Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cricket grounds in winter: the Recreation Ground, Bath

As well as my expedition to the Crabble Ground in Dover (http://mylifeincricketscorecards.blogspot.com/2011/11/in-search-of-crabble.html) I returned to three other old haunts during my recent trip to the old country. This post and two to follow will record these visits, and the memories that I took with me.

You would not think it on a drizzly November day like that on which I was there, but the Rec in Bath is one of the five most attractive grounds on which I have watched cricket. Seeing as you ask, Pukekura Park, New Plymouth tops the list without question. Bath would certainly be on it. The other three might be subject to change according to mood, but today they are the Crabble; New Road, Worcester (before they knocked the old pavilion down); and Mote Park, Maidstone (Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is filling his pen with green ink having read that, but the rhododendrons are not out all summer).

The Bath Festival – consisting of two three-day matches and a Sunday League game or two when I first attended in the eighties – was usually held in mid-June, with the sun shining from a cloudless sky, the hills that surround the city collecting the heat in a bowl, marquees around the boundary, the Abbey looking on over mid-wicket and the sound of the Avon gushing over Pulteney Weir. On such a day all these grounds share a timeless quality, regardless of whatever modern-day commercial ephemera are on view. Catherine Morland could pass through the Rec on her way to the Pump Rooms without looking at all out of place.

In those conditions it is unsurprising that big scores are at the forefront of the memory rather than match-winning bowling performances, or that IVA Richards features prominently, particularly when Kent were the visitors. In 1986, on a day just like that described above, his forceful, fluent 128 set up Somerset to score 433 for six declared in just 98 overs, this against a Kent attack that, on paper at least, was as good as the county has fielded: Dilley, Alderman, Ellison and Underwood. Brian Rose and Vic Marks (who could be an entertaining batsman in an anarchic sort of way) put on 167 for the sixth wicket to set up an innings victory, Joel Garner taking nine wickets.

There is often poignancy in a scorecard. We could not have known as we enjoyed the spectacle that this would be the last time when the West Indian duo would combine to win a match for the county; the great Somerset schism took place later that summer, and then they were gone.

It also occurs to me that early that sparkling Saturday morning Graham Dilley would have bowled to Peter Roebuck. Both have died these past few weeks. As I write, I am watching Australia taking on India in the Boxing Day Test, and missing Roebuck's judgment and wit, on the radio and in print. Bath was his home town.

Things did not always go Richards' way against Kent at the Rec. In a Sunday League match in 1981 the Antiguan all-rounder Eldine Baptiste, making his competitive county debut, found himself bowling at his legendary compatriot. And he got his man, lbw for a duck. I never saw a bowler happier to take a wicket. Somerset were shot out for 136. Laurie Potter (one of many whose talents were squandered by Kent in the eighties), also on debut, took four for 27, while Derek Underwood, a Scrooge on Sundays, conceded only eight runs from eight overs.

The finest innings I saw at Bath was not by Viv Richards, or any other Somerset player. It was Mike Gatting's 196 in 1987. Gatting was one of the best players I have seen at county level. That day his runs came from only 269 balls (though the report in Wisden is more excited by Martin Crowe's final-day 102 from 109 balls on a drying pitch, which unfortunately I did not see).

The Rec was also the place where I came as close to death as I ever have at a cricket ground. It was in 1985, Gloucestershire were the visitors and had made 300 for nine when Courtney Walsh took a fancy to Vic Marks' off spin, hitting him high, long and often into the very seats at long on where I was in residence. It was like being under Howitzer fire down there. Twice I had to take last-second avoiding action (What's that? Why did I not try to catch it? You clearly have no idea who you are talking to).

The last Championship match at the Rec was played five years ago. Last season it staged only a measly T20 fixture, which is like hiring an opera house for a shove ha'penny contest. The fact that Bath RFC (which shares the ground, the rugby pitch taking up the area next to the river, while the cricket field is on the eastern side of the field) has risen above its proper station to become one of the country's leading teams does not help. What used to be a temporary stand on the cricket side of the rugby pitch has now become a grander, permanent structure, which precludes the use of the rugby pitch as a car park (the use for which we Bristol supporters think it best suited). The pavilion is obviously in need of attention; perhaps they use the rugby facilities these days.

So blissful, lazy Championship days in the sun belong in the past as much as the Roman Baths and the Jane Austen Museum, which is a shame. The next two posts will feature visits to grounds where the real thing can still be seen.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wellington v Otago, 50 overs (reduced to 40), Basin Reserve, 4 December 2011


New Wellington coach Jamie Siddons has all the qualifications you would want for the job. The scorer of most runs in the Sheffield Shield until overtaken by Darren Lehman and Jamie Cox, he made an appearance in Australia's one day side before embarking on a coaching career that has taken him from South Australia and the national set-up under John Buchanan to being head coach of Bangladesh for four years.

But his most important attribute is that he has no hair. This means that there is no danger of him being injured in attempting to pull it out as he watched Wellington once more pick defeat from the pocket of victory with the expertise of a Victorian scallywag, as occurred on Sunday at the Basin. Several times his team was within a couple of proficient overs of taking the game away from Otago, only to go down by six runs in the evening gloom.

For most of a rainy morning it appeared unlikely that there would be any cricket, but play began with sufficient time for a 40-over game on a Sunday afternoon, just like the old days. It was thoroughly pleasant, warm despite the heavy cloud cover and – here's a word used to describe the Basin no more than once a decade – still. The pohutukawas could barely restrain themselves from bursting into a cascade of scarlet.

I arrived in time to see Otago succumb to the waft-aimlessly-outside-the-off-stump epidemic that is ravaging cricket here; New Zealand's finest had gone down to a particularly virulent strain in Brisbane an hour or so before. Aaron Redmond was first, followed by Craig Cumming and Nathan McCullum. Neil Broom, with 38 from 44 balls, played well before skying Woodcock to Rhodes, coming in from the cover boundary.

There was also a Bracewell, as there is in most New Zealand teams; the name is now as common as Jones in the valleys. An understanding of the Bracewell family tree is as essential as is that of the Tudors to a student of sixteenth century England. This was Michael, nephew of John and Brendon and cousin of Doug. By the time I had worked that out he was gone, lbw to Jeetan Patel for a duck.

When Wells swept Woodcock to deep square leg Otago were 97 for six with more than half their overs gone. That they accrued a final total of 219 was largely due to an intelligent and determined 55 from Jimmy Neesham, a 21-year-old Aucklander in his first season with Otago. He was well-supported in seventh and eighth-wicket partnerships by Derek de Boorder and Neil Wagner. The Otago dressing room applauded every run as if each were the product of a Jack Hobbs cover drive, a surfeit of enthusiasm filling the gap left by the departure of discrimination.

But they were helped by some poor cricket from Wellington. There were too many loose deliveries. Two chances were missed in Woodcock's seventh over: a difficult catch to Pollard in the covers and as simple a stumping chance as debutant wicket-keeper Craig Cachopa could have wished for. Barry Rhodes spilled a straightforward boundary catch two overs later.

Wellington skipper Grant Elliott had impressed earlier in the innings, maintaining close catchers longer than is usual, but later he changed the bowling as often as a super model changes her shoes. There is merit in allowing bowlers (especially spinners) to build up pressure. Bringing himself on late in the innings did not work either: Neesham hit him over the scoreboard.

Even so, in good batting conditions 220 in 40 overs was eminently attainable.

Michael Papps dominated in the first part of Wellington's reply with a robust fifty, full of trademark pulls and cuts. Papps has moved north after ten seasons with Canterbury. He will be an asset, but whether keeping in the game a 32-year-old whose international days are several years behind him is in the wider interests of New Zealand cricket is open to question. Ten years ago, when there was less cash around, he would have retired, leaving a space for a young player.

Meanwhile, Neesham was proving as potent with the ball as he had been with the bat. He accounted for Boam and Elliott with slower deliveries. When Woodcock was bowled by Ian Butler in the 28th over Wellington needed 94 to win, having let the rate required drift over the previous half dozen overs. Nick Beard bowled a tight spell of slow left arm from the northern end.

Everything now depended on James Franklin, who batted with assurance and some style throughout. He was well supported by Cachopa, until the little keeper attempted a dilscoop, and ended up flat on his back, stumps spreadeagled. The Otago bowlers did their bit: both Neesham and Wagner bowled wides that went to the boundary (I was looking forward to seeing Wagner, the great hope of New Zealand bowling when he finally qualifies next year, but today he had a bad day, as anyone can).

