Monday, July 2, 2012

Trophies and Tribulations – Forty Years of Kent Cricket by Clive Ellis and Mark Pennell

We were like the young men of Europe in the high summer of 1914, going home after a day in the sun, oblivious to the misery about to spread itself across the decades to come.

It was 9 September 1979, around 7 pm. We Kent supporters were making our way from the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury. The team had lost the final Sunday League game of the season, to Middlesex. Somerset beat Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, so it was Brian Rose of Somerset rather than our own Alan Ealham who received the trophy.

We were disappointed, but not downcast. There had been ten trophies in the seventies, and there was no reason to think that the eighties would be any less rewarding. The odd loss like today’s merely sharpened expectation of the next, inevitable, triumph. Not one of those people walking down the Old Dover Road that evening believed that the day would be long delayed.

What fools we were.

It was 16 years until a Kent captain raised a trophy aloft once more, and the 33 years that have passed by since that September evening have reaped the paltry harvest of two Sunday Leagues and a T20. The big prizes – a Lord’s final win and the Championship – have been entirely elusive.

For many years I thought that there should be a book that explained all this, and in 2010 it came along: Trophies and Tribulations – Forty Years of Kent Cricket by Clive Ellis and Mark Pennell. Ellis was a supporter through the glory years before joining the Daily Telegraph sports staff. Mark Pennell covered almost every game that Kent played between 1993 and 2008 for the Kent Messenger and now heads a sports reporting agency that performs heroic work in keeping county cricket in the public eye.

After a perfunctory survey of the first century or so of the club’s history, the authors adopt a season-by-season format starting in 1967, the year Gillette Cup became the first prize won since the First World War. Ellis deals with the first 26 seasons; Pennell takes up the narrative from 1993 to 2009. The quality of the writing deteriorates with the handover; Pennell’s first paragraph would be a worth a punt in a cliché-writing contest:

The Garden of England was transformed into a cricketing hot-bed [sic] when Kent’s team of the ‘glory years’ reaped 11 titles in 12 golden summers.

He might have checked the precise meaning of “hotbed” before embarking on the gardening metaphor too. The word would more appropriately apply to more recent periods in the county’s history, dependent on significant quantities of manure as hotbeds are. And wrapping a cliché in single quotes merely draws attention to it.

The book’s great contribution to Kent’s history is the information that emerges from interviews with surviving players and officials. The candour that comes with passing of time illuminates several murky corners, and takes us a considerable way towards answering the big question that could be the book’s alternative title: what went wrong? The chronological structure of the book means that the authors do not always organise the evidence they present into themes that cross the years, but it is laid out clearly, allowing readers to join the dots easily enough.

The retirement of Les Ames from full-time administration in 1974 was a crucial turning point. As secretary-manager, Ames had led the club from mediocrity to the top of the county game. One of Kent and England’s great players, Ames’ reputation, strength of character and good judgment enabled him, the ex-professional, to protect the county to a good extent from the meddling of the elected amateurs on the committee.

With Ames gone there was no counterbalance. The grey men were able to mess things up. It should surprise few that Ellis and Pennell point to the committee room as the source of strife, but interesting that the Band of Brothers – the wandering club side to which many of the county’s establishment belong – emerges as the Opus Dei of Kent cricket, emerging from the murk every few years to finish off another captain.

Chief villain is EW (Jim) Swanton, who retired in 1975 as cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, from which position he had become the Cardinal Richelieu of English cricket. At his funeral the former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie said “Jim was not a man plagued by self-doubt”. Swanton devoted the last two decades of his life to interfering in Kent’s affairs, to an extent, according to Ellis and Pennell, that was breathtaking. In 1996, as Matt Walker was about to overtake Frank Woolley’s St Lawrence record score of 270, Swanton is said to have stormed into the dressing room demanding a declaration so that his hero’s landmark would remain intact.

Of course, the membership has to take the blame for electing Swanton and the rest of the committee in the first place. Edmund Burke – MP for Bristol, so a wise man – might have had Kent County Cricket Club in mind when he wrote:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

For some time, asterisks appeared on the ballot paper next to the names of the candidates for election to the committee that the committee itself favoured. A clearer admission of corruption it is hard to imagine, but there are flocks of sheep that are free-thinking iconoclasts in comparison with the Kent membership of the eighties, of whom few followed my practice of voting only for those not supported by the self-perpetuating elite.

The first sign of how devastating the impact of Ames’ departure was to be came in 1976 with the sacking as captain of Mike Denness. At the time this was incomprehensible to most supporters. After all, there were two trophies in the cabinet at the end of that season, and Denness left for Essex, making it clear that it was a sacking, not a resignation. Denness says here that the whole affair would have been managed much better had Ames still been in charge.

