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.

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 ...