We waited for Franklin to produce the big over that would swing the game. Perhaps T20, in which Franklin has been very successful as a batsman, has created a false sense of empowerment, the feeling that the the big hit can be rolled out at will. Here, thanks in part to more good bowling from Beard, the moment never came, and Wellington began the final over needing 12.

Neesham was brought on to replace Beard, which I still think was a mistake, so well was the spinner bowling. The outcome vindicated Redmond's choice, but it was a close run thing. Scott Kuggeleijn (son of Chris, who used to coach Northern Districts and gave short answers to long questions from CricInfo's man) pulled the first ball, a long hop, to the boundary. A leg bye gave Franklin the strike. He sent the ball high in the direction of long off. It seemed at first that it would clear the boundary by some way, but Nathan McCullum had his eagle eye on it, and knew that it was heading straight into his hands. An ounce more power and the game would have been won. Kuggeleijn was also caught at long off, this time some way in from the rope, and that was that.

A fine start to my season of spectating, and it was free. As with four-day games, it seems that the money taken at the gate would not have paid those who collect it. There was no food on sale, and the game was not advertised. The weather meant that the game was not expected to start, so it is unfair to draw too many conclusions from the sparse crowd. But there is something of the self-fullfilling prophesy about this approach, and that domestic cricket appears to bestaking everything on T20, which has the prime holiday period to itself, worries me.

But I was not as downcast as Jamie Siddons, who stormed into the rooms leaving the air blue behind him.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

In Search of the Crabble

Kent v Essex, County Championship, the Crabble Ground, Dover, 30 and 31 August 1967

I first went to the Crabble Ground in Dover 44 years ago, for the second (and, as it turned out, final) day of the Championship match between Kent and Essex. It was the first time I had watched cricket anywhere other than at the St Lawrence Ground.

Kent wrapped up a victory that took them to the top of the table, though everybody knew that it was too late; Yorkshire were in a strong position in a game in progress and had another fixture to come, wheras Kent's programme was now concluded, and Yorkshire duly became champions the next week. By that time, Kent held the Gillette Cup having defeated Somerset in the final on the Saturday following this game.

I still have the autograph book in which I collected signatures after the game had ended. Among compliant signers that day were Peter West, for four decades the face of BBC TV's cricket coverage but reporting for The Times that day, and Kent's match winner Norman Graham.

1967 was Graham's breakthrough season. A fringe player up to that point, his pinpoint medium-fast bowling, making full use of his six feet seven inches, took him to third place in the national bowling averages (Derek Underwood was top) with 104 wickets at 13.90. He remained a key member of the Kent attack for a further decade, his accuracy and extra bounce contributing significantly to the one-day glory years, even if his batting and fielding did not; he challenges Kevin Jarvis for the title of worst batsman that I have seen, but Jarvis takes it out.

Norman Graham was hugely popular with Kent supporters and was richly rewarded in his benefit season. Benefits have fallen into deserved disrepute now that county cricketers are well paid, but in the seventies they were justified reward for long-serving professionals. Graham, who was said to have visited a thousand pubs during his year, earned enough to buy several houses and, I hope, a nice car. He left the Crabble that day folded into a Triumph Herald, adopting a driving position not usually seen outside a dodgem track, but he had taken 12 for 80, so was smiling.

Of course, the Crabble pitch was not so much helpful to Graham and his colleagues as enslaved to them. There have not been too many unabbreviated matches which one team has one won comfortably having scored fewer than 200, as was the case in 1967. Pitch quality remained an issue there. Things came to a head in 1976 when Charles Rowe, batsman and occasional off spinner, took 11 for 71 against Derbyshire, almost a fifth of his total career haul for Kent. That was that. It was the last time county cricket was played at the ground, a shame because it was the most attractive of all the Kent grounds, though supporters of the Nevill at Tunbridge Wells will disagree.

Accompanied by my Blean correspondent, I went back there last week (I am in the old country for a month). The ground was hard to find, though this was more because of navigational issues than anything to do with the ground itself. I am always confused as to where the sun is when I change hemispheres and, except when I resume duties as his chauffeur, my correspondent relies on public transport to get him where he wants to go, so is untroubled by such concerns. We hit upon the idea of following a bus, as my correspondent had passed the ground while on such a conveyance at some unspecified point in the past. I recommend this as an aid to navigation, though we added the refinement of establishing where the bus was going later than we might have done. But Dover is on the coast, so we reasoned that we could only explore half the compass, and came upon the ground well before nightfall, a success by our own standards.
We were pleased with what we found. The Crabble is no longer a cricket ground, but has escaped the developers' grasp. It is home to Dover Rugby Club and instantly recognisable as the splendid venue it once was.

 It is situated in a valley at River (not all Kentish names are imaginative), with tall trees marking the extremity of the ground on three sides. Cut into the hill is a series of terraces, which used to accommodate seating, covered on the higher levels, with more trees above them. This is slightly reminiscent of the majestic Pukekura Park in New Plymouth, though on a much smaller scale. In the middle is the stone pavilion, run down and boarded up now, but stately in its day, brightly painted and decorated with flower baskets.
I have watched cricket from few better places than the higher terraces at the Crabble. It is to hoped that cricket can return to the ground one day; there is room enough, despite the floodlights around one of the two rugby pitches. New Zealand expertise in using the same piece of turf for a rugby pitch and cricket square would be useful.

We took a couple of turns around the ground and thought of the players who had batted and bowled with grace and style to match the surroundings. Ames and Leyland scored double hundreds here; Ames seven more centuries, Woolley the same number. Sobers scored a quickfire, match-winning hundred in 1968 described with awe by those who saw it, and he'd taken seven for 69 earlier in the same game. Yorkshiremen liked bowling here. Illingworth took 14 in a game in 1964, Verity nine in an innings in 1933, Trueman eight for 28 in 1954. And Kent's Freeman took seven or more on ten occasions.

The rustling of the trees is leftover applause for them all.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Forty Years On: Kent v Lancashire, Gillette Cup Final, Lord's, 4 September 1971


Lancashire are the county champions.

There is a sentence that has not been written since 1934 (Lancashire shared the Championship with Surrey in 1950, but Lancashire supporters do not count that, just as Kent people are reluctant to acknowledge the shared Championship of 1977).

Congratulations to the men of the red rose. It is good when Championship pennant flies over unfamiliar pavilions. One feels particular pleasure for the players such as Glen Chapple and Gary Keedy who have played little or no international cricket, but have been proud to call themselves county cricketers, a term that has an obsolete solidity about it, like “milkman” or “haberdasher”. I think also of those Lancashire folk of my age and older who have waited all their lives for the day the Championship was won, and who will go to their graves a little happier.

Lancashire's victory is all the more relishable for having been achieved on outgrounds while Old Trafford is renovated and rotated, bringing Liverpool, Blackpool and Southport back to the first-class schedule from another age. One half expects Cardus to be filing for the Manchester Guardian. Ideally, championship cricket would never be played on the bigger Test grounds, where it rattles about like an old person in a large house with the children long-gone.

From this distance, it appears the County Championship appears in good health. There have been last-day resolutions in several recent seasons, and the introduction of promotion and relegation means that there are few meaningless games, even in September. There is less coverage in the broadsheets than a decade ago, but digital media have compensated, with plenty of good reporting on the blogs and commentary on about half the games online from the BBC.

The domestic one-day game (I mean the longer form, rather than the T20) has, relatively speaking, gone backwards.

As I write, I am watching a recording of the Somerset v Surrey one-day final at Lord's. This is the first opportunity I have had to watch one of these events since leaving the old country in 1997. Sky New Zealand has added English domestic cricket to its schedules in the last month, starting with the T20 final followed by Surrey v Durham from the last round of the league phase, the semi-finals from Taunton and the Oval, and now the final. What has brought this on, I don't know, but it is wonderful for a county cricket castaway.

Players that I had heard or read about – Maynard, Hildreth and Hamilton-Brown to name but three – have acquired a form and style. I have been struck by how many good young players Surrey and Somerset have. Jos Buttler, for example, has just reached a hallmarked fifty in adverse circumstances (speaking of youthful brilliance, I must mention Jonny Bairstow on international debut in the final ODI against India; he began as if seventy not out with ten years' experience, an innings which brought a tear to the eye of those of us who remember his late father David, who always looked as if he was enjoying himself when playing cricket, a considerable achievement when playing for Boycott's Yorkshire).

