleton’s comments about Bradman here, which are scrupulously fair and moderately expressed. Bradman the batsman is praised almost unconditionally, Bradman the captain only slightly less so, though there is criticism that his determination to go through the tour unbeaten caused him to deny the fringe players fair opportunity.

It is Bradman the man about whom Fingleton holds the strongest reservations, for his “somewhat indifferent, cold and unfriendly attitude towards most of those with whom he played”. Several anecdotes that support this view are spread through the book, though Fingleton concedes that this singlemindedness may have been part of what made Bradman cricket’s greatest batsman.

Bradman’s team became known as “the Invincibles”, and feature early in any discussion of the greatest-ever team. Do they justify that title?

Not according to Fingleton, who selects a combined XI from the 1921 and 1948 sides that includes only four members of the latter. He explains that part of the reason for this is the weakness of the England team in 1948, with a poor standard of domestic cricket combining with inconsistent and eccentric selection (themes repeated many times since) to produce a side that had was not a proper test for Lindwall, Miller and the rest, so their worth was not truly tested.

There are numerous unexpected delights. Fingleton, proving himself to be a man of taste and discrimination, liked Bristol.

Not even London, I thought, had more character about it than this hilly city of churches and types.
It came as a shock to read that the rather bleak stone building at the far end of the Bristol ground was still an orphanage.

There is gay but sad colour in the uniformed orphans who cram the walls along the side of the ground and their huge home.
When I first started watching at Bristol, in the late seventies, that far end of the ground was still sometimes referred to as the Orphanage End, a usage now, I think, obsolete. The function of the buildings as a refuge for waifs, strays and the listless remains; it is now part of Bristol Polytechnic aka the University of the West of England.

While in the north, Fingleton leads an expedition to track down his old Bodyline adversary Harold Larwood, who he found running a sweetshop in the back streets of Blackpool. Fingleton, using that reporter’s eye again, notes that Larwood does not have his name on the shop, odd for a famous sportsman, even in those commercially unsophisticated days.

He finds Larwood welcoming, but bitter, not at the Australians, but at the English cricketing establishment, which shunned him when it became expedient to place distance between itself and the events of 1932/3. The meeting had unexpected consequences. Fingleton was surprised to hear Larwood contemplating emigration to Australia, “the country which once flamed from end to end over his bowling”. The encouragement that they received from Fingleton helped the Larwoods and their five daughters to take the momentous decision to emigrate. He lived happily in Sydney for another 45 years.

At various points Fingleton rails against the disruption and intrusiveness of the new-fangled loudspeakers that were a feature of the English grounds. This might appear to date him hopelessly, but I reckon he was onto something. There’s nothing an announcer can say that the spectator cannot tell by looking at an efficiently operated scoreboard, or by consulting the small reference library that should accompany him or her to the game. And it’s led to the cacophony that is an ODI at the Cake Tin, and elsewhere.

They should have paid heed to Fingleton, over that, and much else.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kent v Loughborough University, St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury, 10, 11 and 12 April 2010

I’m just back from a quick visit to the UK which, surprisingly for early-to-mid-April, offered a first opportunity for eight years to watch cricket at Canterbury, even if only for a (slightly) glorified practice match.

I was apprehensive as I drove onto the St Lawrence Ground. It was like meeting an old girlfriend, many years later. Would the years have been kind to her? Had she forgiven me for leaving? Would it be awkward? Obviously, the concomitant dangers of such an encounter were absent. A cricket ground could not remark on how much weight I had put on, or ask if that wasn’t the same sweater that I used to wear in 1984.

There was no need for concern. The ground was comfortingly familiar, though the lime tree that had stood on the boundary’s edge for as long as the ground has existed is gone, its absence less obvious than could have been imagined when it was there. A replacement is in place, no more than ten feet high yet.

Neither was St Lawrence in quite the rundown state that some reports had led me to expect. The club is in dire financial straits, made worse by a disastrous foray into pop concert promotion. James Morrison broke even, but the Sugababes went down as well as a county championship game at a Metallica concert. The club chairman, apparently with a straight face, reproved members for not supporting the event, which conjured a  image of an audience consisting of stonyfaced people in jackets and club ties, eating sandwiches from Tupperware boxes during Get Sexy*.

The cricket was pleasing, but untaxing. In other circumstances I would be exercised about the granting of first-class status to a match against a university side but it was so nice watching cricket at Canterbury that I didn’t care. Remarkably for the time of year it was a nice day, as long as you stayed in the sun.

Kent won the toss and batted. I was hoping for big scores from Joe Denly and Sam Northeast, neither of whom I had seen before, but Denly went in the first over, and Northeast managed only a painstaking ten. It was Rob Key and Geraint Jones who scored the runs in the first half of the day, both completing centuries by early afternoon. Jones (to whom I was well-disposed from the start, having enjoyed an excellent bacon roll before play in the bar he runs in the indoor school; the pigs are his own, I understand) looked particularly good from the first ball he received, which he cover drove for four.

Key reached 140 before retiring, without pretending to be injured or ill, so being recorded “retired out” on the scorecard, the first time my Blean correspondent or myself had seen such a thing. It brought the first-class status of the proceedings into further disrepute, of course. This is not to say that the students did not look and act like a first-class side in many respects; there was much clapping of hands and mutual encouragement (Rose being particularly vocal from fine leg), and they could no doubt have talked about “areas” and “zones” all day, given the opportunity. It was only in that brief but crucial period that starts with the ball leaving the bowler’s hand and ends with it reaching the batsman that they looked several days’ walk away from living up to their description as a “centre of cricketing excellence”. But they did have a Tavaré, William, a nephew of the great CJ.

One thing was odd. Loughborough’s slow left-armer, Welsh, came on at the Nackington Road End, from where such bowlers rarely bowl in my experience, because of the significant slope from the hospital to the Old Dover Road sides of the ground. I doubt that I saw Derek Underwood bowl half a dozen overs from that end in twenty years. I thought that this was no more than youthful inexperience (though Graham Dilley, the Loughborough coach, should know better). However, on my brief visit to the ground on the second day, James Tredwell was bowling his off spin from the Pavilion End. A short boundary on the legside (I have never seen cricket on a pitch so far towards the southern side of the ground) made this all the more mysterious.

There was a brief glimpse of Martin van Jaarsveld later in the afternoon, enough to understand why he has scored so heavily in recent years. He has an efficient technique, and hits the bad ball where it deserves to go. He reached his century towards the end of the day, but by that time my Blean correspondent and myself had retired to the Pheonix (happily reopened after a period of closure) where we put bad records on the juke box, just as we did when we were young.

I paid a brief visit on the second day, but the sun had gone in, the nor’easter had got up and it was most unpleasant. Some of the Kent players were wearing beanies to keep warm and went about their task with all the enthusiasm of a meeting of the Kent branch of the Geoffrey Boycott Appreciation Society. Meanwhile, Loughborough were grinding away at about two an over. After a trudge around the ground I left, to return who knows when.

*I had to look that up on Wikipedia, obviously.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...