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.

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