It was good to see Taunton again. Though plenty of building has taken place it appears to have retained its character, with the Quantocks on the horizon one way, the Mendips the other, and the two churches a six hit away. The southern end retains its pleasing confusion of old stands, I hope still with old leather armchairs with the stuffing coming out. It was an intimidating place to visit when Botham and Richards were in their pomp, and the locals (the Taunton Macoute) were cidered up. The end of Kent's glorious era can be dated precisely to the day in August 1979 when they were Garnered for 60 in the Gillette Cup quarter-final (it is still too soon to write more about that game).

There was not a seat to be had that day. There were plenty visible at this year's semi-final, and Lord's was little more than half full for the final. I attended twenty-five one-day finals, all of them before a capacity crowd. Why the difference? For one thing, the MCC website tells me that a ticket to the final cost between £40 and £50. More significant is that 50-over cricket has been squeezed between a surfeit of ODIs and the shaken-up bottle of Pepsi that is T20.

So, in tribute to Lancashire, let us go back forty years to a time when, the Tests done with and ODIs barely thought of, the first Saturday in September was the county game's big day: the Gillette Cup final of 1971 between Kent and Lancashire, a fine game most remembered for a single moment of athleticism from an unlikely source.

Kent were there having beaten Warwickshire soundly at Canterbury, while the BBC delayed the Nine O'Clock News to cover the climax of the other semi-final at Old Trafford, David Hughes smashing John Mortimore for 24 in one over in the dark. The famously irascible umpire Arthur Jepson replied to an appeal to go off for bad light with “You can see the moon, how far do you want to see?”.

Though Kent were the 1970 county champions, Lancashire were the dominant one-day team of the time having won the first two Sunday Leagues and the previous season's Gillette Cup.

We took our seats on the lower level of the Lord's Grandstand on a beautiful morning. Mike Denness (standing in for Colin Cowdrey who missed much of that season through illness) won the toss and put Lancashire in. Kent, against the orthodoxy of the time, usually chose to bat, but presumably Denness wanted to make the most of the September dew that was such an influence on the September final.

An early blow was the news that Norman Graham was injured and would not play. Graham, who bowled penetrating fast-medium from a great height, was very popular with the Kent faithful despite being a poor fielder and a worse batsman. But his replacement, the burly left-armer John Dye, removed Barry Wood lbw for a duck in the first over.

For much of the rest of the innings it was a good battle, each side fighting back just as the other looked to be gaining the advantage. Class told. The best innings was 66 from Clive Lloyd, and we'd have given him that at the start. Derek Underwood tied up the middle of the innings, conceding just 26 from 12 overs. John Shepherd and Asif Iqbal were almost as abstemious, but Bob Woolmer was unusually expensive, going for five an over, a fair return these days, but as profligate as a footballer's wife then.

At 179 for seven things were turning our way, but Hughes again, in partnership with his spinning colleague “Flat” Jack Simmons (who I was to sit next to on a memorable evening in a Sydney restaurant twenty-eight years later), put on an unbroken 45 in the last few overs to take Lancashire to an above-average score in the era before fielding circles, powerplays, and special rules for legside wides. In the end, it was the difference.

Kent started badly, losing England opener Brian Luckhurst for a duck. It was a struggle to 105 for five, the uncomfortable feeling that another wicket would bring the curtain down. But Asif Iqbal was in, and that changed everything. Asif was in his fourth of fifteen seasons as a Kent player, already as Kentish as hops and the Medway. The same could be said of John Shepherd. Both still live in Kent, just as Clive Lloyd and Farokh Engineer remain Mancunians to this day (it would have been at about this time that Lancashire chairman Cedric Rhoades, worried that the Indo-Pakistani War would deprive him of his wicketkeeper, asked Engineer if he might be called upon to fight, to which Engineer replied that he would have to go when the fighting reached his home village; “where's that?” asked the chairman; “Oswaldtwistle” [which is just outside Blackburn] replied the keeper).

How things have changed where overseas players are concerned. I hear that Martin van Jaarsveld is leaving for Leicestershire, an odd choice given that they are almost as short of cash at Grace Road as Kent are, and that it was only Leicestershire's ineptitude that kept Kent off the bottom of the Championship. And Marcus North has just signed for Glamorgan, his sixth (sixth!) county.

Asif was at his best that day, dancing down the pitch like Jessop and moving across the crease in a way many batsmen do now but few did then. He was also whippet-quick between the wickets – Tony Greig says the fastest of the players he has seen. Cowdrey apart, no Kent batsman of that time made his runs in a way that was so aesthetically pleasing.

For almost an hour the Lancashire bowlers were driven (and pulled and cut, but mostly driven) to distraction by him. He had reached 89, and looked odds-on for an unbeaten, victorious century when he came down the pitch once more to Simmons. Jack Bond, the dumpy 39-year-old Lancashire captain fell to his right at mid off, but our eyes passed him to follow the ball on its way to the pavilion fence. But where was it? The ball was still red then, of course, so harder to spot in the September gloaming. Asif must have timed it so sweetly that it had passed outside the spectrum of human visibility.

Bond had it. His fall had been a full-length dive to seize from the air the ball, which had never got more than a couple of feet off the ground. It was one of the famous Lord's final catches, and it won his side the game, the last three wickets falling for just three runs.

Kent were to return to Lord's for finals five more times in the seventies, winning all but one. I hope that Somerset shake off their second successive defeat at Lord's (as well as two more in the T20 elsewhere) and return as successfully, following their loss to Surrey. They still have some way to go to challenge Kent's record of successive losses in finals at headquarters though: seven (and counting).

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fire in Babylon

Snow is falling and laying outside as I write, the first time such a thing has been seen around here since 1976. It's been as cold as the County Ground in Bristol in May. What better way to escape the chill than by going to see Fire in Babylon, the documentary film about the rise of West Indies team that dominated world cricket from that year until the early nineties? I saw it in a full theatre at Te Papa, our wonderful national museum here in Wellington.

1976 was identified as the year that the West Indians stopped being calypso cricketers and turned into a hardnosed team founded on ruthless pace bowling. As the year began the team was in the middle of a drubbing, going down 5–1 to Australia. The players were confronted with the pace of Lillee and Thomson and shameful racism, from both from the Aussie players and the crowds.

The way the film told it, this humiliation made West Indies captain Clive Lloyd go out and find some fast bowlers, which enabled him to lead his side to victory against India at home, and England away, later that year. Well, not really. The only addition for the England tour, compared to the attack that had gone to Australia, was Wayne Daniel, who was certainly quick, but very much the tyro, threatening to life, limb and wicket only in short spells. The fourth member of the attack on the England tour was the workmanlike Vanburn Holder of Worcestershire, who had been playing international cricket for seven years by that time.

So the idea that Lloyd simply applied water to a pack of instant fast-bowler mix is wrong. West Indies won that series 3-0 because Andy Roberts (a wonderfully lugubrious witness throughout the film) and Michael Holding were very quick learners, and because Richards batted as well as anybody – Bradman included – has ever done that long hot summer, with 829 runs in just four Tests. And, they were playing England, not Australia. The England selectors took a preference for experience a little far that summer. Their chosen top four for the first Test was Brearley, Edrich, Steele and Close whose combined average age was just under 38 (if only their combined batting average had been as high).

Close and Edrich both finished their Test careers – or rather had them finished for them – at the third Test at Old Trafford where they received a fearful battering on the third evening at the hands of Holding, Roberts and Daniel, one which had the movie audience wincing in sympathy with each blow replayed on the screen (remember that in 1976 cricket was still helmet-free). Much pompous nonsense was written about that passage of play in the days, months and even years that followed. It came to be exhibit A in the case against an approach that was said to be, well, not quite cricket. Fire in Babylon featured an extract from a contemporary interview with Robin Marler, former Sussex captain and then cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times as an example of this attitude. To adapt a Penelope Gilliatt's famous remark about that organ's theatre critic Harold Hobson, the characteristic sound of an English Sunday morning in the seventies was Robin Marler barking up the wrong tree.

One person who did not complain was Brian Close himself. The film missed a trick by failing to point out that Close had been Viv Richards' county captain at Somerset, and that Richards credits Close with being a great influence in the development of his uncompromising approach to the game.

Incidentally, the photo of Close covered in bruises that followed the Old Trafford sequence – and which had the audience gasping at the screening I saw – was not taken then, but thirteen years earlier, after Close had put himself in the way of another West Indian pace onslaught, from Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith at Lord's in 1963.

