Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hylton Ackerman

I was sorry to read in December’s Wisden Cricketer that Hylton Ackerman had died, having been ill for some time. He was a hard-hitting South African opening batsman who played for Northamptonshire for several years in the late sixties and early seventies.

I met him in 2001, when he coached the South African under-19 team on a tour of New Zealand, the last part of which I covered for CricInfo. A deluge washed out the second and third days of the third “test”, at Pukekura Park, New Plymouth. A family of ducks vacated their pond and took up residence at deep extra cover, I recall.

Ackerman chatted with us over those two days when there was nothing else to do, and I turned these conversations into a feature, of which he heartily approved, asking for a printed version to take home with him:

He was a nice man who cared about cricket, his young charges (who included Hashim Amla), and about making the new South Africa work. It was a pleasure to have met him.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Wellington v Northern Districts, 20/20, Basin Reserve, 23 January 2010

The weather in what the ground announcer described as “the city that summer forgot” relented sufficiently for a visit to the Basin for the final home 20/20 of the season. This was an advance on last Sunday, when I sat in the car outside the ground for three-quarters of an hour waiting for the drizzle to stop (an unnecessary reminder of the English cricket-watching experience), and Friday when the threat of rain borne by a southerly wind sent me home to watch the game on television. There was a time when watching coverage from a ground at which I could have been present would have caused me anguish. Not any more.

The main attraction of this match was the opportunity to see Tillakaratne Dilshan, Northern Districts’ overseas signing for the 20/20 (though the late decision to hold a superfluous triangular tournament in Bangladesh has curtailed his appearances). More particularly it was to see him execute the dilscoop.

Unless there was a Mr Hook, or Captain Drive of whom I am unaware, or nobody before Geoff Pullar played the pull, the dilscoop is the first shot to bear the name of the player who devised it, so the chance to that player make the shot was too good to miss. The only equivalent experience I can think of would have been to watch BJT Bosanquet bowl the bosie.

To play the dilscoop the batsman kneels on his back leg and looks the ball firmly in the eye until it is inches from his nose at which point he flicks the bat up, sending the ball over the wicketkeeper’s head to the vacant boundary beyond. Because it assists the ball in its established direction it will result in a six as often as a four. When successfully played by its originator and those few of equal skill it is delightful in its impertinence, and deeply frustrating for the bowler and his captain. More often, when imitated by those of lesser ability it is to the profit of dentists across the cricketing world.

In fact, Dilshan’s only attempt at the dilscoop was unsuccessful, though he played a variant that was half scoop and half sweep, placing the bat at an angle almost on the ground awaiting the ball’s arrival, then assisting it on its way with a slight flick of the wrists over the fine leg boundary for six. He followed this by driving Jeetan Patel on to the roof of the RA Vance Stand, a rare hit. His partnership of 115 for the second wicket with Daniel Vettori settled the match.

More and more, Vettori’s batting puts me in mind of Alan Knott. Physically, they are most dissimilar. Vettori is tall, left-handed and moves like a marionette whose strings have been cut, each joint a little looser than it should be. But they bring the same kind of anarchy to the crease, moving across the stumps and back again, purloining runs in a manner that challenges the laws of probability and geometry.

Wellington, who had little trouble in knocking up 205 on Friday, were at sea from the off. At 18 for five after six overs they were well past the point of no return. This is the great weakness of all one-day cricket of whatever length. An early collapse by the side batting second means extended anti-climax (the same thing happened to Pakistan in the ODI in Sydney later that evening; two dead innings in one day).

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kent v Sussex, Gillette Cup Semi-Final (60 overs), Canterbury, 19 July 1967

To begin at the beginning. This is the earliest scorecard I have, though I became a junior member of Kent in 1966, for the substantial fee of one guinea. It was the first List A match (the equivalent of first-class status for limited-over matches) played at the St Lawrence Ground.

I watched from what is now the Leslie Ames Enclosure, then simply wooden benches with backs, like the other public seating on the north and south sides of the ground. Why there, I’m not sure. I can’t remember ever watching from that part of the ground since.

Let us take a trudge around the ground to see how it has changed. At the Nackington Road End the sightscreen was canvas (or some similar material), with pegs holding it upright. The wooden sightscreen was a mid-seventies innovation.

There wouldn’t have been marquees, it not being Canterbury Week, instead cars would have been parked almost up to the boundary line from the sightscreen round to the start of the public seating square of the pitch.