Despite his great success in terms of winning trophies, Denness had always had mixed reviews as captain, inside the dressing room and in the stands. Bob Woolmer, for example, wrote in his autobiography Pirate and Rebel (or rather, his ghost wrote) that Denness was the best one-day captain that he played under, but that Denness’s communication let him down in the first-class game. It was in that knowledge of views such as these were held by some of the team that Denness himself raised the possibility of his standing down in favour of Graham Johnson for the 1977 season. This idea soon gained a life of its own, and a few weeks later Denness was invited to take the revolver into the library and do the decent thing.

Asif Iqbal, not Johnson, took over, led the side to a share of the Championship and was sacked because of his involvement with World Series Cricket. Bizarre as this now seems, in the context of the apoplectic reaction of the English game to Kerry Packer and his plans, it was to be expected. The real surprise was that Alan Ealham was chosen to succeed him.

There were several candidates who appeared more likely. Woolmer had also signed with the Great Satan, so was not considered. As vice-captain, Johnson might have been expected preferment. Here, he says that he was seen as being a bit bolshie, based on not much more than having been a student at the London School of Economics when it was the centre of sixties radicalism. Ealham fairly points out that Johnson had not played well in 1977. There are people reading this blog who hold to this day the belief that the loveliness of Johnson’s eyes were grounds enough for giving him whatever he wanted.[1]

John Shepherd also believed that he should have got the job. Like Johnson, he would have done it very well. “I don’t know whether Kent were ready for a black captain” Ellis quotes him as saying. I believe that members of the committee were capable of holding just about any prejudice going in late-seventies Britain (several of them will have been rotating steadily in their graves when Shep became President of the club last year), but I think that the more influential stereotype in operation here may have been that bowlers do not make good captains. There may have also been the feeling that Shepherd and Johnson were both their own men to an extent that the committee would have been uncomfortable with, while Ealham had more old-fashioned loyalty about him, so would be more pliable.

As it was the Championship was won in 1978, and 1979 was not such a bad year (though we might have spotted the all-out-for-60 rout at Taunton in the Gillette Cup quarter-final as a sign of the coming apocalypse), so none of us were thinking about ditching the skipper as we walked disconsolately down the Old Dover Road that September Sunday evening. But 1980 was horrendous, quite as bad as any recent season, and at its end Ealham was gone. In the circumstances, this was an understandable decision; it was the shabby treatment of the ex-captain the following year that revealed those in charge to be clueless about how to value people. Despite still having plenty to offer as a player, Ealham was hardly picked at all in 1981.

Bob Woolmer would have been the right choice, but instead they went back to Asif Iqbal, much more popular with the supporters, but then reaching the end of a distinguished Kent career. Asif is quoted here as believing that he should have retired at the end of the 1980 season. The speculation about his successor began at once. Much of the 1982 season became an extended trial between the two contenders, Chris Cowdrey and Chris Tavaré who were joint vice-captains (which Cowdrey calls “a strange decision, and a bad one”).

The account of the damaging way in which this situation was handled is related here much as we perceived it at the time. For genetic reasons Cowdrey was the man the committee room and the Band of Brothers marquee favoured, but his form was not good enough to guarantee him a place in the side, so they gave the job to Tavaré.

The first two years of what we hoped would be the Tavaré era were trophyless, but promising, with two Gillette Cup final defeats and improved performances in the championship. Had one more Glamorgan wicket be taken in the final game of the season, Kent would have finished third. What is more, despite his studious demeanour Tavaré had the dressing room behind him (there were stories of the players willingly crawling round ancient pavilions in search of insects for their captain – an Oxford zoology graduate with a speciality in entomology – to identify and dissect) and was popular with the supporters.

So they sacked him, obviously.

The most commonly offered explanation was that Tavaré had paid for mishandling Derek Underwood in both the Lord’s final defeats. As far as 1983 goes, the accusation is groundless. Cowdrey, brought on for an over or two, did well and was kept on, finishing with two for 29 from ten overs. If anything, this was a sign of alert, flexible captaincy. It was the batting that lost that game, not the bowling.

In 1984, Underwood was taken off with three overs left to bowl at a time when Middlesex were struggling to stay in the game. I felt at the time that this was a mistake, and indeed when Underwood returned to the attack he was not so effective. But that was one error in two very positive seasons.

My theory was that Tavaré’s fate was sealed at Lord’s a week before the Gillette final. Against a weak Sri Lankan Test attack he laboured painfully from lunch to tea on Saturday for just 14. David Gower, the England captain, was moved to apologise at the close of play for the stultifying nature of the cricket. Before that, it had been expected that Tavaré would be Gower’s deputy in India that winter; after it, he was not picked at all. I felt at the time that Kent would not have had the nerve to have sacked the England vice-captain. But according to Ellis, the decision had been taken some weeks before, so neither Lord’s Saturday made a difference. It was a decision taken without consultation with the manager, Brian Luckhurst, or senior players such as Derek Underwood and Alan Knott. The Kent committee room was the only place in the cricketing world that would not have regarded these two great players as being worth listening to.