And then there was Greig's gaffe. Before the start of the 1976 series England captain Tony Greig, then as now not a man given to understatement, announced that it was his intention to make the West Indians grovel. Such a statement delivered in, say, the Yorkshire tones of Ray Illingworth or the Scottish lilt of Mike Denness would have been provocative enough. But Greig spoke with the voice of a white South African at the time of apartheid, and might as well have been sitting under a neon sign saying “oppressor”. Like the rest of the audience I winced as Grieg spoke, just as I did when I first heard him utter those ill-considered words on Sportsnight all those years ago.

For the purposes of the film Greig became symbolic of the political sub-text of the rise of the West Indies, one that was partly historical: the descendents of slaves striving to overcome their recent colonisers; and partly comtemporary: black men playing against the representatives of countries in which black people experienced racism as a part of their daily lives. This came across strongly in the testimony of Gordon Greenidge, who moved from Barbados to Reading as a 14-year-old in the mid-sixties. Greenidge deserves to rank among the batting greats, but has been neglected, probably because he stood in the shadow of the Richards, Barry at Hampshire and Viv for the West Indies.

Of course, a fast bowler with a ball in his hand does not require political motivation; the scent of blood and wickets is enough. But there is no doubt that many of the West Indian players of that era had an awareness of a political dimension to their cricket that was almost entirely absent among white players. That was why the recruiters of players for sanctions-breaking tours of South Africa found it so much harder to tempt West Indians with their large cheques than they did the English. Only Colin Croft of the first-line players signed, and he admitted that he had to quit the Caribbean for Florida to escape the resulting opprobium. Others ended up on Skid Row.

It was not that the likes of Gooch, Gatting and the rest of those who at some time pocketed the tainted rand held consciously racist attitudes; English cricket in the seventies (except in the Ridings) was well ahead of most other facets of British life in its embracing of multiculturalism. It was that they were naïve, so failed to join the dots.

Two things in defence of Tony Greig. First, he dealt with the pace of both the Australians and the West Indians better than any other English batsman. He played the innings of the series at the Gabba in 1974 and at Headingley in 1976. (Who was the only other player to score centuries in both series? Alan Knott, of course).

Second, I was at the Oval on the fourth day of the final Test in 1976 and witnessed a public act of contrition by Greig. Despite having a lead of 252, Clive Lloyd did not enforce the follow on. Instead he sent out Fredericks and Greenidge to lash the England bowlers around the Oval's parched expanses to the tune of 182 in 32 overs. During the carnage Greig pursued a ball towards the boundary on the western side of the ground, where the greatest concentration of West Indian supporters was located. They greeted him with deserved and vocal hostility. Twenty-five yards or so short of the boundary he fell to his knees and grovelled his the way to the fence to collect the ball. By the time he got there every boo had turned to a cheer.

Though the premise of Fire in Babylon is that Lloyd's side resolved to move away from the calypso cricketers image, it also makes clear that it played with joyous exuberance, which was why I for one couldn't have cared less how often they beat England; it was such fun to watch.

A somewhat cavalier approach to the deployment of archive material was irritating. Several times a bowler ran into bowl at, say, Lord's, only for the resulting wicket to be taken at Sydney or similar. Brian Luckhurst was shown batting left-handed at one point. Footage used to illustrate the Lord's Test in 1984 was from 1987 or later (the new Mound Stand roof was apparent).

A criticism in these parts was that the bad-tempered defeat that the West Indies suffered in these islands in 1980 was all but ignored, represented only by the famous photograph of Mikey Holding kicking a stump out of the ground at Carisbrook. As Mike Brearley said, only Holding could have made such a violent act look so graceful. The matter was raised again in the Sky commentary box the other day when a bowler accidentally removed the bails. Holding, invited to compare this with his own efforts, commented in those wonderful bass Jamaican tones that “if you're going to do something, you might as well do it properly”. I would like somebody to analyse the footage of that game (which New Zealand won by one wicket) to test my supposition that, to have produced such a reaction from a team that prided itself on controlling its emotions, the umpiring must have been atrocious. In the greater scheme of things it was insignificant, which is why it was left out.

A more substantial criticism is that the film ignored the fact that Lloyd's team was not the first from the islands to dominate international cricket. Those of Sobers and Worrell had done so for much of the sixties. Though defeated 2-1 in Australia in 1960/1 – Colin Croft scornfully dismissed the famous tickertape farewell as being for a losing team – the Australians were beaten at home as were England away in both 1963 and 1966. Then as later the team was founded on pace, then that of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, along with Sobers, and batting of class: Hunte, Kanhai, Butcher, Nurse et al. That there was no victory in Australia was because tours there took place at such long intervals, not because they were not capable.

But these points did not reduce my enjoyment of the film one bit. The interviews with players, historians and spectators (particularly with Bunny Wailer, as in Bob Marley and the) were fascinating, and the archive material full of memories. There is plenty of potential for intelligent documentary in cricket and it is to be hoped that that the success of Fire in Babylon will inspire others to emulate it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Greatest Test of All

The BBC Radio iPlayer has some interesting cricket material available at the moment, inspired by the happy confluence of the thirtieth anniversary of Headingley '81 with the 2,000th Test, currently in progress at Lord's.

Two programmes are devoted to the considerable task of choosing which of the 2,000 Tests was the best. The first is a 90-minute discussion between Jonathan Agnew, Simon Hughes and Chris Broad (with a contribution from Tony Cozier) with the aim of selecting a shortlist of three (they settled on four in the end). Such a format depends on the panel's knowledge being deep enough to do the subject justice. This group did a reasonable job, though their lack of awareness of Test cricket's early days was exposed. The Oval Test of 1882 and the Sydney match of 1894 were mentioned only because a listener emailed suggesting that they should be, though both are clearly worthy of consideration. A cricket historian such as David Frith or Gideon Haigh would have filled the gap well.

The Oval game was the one that gave rise to the Ashes legend, with the publication of an obituary for English cricket being published in the Sporting Times (“...and the Ashes will be taken to Australia”). Fred “The Demon” Spofforth, the first great fast bowler, took 14 wickets for Australia, who won by 7 runs. At least Simon Hughes knew the story about the spectator so caught up in the tension that he chewed through the handle of his umbrella, though he wasn't sure whether it was supposed to have occurred in 1882 or 1953.

Hughes also suggested that Headingley 1981 was the first occasion on which a side had won a Test after following on. Not so. That was the significance of Sydney 1894, a game that had everything that a great game should have. Besides England's great rearguard, Syd Gregory hit Test cricket's first double century and slow left-armer Peel bowled a match-winning spell. It should have been seriously discussed, at least.

Old Trafford 1902 was not mentioned at all. Australia won a classic by three runs. Victor Trumper and FS Jackson both scored hundreds, and Hugh Trumble and England's less well-known Bill Lockwood took ten and eleven wickets respectively. Debutant Fred Tate of Sussex had a nightmare in his only Test match. He dropped Joe Darling in the deep and was last man out with four still needed. Legend has it that he as he left the ground he said something along the lines of “I've got a boy at home who will make up for this for me”, the boy being Maurice, who lived up to his father's promise by becoming the best fast-medium bowler of his time and taking 38 Test wickets in the 1924-5 Ashes series.

A winner was chosen from the shortlist by a different panel during lunch on the second day of the Lord's Test. Agnew again, but this time accompanied by Geoffrey Boycott, Michael Vaughan and Steve Waugh, who ruefully noted that the choice appeared to consist of games that Australia had thrown away. They went for the Calcutta Test of 2001, another won after following on:

VVS Laxman's monumental 281 led the way, supported by Rahul Dravid's 180, which was no doubt as silky as yesterday's century at Lord's.

These programmes are best accessed through the podcast pages of the BBC website, where they will available indefinitely.

There is some interesting archive commentary in the first programme, including Alan Gibson on the final over at Lord's in 1963, with Colin Cowdrey, arm in a plaster cast, at the non-striker's end, and some vintage John Arlott.

And the Archive on 4 series featured an hour on the 1981 series, presented by the Great Alchemist himself, Mike Brearley. I will write a more detailed post on this series soon, but this is a treat, with a revelation thrown in: the selectors almost went along with the wishes of most of the cricketing public, myself included, and omitted Bob Willis before the game. Fortunately for posterity, they changed their minds at the last moment.