The most obvious difference between then and now is in this quarter: the lime tree, then in its pomp, was the totem of the ground, as it remained until a gale brought it down in 2005 (though it was in a reduced and somewhat pathetic state when I last saw it in 2002).

The Deal Beach Parlours ice cream van would have been somewhere around here, as would a mobile bar in the name of Chas Cox caterers of Gillingham. Both would have been popular on this warm July day.

The public seating on this northern side of the ground was over-flowing. There was no advertising around the boundary (marked only by a white line), so people could sit on the grass in front of the seats. Something was lost when the introduction of hoardings put an end to this (c1976).

It was just as well on this particular day, because, being quite happy to take people’s money as long as it was profered, they didn’t close the gates. The report in the 1968 Kent Annual estimates that almost 17,000 were in the ground by late afternoon. The only place they could sit was on the boundary, which consequently shrunk as the game wore on.

Moving on. The old white scoreboard stood at the end of this block. I was pleased that, when the time came, they kept the replacement white, though they could have made the effort and covered the brick with a wooden veneer.

Behind the scoreboard was the printer’s hut, presided over then, and for another twenty years, by Cyril Garnham of JA Jennings Ltd. Given the title of this blog, it is important that we pause here and look closely.

Scorecards were printed on the spot, on a proper printing press. No cards were printed until the toss had been made and Cyril had ascertained the composition of the teams. Cards were reprinted in small batches throughout the day, always with the latest fall of wickets included (some legal or contractual reason prevented this happening for Sunday League matches from 1969, a point concerning which Cyril found it difficult to hide his contempt).

At the end of every match a final scorecard would be prepared, and quite a crowd (including, I think it will now be obvious, me) would wait to take away a complete record of the game. Most of the Kent scorecards in my collection are in this form.

Scorecards are a particularly English thing. The rest of the cricketing world took the trouble to design scoreboards that give players names, full details of batsmen out, and bowling figures. But a scoreboard can’t be taken home and won’t make you remember things forty years later.

Ever onward.

We come to the pavilion annexe, built in 1906, and hardly changed since, except that the individual wooden chairs have been replaced by plastic seats, and the press box has become the media area, and has been partitioned off, to keep the public out or the journalists in, depending how you look at it. Copy had to be phoned through, and such was the shortage of lines that reporters sometimes joined the queue for the public phone next to the pavilion.

The present dressing rooms were still a couple of years away, and the space was occupied by a tree and a tea hut. I have always assumed that the new building was the result of a competition to find a design that clashed utterly with the adjoining structures while having no architectural merit of its own.

Externally, the pavilion looked much then as it does now, except that the radio commentary boxes were used for other purposes (possibly a players’ viewing area). Commentary was done from the back of vans parked on the bank next to the sightscreen at the Nackington Road End. Inside, it was much more crowded, and contained the dressing rooms, allowing the players to enjoy members’ comments as they returned after being out for a low score.

Incredible as it may seem, there may not have been a sightscreen at this end; if there was it would have been a rudimentary cloth arrangement behind ground floor seats.

Next, there was the concrete stand (built 1927), much as it is now, except for the seating, as in the pavilion annexe. It didn’t become the Frank Woolley Stand until the seventies.

The road behind the pavilion was wider than it is now; some it was taken for the large houses now adjacent to the ground. The area by the oast houses now used for nets was then just a car park. The main office was in the house that it still occupies, but it was unextended.

There was no Cowdrey Stand until 1987. The southern side public seating extended further round. The area occupied by the sports centre then contained a smaller, Nissen hut-like structure for indoor nets. A large marquee for public catering would have been next to it.

Finally, we come to what is now the Leslie Ames Stand, then simply the iron stand. Since the seventies it has been dedicated to corporate boxes (Kent was one of the first counties to exploit the commercial potential they offered). In 1967 it was still a public stand. The top floor offered a good view, but the bottom deck was usually empty even when the rest of the ground was quite full, as it was open to the wind and had uniquely cold and uncomfortable metal chairs.

The present scoreboard appeared in the early seventies. Then the scoreboard was taller and narrower. Canterbury was the only non-test ground that I came across with two detailed scoreboards.

