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:

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