This programme will only be available for a week or so, so get in quick:

Monday, July 4, 2011

The third World Cup Final: India v West Indies, Lord's, 25 June 1983


There are two things that should be recorded about the third World Cup final. First, it was the most important game of cricket ever played, and second, it was quite dull.

As expected, the West Indies reached the final for the third time. The team was at its formidable peak by now, enhanced by the addition of Malcolm Marshall, perhaps the greatest of their fast bowlers, and Jeff Dujon, a good wicketkeeper and a batsman of international class. It had won all its group matches, and the semi-final against Pakistan, by resounding margins. Except one. We might have paid more attention to that exception, as it was against India in the first group match, the West Indies falling 34 short of India's 262, Roger Binny's wobbly seamers accounting for Lloyd, Richards and Dujon.

India almost went down to Zimbabwe in the improbable surroundings of the Nevil Ground, Tunbridge Wells (why Kent chose to stage its first ODI there, rather than at Canterbury, is a mystery). At 17 for five all seemed lost, but captain Kapil Dev came to the rescue with 175 not out, six sixes re-arranging the rhododendrons. It remains the highest one-day score made in Kent. His team went on to beat a strong England side in the semi-final.

Even so, as we gathered at Lord's on the morning of the final there was a feeling of inevitability about proceedings, and disappointment when Clive Lloyd put India in, a decision that seemed likely to deprive us of a repeat of the Caribbean run fest that we had so enjoyed in the first two finals.

Indeed, the Indian innings proceeded as we expected. Andy Roberts, with three for 32, was the most expensive of the quicks, though Larry Gomes went for 49 from 11 overs, but also took two wickets. Kris Srikkanth (a prototype Sehwag in his approach to batting) was top scorer with 38, and the last wicket partnership of 22 between Kirmani and Sandhu was the fourth-highest of the innings.

The result being certain, the main interest between innings was on whether Viv Richards would get in early enough to complete his usual Lord's final century (two more had followed that in the 1979 final). Sure enough, Greenidge went early and in strode the Great Man, nobody more certain than himself that he was about to rescue our day with something wonderful.

Richards attacked from the start, and we got ready to relish the next 90 minutes or so. Of his first 33 runs, 28 came in boundaries, to all corners of the ground. In his Guardian report, Matthew Engel described Richards as playing “a sophisticated form of clock golf”. Madan Lal, from the Pavilion End, had the temerity to attempt a bouncer. Richards hooked, and as it came off bat the question was would it land in the Mound or Tavern Stand, or perhaps even the St John's Wood Road?

But it had come not from the middle of the bat but from the top edge, and the trajectory was steep. The ball was still heading in the direction of the mid-wicket boundary, but would it reach? Kapil Dev was the nearest fielder and for a moment was as uncertain as most of us as to the ball's flight path. He began to move towards the boundary with eyes fixed upwards. Then his hands moved up to his eye level, which told us what we needed to know. The catch was a good one, taken over the shoulder, and Richards turned away, towards the pavilion.

Nobody at the ground saw it as a match-winning catch though. Gomes was next in, but we did not want his brand of cautious accumulation to take the West Indies home. The hope was for a reprise of Clive Lloyd's 1975 innings, in so far as the target of 184 would allow. But both fell with the score at 66, and Faoud Bacchus followed ten runs later.

Dujon and Marshall (a capable batsman) steadied things and looked very comfortable against India's trundlers, who were less threatening than half the county attacks of the time. With the required run rate low enough not to be a factor it appeared at 119 for six that, though excitement that we hoped for was absent, sensible batting would bring the West Indies home.

So certain were we of the invincibility of the West Indies that there was curiously little tension. I have never been in a crowd which so misread what was happening in front of it, me as much as anybody. It would have been much more exciting to have been following the game on the radio on the streets of Calcutta and Bombay (as they then were), where people knew exactly what was going on, that every wicket was taking India nearer to a famous victory. At Lord's only when Dujon, Marshall and Roberts were out in quick succession to leave the last pair, Garner and Holding, to chase the 58 still needed did the penny finally drop. Holding was lbw to Mohinder Armanath to give India a 40-run victory.

So why was it the most important game ever played? Because it was the day that South Asia in general and India in particular awoke to the possibilities of one-day cricket, a form of the game that had been scorned in that part of the world up to that point. I have written before about the time on the same turf just eight years before when Sunil Gavaskar disdained a target of 334, the compromises to his art that it would necessitate being too much for him to bear.

Test matches, even torpid ones on flat, slow pitches were everything. From September 1979 to February 1980 13 Test matches were played in India, not an ODI in sight. By 1986/7 there were 17 ODIs in an Indian season, and in the next the hosting of World Cup was shared with Pakistan. In a sense the IPL, or at least the mindset that spawned it, was born that June day at Lord's, of all places.

Even so, it was a poor game of cricket. The World Cup final has usually been a stage for a memorable performance from a great player. Lloyd, Richards, Wasim Akram, da Silva ( a Kent player, by the way), Warne, Ponting, Gilchrist, and a brilliant losing century by Jayawardene this year. The Man of the Match that day? Mohinder Armanath, not even a proper bowler, for little seamers so modest that they wore a veil. India did not even pick a proper spinner.

That was my third, and probably last World Cup final, the prices being what they are these days, though we look forward to 2015 when the event returns to New Zealand and the West Island. We are staging a World Cup in another code as practice for it here this year, so everything will be ready.

NB. Birthday today. Got a card from Stephen Fleming.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

In the Footsteps of Giants

Author's note: apologies for the small font size, which it is beyond my technical ability to enlarge. I advise readers having difficulty reading this post to buy a bigger screen.

As part of the desecration redevelopment of the St Lawrence Ground a walkway is to be built honouring twelve of the county's great players, chosen by a panel comprising Kent's long-serving statistician Howard Milton; Derek Carlaw, who has been contributing erudite and interesting features to the Kent annual for many years; and Tony Rickson, a journalist unknown in this part of New Zealand. A shortlist of forty was published in local papers and Kent followers were invited to nominate their chosen dozen, but this was purely advisory, and rightly so. A comprehensive knowledge of two centuries of cricket was needed to do justice to the task.

And justice to it they have done, selecting a twelve that tells the story of cricket in Kent as well as celebrating some of our finest. Of course, this task is easier than picking an all-time Kent XI, because so many of the county's great names were wicketkeepers or slow bowlers. Eleven of the names are the same as my selection, and I have no great quarrel with the twelfth.

But I do have a couple of small gripes about the shortlist of forty:
First, Richard Ellison (11 Tests) or Mark Ealham, (eight Tests and 64 ODIs) would be a better representative of the 80s and 90s than Steve Marsh, who was, by our high Kentish standards, a mediocre keeper. What about Neil Taylor, who scored more centuries for Kent than Bob Wilson, Brian Luckhurst or Mike Denness? Or Dean Headley?

And what's this? No CJ Tavaré? David Gower was good on Tavaré during the recent Lord's Test, describing how the batsman who would block to order for England was known to the Kent membership only as a carefree shot player (Gower should be on the list too, having been educated in Canterbury, but he was allowed to slip away to Leicestershire).

Of the twelve, nine are obvious choices. Taking them chronologically:

Alfred Mynn

When John Woodcock (editor of Wisden and cricket correspondent of The Times for more than three decades; known to Alan Gibson's readers as the Sage of Longparish) ranked his hundred greatest cricketers in the mid-nineties he placed Mynn third, below only Bradman and Grace, who was seen as the new Mynn early in his career. As well as being the greatest all-rounder of his day, Mynn – three times bankrupt and over-fond of his ale – was just the sort of dissolute character that the public likes to have as a hero. It is as well that he had finished before the county club was formally constituted. The sort of people who have run it for most of its existence would never have approved of him.

Colin Blythe

It is Blythe who is bowling in the Chevallier Taylor painting of the Kent v Lancashire game of 1906 that captivated Duncan Hamilton when he visited Canterbury at the end of his journey around England in 2009.
It would not have been right for another bowler to have been its focus. Blythe's slow left-arm was Kent's paramount advantage in the first golden era of four championships between 1906 and 1913. At Northampton in 1907 he took 17 wickets in a day, match figures beaten only by Laker at Old Trafford, and he was as lethal on drying pitches as Derek Underwood. Like Freeman, he did not not transfer his county prowess to Tests, and was said to have suffered from epilepsy, brought on by stress. He lost his life at Passchendale in 1917, and a memorial stands to him at the St Lawrence Ground, untouched, I trust, by the developers.