As for the match itself, it was the start of Kent’s greatest era, the first time that a full ground had revelled in the crushing of a rival. Kent’s score of 293 was equivalent to about a hundred more in a modern one-day game. This was partly because there were no fielding restrictions, so only one or two fielders would have been in from the boundary in the closing stages of an innings, but it was more to do with a frame of mind. For much of its course, a sixty-over innings would proceed as if it were a first-class innings, speeding up in a polite way only in the final third.

So seventies from Brian Luckhurst, Colin Cowdrey and John Shepherd (batting at three, suggesting that his batting ability was largely wasted in the lower order for much of his Kent career) settled it. John Snow, already an England bowler, was hit around, as was Tony Greig, in his first season. Both would gain revenge as the years passed. Sussex lost early wickets and never looked like catching up.

Six weeks later I was off to Lord’s for the first time, for the final against Somerset. But that’s another scorecard.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Wellington v Auckland, 20/20, Basin Reserve, 8 January 2010

Though it is my preference that four-day cricket should be the fare at this time of year (preferably watched by twenty people sitting sufficiently far from each other as to preclude conversation), this game vindicated New Zealand Cricket’s decision to place 20/20 centre stage. It had everything that 20/20 is supposed to have: big hits, energetic fielding, and a close finish.

A big crowd, by domestic standards, of 3,300 turned up on a rare pleasant Wellington late afternoon, filling the grass banking along one side of the ground. Needless to say, the southerly arrived as the first ball was bowled.

The numbers may have been boosted by the generous offer of a free ticket for the New Zealand v Australia 20/20 game in late February for the first 500 through the gate (I was one of them, obviously). Quite how the economics of giving a $35 ticket away with a $15 ticket work beats me.

The match rebutted the view that 20/20 is inevitably formulaic and predictable. Twice I thought that the game was as good as over, and twice I was wrong. Auckland batted first and were struggling at 62 for four in the tenth over, more than a hundred short of a reasonable total, when Lou Vincent and Anaru Kitchen (no relation to Mervyn, as far as I know) began a partnership of 101.

Towards the end of the innings Vincent swapped his bat for a Mongoose, the sawn-off, long-handled slogging club developed for 20/20. I doubt that it made much difference. It seemed to take him an over or so to adjust his timing. A couple of sixes followed, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have come with an ordinary bat?

Wellington began disastrously, losing three wickets in the first two overs. By the end of the powerplay the rate required was ten an over, but James Franklin (72 including five sixes) and Chris Nevin (reminding us why he was played for New Zealand as a one-day specialist a few years ago) made it look easy. With three overs left, 17 were needed with five wickets standing, a position the very comfort of which made Wellington fans nervous. Collapse ensued, though it took a diving stop to prevent last man Andy McKay from driving the last ball for a match-winning four.

The game’s sub-plot, the battle of the England rejects, was an anti-climax, with Ravi Bopara and Owais Shah making nine and four respectively, though Bopara managed one sumptuous straight drive for four.

Friday, January 1, 2010

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

Though I have lived in New Zealand for thirteen years, Christmas and the New Year in summer remains a pleasing novelty, even in Wellington where summer is often harder to spot than it is in other parts of the country. The pohutukawa trees are in bloom around the city, forming a scarlet curtain around one side of the Basin Reserve (rather like the the Nevill Ground in Tunbridge Wells when the rhododendrons are out); everybody is on holiday and the atmosphere is relaxed. Perfect for spending days at the cricket.

Except there isn't any.

The total sum of cricket at the Basin Reserve over the three weeks I have off work is three 20/20 games. No doubt we'll come to a discussion of the merits of 20/20 at some point, though I have no profound philosophical objections. But it's not a meal is it? You wouldn't hand your guests their hats and coats after the toast and pate when they were expecting turkey and all the trimmings. But this is the menu now that 20/20 has been allocated cricket's prime time in January.

Sampling of the records suggests that this may be the most meagre offering at this time of year since first-class cricket began in New Zealand. At one time the first-class Plunket Shield programme (then five matches a team) began on Christmas Day. In 1962/3, for example, Wellington played three times at the Basin in the three-week period under scrutiny, and Central Districts played a game in Palmerston North, a couple of hours away, too.

For four years from 1998 there was a Boxing Day test at the Basin, until it was decided that ODIs would be a more lucrative option at this time of year. Last year there were four domestic one-dayers and an ODI in Wellington in this period.

Thank goodness for the tests in Australia on the TV. But it's not like being there.

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 ...