So Chris Cowdrey was Kent captain and the stripy-tie brigade congratulated themselves on restoring the natural order. But it was a palace, not a popular, revolution, and the manner of the succession meant that Cowdrey was never fully accepted by some supporters (including myself and my wise friend Allen Hunt), and not by some of the team. One of the many fascinating revelations in the book is Cowdrey’s account of his first team meeting as skipper. “Possibly the most senior player in the dressing room”, which has to be either Underwood or Knott, neither of whom was ever a member of the awkward squad, “…told me he didn’t want to come in” because of the way in which Tavaré had been treated.

We sceptics were never persuaded from our view that the committee had replaced General Montgomery with Field-Marshall Haig. Terry Alderman agreed with us. I know this because I was part of a group talking to him in the Hammond Room bar at Bristol in 1988, while he was having a season with Gloucestershire. Alderman had been asked by a committee man during his second season with Kent in 1986 where the county was going wrong. “Simple”, he had replied, “you’ve got the wrong captain”. Cowdrey now agrees.

It’s hard to say they made the wrong decision to appoint me as captain, but I think they did.

The book does not make quite enough of the quantity of talent lost by Kent in these years. Laurie Potter, who had managed to captain both England and Australia at under-19 level, was seen more as a slow bowler than the fine batsman he might have become, and left for Leicestershire. Derek Aslett, leading scorer in both seasons under Tavaré, faded quickly under Cowdrey and, on Cowdrey’s call, was released in 1987. Oddest of the lot was the decision to release Eldine Baptiste as overseas player in 1987. Baptiste had performed handily since making his debut in 1981, averaging 30 with the bat and slightly less with the ball; a true all-rounder. He performed with obvious enthusiasm and commitment throughout. This was said to be part of a damn-fool move to build a squad consisting entirely of Kent-born or educated players. This at a time when even Yorkshire was close to abandoning its nineteenth-century stance on the origin of its players. In the event, he was replaced by Roy Pienaar, a classy batsman and trundling bowler, Hartley Alleyne, one of the worst-performing overseas players the county has had, and later by Tony Merrick, who was leading wicket-taker in 1991, but no batsman and a reasonable impersonator of a medium-sized shed in the outfield.

Since Cowdrey’s resignation in 1990, the county has shown much more wisdom in its choice of captain, and has usually picked the right (or at least most obvious) man at the right time, and given them the time to improve in post, though Matthew Fleming has an interesting take on his two immediate predecessors.

If we could have found a captain who was a combination of Benson and Marsh, it could have been a great side. But Benny was too quiet and though Marshy was aggressive and pugnacious there was always an element to him.
The club is fortunate to have had Rob Key as captain during the last few, difficult years. He could easily have gone elsewhere and is unlucky to have played in the only era in English cricket in which a degree of portliness was not considered a virtue in a Test player.

At the end of the book both authors pick their best side from the four decades or so in question, and irritate this reader no end in doing so. For a start, they get the selection criteria wrong. Martin van Jaarsveld is deemed to be England-qualified (only one overseas player is allowed), but John Shepherd is not. Yet Shepherd was certainly England-qualified in his final few years in Kent; he went to Gloucestershire on that basis. At least Ellis picks Shepherd. Pennell’s incomprehensible choice as overseas player, and (you’ll need to sit down at this point) captain is Steve Waugh. Yes, the Steve Waugh who played all of four games for Kent, not one of them as captain (though Waugh did become the first Canterbury-born player to be capped by Kent, though the Canterbury in question is a suburb of Sydney). Surely any compilation Kent team must be picked solely on the basis of performances for the county. If not, I nominate WG Grace in my all-time Kent team. Grace played once as a guest for Kent in 1877, scoring 50 in his single innings. This gave him the highest career average of any Kent batsman until Aravinda de Silva came along 118 years later.

And who does Pennell reckon a better middle-order batsman than Colin Cowdrey, Mike Denness or Chris Tavaré? Why, Trevor Ward of course. I enjoyed Ward’s batting too, but that he never got close to an England cap at a time when mediocrity was not a barrier to selection says it all.

Both authors pick Key and van Jaarsveld, which, having seen too little of either batsman, I won’t quibble with. Mike Denness was very good though, and remember to add ten to the averages of batsmen who played mostly on uncovered pitches.

But enough carping. Trophies and Tribulations is an invaluable resource for Kent historians and answers a good many questions that have troubled some of us for too long. It is well-produced too, even if the picture of the fallen lime tree on page 253 is back to front. Ellis and Pennell are to be congratulated and thanked.

[1] A question beyond the scope of this discussion is how did Johnson never play for England when Geoff “Thriller” Miller did so on 34 occasions?

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

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