Frank Woolley

In the late sixties and early seventies there were still plenty of people around the grounds who had watched Woolley and they would go all misty-eyed as they told you that they had never seen better. As well as the sheer weight of runs – he is Kent's top aggregate scorer with 15,000 more than next-best Wally Hardinge – he batted with sublime elegance. Allen Hunt said that the young Gower reminded him of Woolley, also a left-hander. There is also the small matter of 1,680 wickets (mostly as a slow left-armer, though he was quicker as a young player) and 773 catches, another county record. I saw him when he visited during Canterbury Week one year, a tall agile figure, even in his eighties. Kent's best.

Tich Freeman

Freeman's bowling record tests credulity. With his leg spin he took more than 200 first-class wickets in eight successive seasons, 304 in 1928, more than any bowler before or since. Even in an age when hapless amateurs filled places in most county sides, ready for harvest by Freeman assisted by Les Ames behind the stumps, these figures are unmatched. His career aggregate is second only to Wilfred Rhodes, whose career was more than ten years longer. But Freeman was the Graeme Hick of his time: superlative domestic figures, but little impact in Tests, something I have never heard explained satisfactorily.

Les Ames

Ames was a cricketer eighty years ahead of his time, a top-class wicketkeeper who was a Test-class batsman, the best until Gilchrist. With Woolley and Cowdrey he was one of Kent's trio of scorers of a hundred hundreds. But his contribution to the county was as significant after retirement as it had been on the field of play. As secretary-manager (about 27 people are now employed to do what he did alone) he was more responsible than anyone else for building the great team of the seventies. A professional cricketer (in the best sense), he commanded total respect in a county where amateurs (often not in the best sense) dominated.

Godfrey Evans

January 1999, 5th Ashes Test, Sydney Cricket Ground. I am sitting next to two sisters and the husband of one of them (it is impossible to tell which, as he is largely silent, through habit). They all in their seventies and straight out of The Sullivans. They are up from the country for a day at the Test, an excursion they have made since the forties. The talk turns to favourite players. “Godfrey Evans” says one of the sisters, the name echoed by the other at once, “he was our favourite”. Ten minutes later I point out a familiar side-whiskered figure who has appeared a few rows in front of us and for a moment their smiles make them young again. I saw him play for the Cavaliers, and for Old England at the Oval in 1980 when, aged sixty, he executed a stumping so quickly that the ground announcer thought it was bowled, and in a first-class match, against Yorkshire at Canterbury in 1967 when Fred Trueman dusted the crease with his cap as Evans came into bat (Alan Knott had been picked for England and Kent was without a keeper). Godfrey Evans enjoyed playing cricket and liked people to enjoy watching him.

Colin Cowdrey, Derek Underwood and Alan Knott

I take these three together because their places in the chosen twelve need little justification, and because each warrant more detailed attention at another time, so important were they to my cricketing education. Suffice to mention that it was not so much the runs that Cowdrey scored, but the way in which he scored them that made him special to a generation of cricket supporters, and not only in Kent, or England.

To the Kentish, Knott and Underwood belong together like Astaire and Rogers for the way in which their talents combined to produce something beautiful. To opposition batsmen a more lethal pairing – Smith and Wesson say – would be a more appropriate comparison. Neither ever gave less than their all for the county, even at the peak of their international careers.

Those nine names would be on the lists of all informed Kent followers. What about the other three? The two names that my selection have in common with the official choice both come from the glory days of my youth, and those of at least two of the selectors, I suspect. I don't think that this is sentimentality; simply a reflection that this was the county's high summer.

Brian Luckhurst and John Shepherd

Mike Denness could fill a spot, as a fine batsman and winner of six one-day titles as captain; but no championships. Bob Woolmer described Denness as the best one-day captain he played under, but insufficiently imaginative in first-class cricket. Woolmer himself warrants consideration for his contributions with both bat and ball to the winning teams of the seventies. He should have been captain at some stage. But somehow he appealed to minds, not hearts (and I've never forgiven him for denying me the autograph that would have completed my collection in the souvenir Gillette Cup final brochure in 1971). I'd a hankering to pick Alan Ealham, our last Championship-winning captain, and the best outfielder I've seen, but that would have been sentiment.

But the choice of Brian Luckhurst will produce collective nodding of heads from those who saw him play. He scored 39 centuries and almost 20,000 runs and was of those who became a better batsman because of the need to adapt to one-day cricket. Luckhurst was a key member of the Ashes-winning team of 1970-71 and deserved a longer international career than he had. But his record on the field is only part of the story. After his (premature) retirement in 1976, he held a variety of posts at Canterbury, from coach to indoor school bar manager. At one time he sold scorecards around the ground on Sundays, and did so with the same dignity and good humour that he brought to every other role. Of the professionals, only Les Ames and Claude Lewis gave the county longer service.

John Shepherd is the current president of the club. When he joined the staff in 1965 the idea of a black president would have triggered mass coronaries in the Band of Brothers tent. That nobody thinks it now worth mentioning is a pleasing reflection of how far we have come, and of the contribution made by the overseas players who have played such an important part in Kent's history over the past half century, John Shepherd first among them. It seemed to me that Kent captains had an easier job than those of other counties. They simply put Shepherd on at one end in April and took him off in September. He was a genuine all-rounder and would have batted much higher for any other county. Runs were made when the top order had failed (a century against Middlesex in the Gillette Cup in 1977 a prime example) and often spectacularly (24 off an over from fellow Bajan Hallam Moseley one sunny Sunday in 1973). He could throw the ball from fine leg to the bowler's end with a flick of the wrist. Shepherd has also served as captain of Herne Bay Golf Club, which would have seemed an even more unlikely prospect in 1965.

And so to the last place. The selectors have given it to Doug Wright, who kept a poor side going in the fifties with his quickish leg spin, which was good enough to take a world record seven hat-tricks. There is no disputing Wright's status among Kent's finest. My issue is that, while the great era of the seventies has been given due recognition, this is not the case for the other period in which the county was the country's best: the years before the First World War, during which Championships were won in 1906, 1909, 1910 and 1913. So a representative of these years besides Woolley and Blythe is needed.

But who? Having looked at the season-by-season records two candidates are pre-eminent: Kenneth Hutchings and Arthur Fielder. Hutchings was an attacking batsman, whose driving was particularly strong. His best three seasons were all Championship-winning years, though he had finished by 1913. Like Blythe, Hutchings died on the Western Front.

Fielder was a fast bowler. According to his obituary in Wisden, he could swing the ball away and bring it back off the pitch, which might explain how he took 1,150 wickets for Kent in not much more than a decade as a regular player. He contributed strongly to all for Championships, particularly the first in 1906, when he took 172 wickets. Fielder gets my nomination, if only because Kent is not known for its fast bowlers, but I'll celebrate Doug Wright quite happily.

I look forward to walking the walkway, even if it is likely to be a dull day in November when I next visit the frozen north. It is good to know that the desperate measures that the club's financial crisis requires have not meant that its history or heroes have been forgotten.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The second World Cup Final: England v West Indies, Lord's, 23 June 1979


I'm not sure how much a ticket to the second World Cup final cost, but it was nothing that a first-year university student had to think twice about. Of course, in 1979 the State understood that providing the flower of its youth with the wherewithal to spend its summers at the cricket was a worthwhile long-term investment.

In addition to a grant (for the benefit of readers under the age of 40, that's a loan you don't have to repay), we were allowed to sign on the dole from June to September. In order to spare potential employers the embarrassment of having their kind offers of employment turned down, we thoughtfully omitted to enter our phone numbers on the forms. In four summers, the only job offer that came the way of my Blean Correspondent or myself was an opportunity for the former to be a roofer, a job for which he was the least suitable person in east Kent, your writer excepted.

So it was that I set off for Lord's on a bright June Saturday with a smile on my face and the taxpayer's pound in my pocket.

Much had happened in the four years since the first World Cup. Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket had challenged the assumptions upon which the game was run, for the better. Packer won the war; shortly before the start of the 1979 World Cup the Australian Board of Control gave the TV rights for cricket in Australia to his Channel Nine, which retains them to this day.

The World Cup did not escape the fallout from cricket's war. England and Australia did not select any World Series players, which meant that the Kent trio of Underwood, Knott and Woolmer were absent, which was England's loss (though Knott only played the first half of the season, keeping a place warm for Paul Downton, who was at Exeter University).

