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.

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 ...