Australia went out at the group stage, but England reached the final to meet the defending champions. In a recent TV interview Clive Lloyd explained how much the West Indies had benefitted from World Series Cricket. Kerry Packer demanded fitness and a professional approach in return for his large cheques, and this got the most out of the abundant raw talent of the islands.

It helped that in place was the first version of the pace-bowling quartet on which the West Indies domination of world cricket for the next decade was based. The thinking speed of Andy Roberts and Mikey Holding was supplemented by Joel Garner, who that day revealed his ability to bowl yorkers to order, and Colin Croft, who made up for lack of art by giving the impression of being just a bit psycho.

England was fortunate that the loss of the World Series players had coincided with the emergence of the gifted trio of Gooch, Botham and Gower. And the captain was Mike Brearley, the cleverest man on the planet.

Things went well for England early on. The Nijinsky of the covers, Derek Randall, ran out Gordon Greenidge (whether the reference to Nijinsky is taken as being to the dancer or the racehorse, it is apt). A fine pair of bowlers, Mike Hendrick and Chris Old accounted for Desmond Haynes, Alvin Kallicharran and – a good low caught-and-bowled by Old – Clive Lloyd. Four world-class batsmen gone, and the West Indies had not reached a hundred.

But Viv Richards was still there, and it was his day. The young fielder who turned the 1975 final had become the finest batsmen in the world, the greatest I have seen. Today he would score the first of three centuries in Lord's finals. Richards batted there as if Thomas Lord had gone to the trouble of establishing his ground so that a couple of hundred years later Viv Richards would have somewhere worthy of him to play. That he was the last specialist batsman left was irrelevant to him. He settled in and began to play shots all round the ground.

At the other end was Collis King, an English sort of player in that he wasn't quite international class either as a batsman or bowler. In 1979 he was in the middle of an unremarkable career consisting of a handful of Tests and ODIs and a few seasons' county cricket with Glamorgan and Worcestershire. Nothing memorable, except for his innings today.

After playing himself in, King began to hit out, successfully and spectacularly, to the tune of 86 from 66 balls. As always when writing about the one-day game of this era the point must be made that there were no fielding restrictions whatsoever. There would have been seven boundary fielders once King got going, so hitting ten fours and three sixes past them took a bit of doing.

It was the only time I can recall Richards being outscored, a situation he accepted with sense and dignity, giving King the strike and licence he needed to make the most of his moment in the sun.

When King was out, caught on the boundary, Richards resumed, and it was batting of mass destruction. Watching the England bowlers in the last overs of the West Indian innings was useful for a history student as it provided an insight into what it must have been like for the Light Brigade as it rode stoically into the Valley of Death, its fate inevitable.

There's a wonderful piece of commentary by Richie Benaud on this stage of the game. Hendrick bowls and is still following through when he realises that Richards has driven the ball straight, very hard, and at head height. Hendrick's hand moves towards the line of the ball, but self-preservation kicks in and he ducks as the ball sears past, crashing into the pavilion fence a second later. “Very wise” said Benaud. “Who wants to be a hero at this stage of the game?”

I am second to none in my admiration for Mike Brearley's captaincy, but he was not infallible, and presumably had a hand in the decision to replace the injured Willis with an extra batsman and to try to get away with the trundling trio of Gooch, Larkins and Boycott as fifth bowler. They went for 86 between them and bore the brunt of Collis King's onslaught.

But Brearley did provoke a collective gasp as he ran 40 yards to hold on to a Holding skyer at full speed, a moment unfortunately omitted from the highlights package shown before the recent World Cup.

So England had to chase 286, a total rarely achieved even over 60 overs in those times, with Brearley and Boycott to open. Those were two names that could stand to represent the contrasts of English cricket. The southern gentleman and the northern player; the public school and Cambridge-educated captain and the graduate of the university of hard knocks senior pro. What they had in common was that neither of them could unshackle themselves from their orthodoxy to score at the rate required to make 287 achievable.

Both had had days where inhibition was lost. Famously, Boycott had lashed Surrey round Lord's for 146 in the 1965 Gillette Cup final. Captaining MCC Under-25s in Pakistan, Brearley scored 312 in a day at Peshawar in 1967, against an attack including Intikhab Alam (the Taleban still speak of it with wonder, as they sit around their camp fires up by the North-West Frontier). Not today though. Boycott treasured his wicket too much, and Brearley didn't have the technique.

There was no powerplay in those days, so the England supporters were at first sanguine at the slow start. But Boycott did not get into double figures until the seventeenth over, by which time the voices calling on the West Indies quicks to knock their heads off were as replete with plummy home counties vowels as they were with the cadence of the Caribbean.

At about the halfway stage a chance was offered to Clive Lloyd, which he juggled and dropped. The feeling on the day was that Lloyd – still one of the best fielders in the game – had spilled it deliberately so as to prolong the torpor. I was pleased to see on the recent highlights package that this was not so, as it took all of Lloyd's six foot five inches of athleticism to reach it, but it would have been a reasonable approach.

When the partnership finally ended almost eight an over were needed. A couple of weeks ago a writer (I forget who) discussed the composition of England's current ODI team. He argued that Cook and Strauss could not open together as “it would be too much like Boycott and Brearley”. The scars are deep indeed.

Randall and Gooch made a brave attempt to keep up, but Garner finished the match with five wickets for four runs in 11 balls and West Indies retained the trophy. None of us at Lord's that day would have believed that, 32 years later, the Caribbean islands would not have won a third time.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Professor Matthew Engel

Here's a treat:


To his great surprise, Matthew Engel was invited to become the News International Visiting Professor of Media at Oxford University, in which capacity he delivered a series of lectures entitled Please, mister, can we have our ball back? Sport, the media, and the people earlier this year. The link leads to the text of the lectures.

I have made plain in other posts my admiration for Engel's writing. He became the cricket correspondent of The Guardian in 1982, after impressing on the county circuit (The Times for Gibson or The Guardian for Engel was a taxing choice for a young student in the early eighties).

From 1987 he divided his time between sport and the rest of the world, including a spell on The Guardian's Washington desk. He follows in the tradition of Cardus, Arlott and Alan Ross in being better known to some readers for his writing on other subjects, though he found time to drag the Wisden Almanack into the modern era. He edited 12 editions in two spells, and improved the quality of the writing in the good book considerably. Nowadays, his journalism is found in the Financial Times, which has a pay fence with lots of holes in it rather than a paywall, so it is easy enough to keep up with him.

So Engel is a splendid choice for an Oxford Chair, if unlikely one for a Murdoch-funded office. When I attended a sportswriting workshop Engel ran at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 1995 he was very much of the he-is-the-devil's-spawn school of thought on Murdoch and his influence on the British media. His view has mellowed into ambivalence: he is for paywalls and admires the success of the British version of Sky TV, while regretting the extent to which some sports administrators are in thrall to it.

Engel identifies other reasons for his being an appropriate choice for an Oxford professorship:

My hair is often rumpled, my clothes a bit askew, my jacket a bit shabby. I have a taste for obscure lines of enquiry. I am hopelessly absent-minded. I am secretly addicted to pointless political intrigues, which I’m told would make me feel at home in any senior common room in Oxford. And most of the time, nobody knows what on earth I’m talking about.
 In the lectures he traces the relationship between sport and the media from cave paintings onwards, outing Homer as a bad sports reporter along the way. He shows how mutually beneficial this relationship has been:
Cricket in particular was a media creation: newspapers, not the MCC, created the concepts of the County Championship, Test matches and the Ashes.
He reminds us how important the game was to the Murdoch when it appeared that Sky TV could bring News International crashing down in the early 90s. The first big spike in the sale of dishes preceded the beginning of football's Premier League by six months: it was the 1992 cricket World Cup. Engel quotes David Elstein, an early Sky head of programmes, as saying “that’s when Surrey discovered Sky”. Before then, a dish was not something that a respectable home would have attached to it.

Engel makes the point that cricket is ideally suited to pay TV, which has hours to fill, and less so to the constricted free-to-air schedules, which have so many demands upon them. Even so, he regrets that cricket, alone of significant British sports, has removed itself entirely from live free-to-air coverage. Evidence that he is right to worry about the consequences of this is already apparent. There was nothing like the public interest in the 2009 Ashes series that there had been in 2005, when key passages of play enthralled the country.

I suggest a solution that I have not seen proposed anywhere else: that play after lunch on the Saturday or Sunday of every Test should be shown on a free-to-air channel (probably the one showing highlights), along with a couple of ODIs every summer. That would allow the general public to recognise the players at least, but would not be enough to dissuade viewers from subscribing to Sky, so would not significantly reduce the amount on the Murdoch cheque.

Engel suggests that TV is responsible for sport being got out of proportion these days. He contrasts the response to the England football team's victory in the 1966 World Cup – which the country's biggest-selling newspaper the Daily Mirror did not feature on the front or back page on the following Monday – with the hysterical, see-pages-1-to-26 reaction to success or failure that is routine these days (he cites Paul Collingwood's MBE for 17 runs at the Oval in 2005 in support: case closed). He says that the recent experience of war 45 years ago meant that people had a sense of perspective and knew how unimportant sport actually was.

Use the link to enjoy the lectures.

There's another Matthew Engel piece that is required reading (but it comes with a resilience-required warning):


It is an account of the terminal illness and death of his 13-year-old son Laurie in 2005. Of course, a writer of moderate talent could produce a tearjerker from such subject matter; but only a great journalist could write a piece of such honesty, wit and humanity.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Harold Larwood" and "A Last English Summer" by Duncan Hamilton

Duncan Hamilton has emerged as one of cricket's most important writers. Until four years ago he was unknown except to readers of the Nottingham Evening Post and the Yorkshire Post, the papers he worked for in a thirty-year career as a provincial journalist. For the former, he reported on Nottingham Forest FC for more than a decade, observing at close quarters the progress of the club's manager Brian Clough from eccentric genius to drunken legend. Hamilton's first book was an account of these years and it won the Sports Book of the Year prize for 2007.

He then turned to cricket (his first love, one suspects), but stuck with the theme of Nottingham heroes, with the 2009 biography of Harold Larwood, the great fast bowler. It also won the Sports Book of the Year Award, making Hamilton only the second double winner, after Donald McRae, who writes mostly about boxing. He followed Harold Larwood with A Last English Summer, a journey through the 2009 English cricket season.

Both books have been on my must-read list for a while and just when I was on the point of resorting to Amazon for one or the other I found both on the shelves of Wellington's splendid Central Library.

Harold Larwood tells one of cricket's most famous stories. Larwood came from the traditional source of fast bowlers in northern England: the pit. He became the fastest bowler in the country and led the attack in the Bodyline Ashes series of 1932/3. Others bowled bodyline – a systematic attack on the batsman's body, with a ring of close catchers on the legside waiting for a deflection as he fended the ball off – but Larwood did so with unequalled speed and accuracy, and that's what caused all the fuss. The Australians were outraged, the public schoolboys who ran the game in England, embarrassed. Larwood, who had simply followed the instructions of his captain Douglas Jardine, became the fall guy.

They even asked him to sign a letter of apology. His mother told him that he would never see her alive if he signed it, which he didn't, but the pressure weighed him down.He never played Test cricket again, and Hamilton shows us Larwood's torment as he spent the next decade or more hiding from the nonsense that Bodyline generated. Hamilton resists the temptation to express his own outrage at the injustices done to Larwood, but tells the story in an understated way that leaves the reader to become angry on his behalf.

The portrayal of incidental figures is strong. It was fascinating to learn how Nottinghamshire's coach Jimmy Iremonger turned the scrawny, five-foot-seven Larwood into one of the fastest bowlers the game has seen. With his strong emphasis on physical fitness, Iremonger was decades ahead of his time, except that his favoured energy drink came in pint glasses with froth on top.

The villains are Sir Pelham Warner and Sir Donald Bradman. Warner was the England manager and appears here two-faced and weaselling. He was knighted in 1937, as Larwood, who he had hung out to dry, faded from the game, to the relief of Warner's fellow Lord's grandees, who were pleased to be rid of an embarrassment.

Jardine (who Larwood revered to the end) adopted bodyline to nullify Bradman, who, alone among the bowler's Australian adversaries, remained cool towards him, and failed to offer any assistance to Larwood when he emigrated to Sydney in 1951. This was in contrast to Jack Fingleton, whose tracking down of Larwood to a backstreet Blackpool sweetshop I have written about:


Hamilton says that the former Australian opener's intervention was more decisive than Fingleton himself described, suggesting that far from building upon an existing notion, it was this visit that set Larwood thinking about emigration to the place where he had been public enemy No 1 less than twenty years before, and where he lived happily for the last four decades of his life.

The book is meticulously researched and has not only a detailed index, but also (and I can't remember when I last came across one in a sports book) a bibliography (so does A Last English Summer).

For me, only David Foot's Harold Gimblett: Tormented Genius of Cricket had passed the ultimate test for a first-rate cricket biography: that it could be enjoyed by a reader without an interest in the game, but Harold Larwood does so too .

A Last English Summer was inspired by Geoffrey Moorhouse's similar account of the 1978 season The Best Loved Game, which I was rather underwhelmed by:


Hamilton's journey is much more to my liking, partly because he is about my age, and we share memories, such as watching Derek Underwood bowl out Australia in grainy black and white at the Oval in 1968. Both of us were drawn to the game by early exposure to the vibrant play of the West Indies. Like mine, his childhood was spent in the shadow of a speech impediment, and I suspect that for both of us cricket grounds were places of sanctuary.

Hamilton appreciates the importance of ritual in cricket. He gets the beginning and end of the season spot on, starting at Lord's for MCC versus the champion county (a game played in Abu Dhabi for the last two years, which alleviates the early-season frostbite, at least), and ending, as I so often did, at Canterbury.

At Lord's he captures the suppressed excitement of the devotee at the start of the season and understands that it is really relief at having made it through another winter.

In September at the St Lawrence Ground he ignores the meaningless 40-over game being played, finding more interest in the Chevallier Taylor painting of Blythe bowling to Tyldesley in 1906 that hangs in the pavilion, a copy now, as the original has been flogged off to ease the county's penury. Something that non-cricket folk do not grasp is how tangential to a good day at the cricket the actual game can be.

Each chapter is an essay replete with pertinent observation and fine writing. There are always two stories to be told: one on the field of play and one off, of which the latter is the more important. Thus a visit to the Cheltenham Festival becomes a polemic in favour of cricket at out grounds. Graham Onions is described as having the appearance of “an estate agent on his morning off”.

At first many of his opinions appear typical of a cricket person of his (my) age, but he is much more aware. He mocks the snooty attitudes of EW Swanton and JM Kilburn to 40-over Sunday county cricket when it appeared in 1969 – he enjoyed this form of the game as I did, even though we both appreciated its limitations – only to ingeniously turn his argument upon himself when he realises that the objections of the old men are precisely those he has against T20. Nevertheless, when he laments T20, he speaks for me.

I particularly enjoyed his dislike of the games of football that seem central to the warm-up routines:

I long for a Saturday afternoon when I turn up at Old Trafford or Anfield and watch Manchester United and Liverpool pitch two sets of stumps and arrange a 5-4 field in the penalty area for a half-hour of cricket before a Premier League game.
Everywhere he goes, Hamilton takes a sense of history with him. At Trent Bridge he begins with a photo of WG Grace and the England team taken during the Grand Old Man's last test, and finishes with a spectacular piece of fielding by Angelo Matthews of Sri Lanka in the World T20 game he is watching, barely twenty yards from the site of the photo. No game has changed more than cricket without becoming something else altogether. WG would recognise T20 as a game of cricket while being astonished at most aspects of it, notably the fielding. Hamilton skilfully celebrates the continuity that cricket sustains.

A visit to the Ashes test at Edgbaston begins miles away, at the grave of Edmund Peate, whose dismissal to a reckless shot concluded the Oval Test of 1882, England's defeat prompting the mock obituary in the Sporting Times which initiated the Ashes legend. He day he chooses to visit Edgbaston is wet, so he has plenty of time to regret that a day at the Test in Birmingham in particular is an occasion for drunks to behave objectionably.

I do have a gripe with the book, bearing in mind that it was written by an experienced sub-editor. There are too many mistakes that should have been picked up by proficient proofreading and fact-checking. Mark Wagh (the Warwickshire/Notts batsman, not the Australian), Sir Frank Worrell, Nigel Llong, Ed Giddins and Chris Gayle all have their names misspelled. He has Dominic Cork taking his Test hat-trick in 1993 (two years early), and Keith Miller scoring a double century at Worcester in 1952 (in which case he was playing for the Indians).

But these are trivial matters and do not impinge upon enjoyment of a substantial contribution to cricket literature. I look forward to much more from Duncan Hamilton in years to come.

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 ...