Monday, August 27, 2012

Kent v Leicestershire, Gillette Cup quarter-final, Canterbury, 31 July 1974

It is always cheering to wake up in the Wellington chill to news that the old county has won overnight. This has happened pleasingly often recently, particularly in the Sunday League (as my Blean Correspondent and I still choose to refer to 40-over cricket).  Six wins in a row have taken Kent to the top of their group with one match to play. That will be against Sussex, who are just a point behind. So it will, almost, amount to a quarter-final at the St Lawrence Ground on Bank Holiday Monday. Almost, because the best second-placed team will join the three group winners in the semi-final draw, and my calculations (not always a reliable guide) suggest that the defeat would have to be huge for Kent to be pushed out of this position.

I hope that the ground will be full, just as it was in the glory days. Let us select a scorecard from July 1974 by way of illustration. Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, Richard Nixon was about to resign from the White House, George Macrae’s Rock Your Baby was No 1, and Kent played Leicestershire in the quarter-final of the Gillette Cup.

The two counties had already contested a quarter-final at Canterbury that year, in the 55-over competition. Leicestershire won that one. They batted first and reached 238 for six, a reasonable score for the time. Barry Dudleston’s 79 was the top score, his partnership with Brian Davison of 98 from 18 overs the heart of the innings. Dudleston was to become my personal ski instructor a decade or so later, but that’s a story for another day.

It was a school day, so I saw none of that, arriving hotfoot down the Nackington Road in mid-afternoon to be told by a collective groan that things were not going well. You can read the noise of a cricket crowd quite easily if you have been in enough of them and there was no mistaking that this was a “God there’s another one gone” groan: Kent were 12 for three.

Brian Luckhurst was steadfast at one end, but wickets kept falling at the other. Some hope was retrieved when Bernard Julien was promoted to No 7 and shared a partnership of 87 with Luckhurst at a reasonable pace. It was the only time I can remember Julien being given any responsibility with the bat and the result suggests that it might have been done more often. He had scored a quick hundred in a Test at Lord’s the previous year, after all. But there was talent everywhere in the Kent order in those days, and Julien at No 7 meant that Bob Woolmer, who was to score a Test hundred against Australia the following year, was down at No 9.

Luckhurst was out for 111 trying to hit the penultimate ball of the innings for six when ten were needed. He won the man-of-the-match award despite Graham McKenzie having taken five for 34, winning the game with decisive spells at either end of the innings. It’s a batsman’s game.

So seven weeks later the teams met again to contest another quarter-final, this time with 60 overs a side. That year, these two counties were the best in the country, at one-day cricket, at least. Just to make it even more interesting, there was the sub-text of Denness v Illingworth, the incumbent England captain against his predecessor. Raymond Illingworth had not been pleased by this turn of events and – I was to learn during the apr├Ęs-ski at a later date – was particularly keen to put one over on Kent. As we will see, it was not to be his day.

I was there by nine o’clock, but the cars would have been lining up down the Old Dover Road from daybreak, the first in observing the tradition of what John Arlott called “the Canterbury breakfast” by getting out the camping stoves and starting the sausages sizzling. By the time McKenzie bowled the first ball to Luckhurst at 11 o’clock the ground was full; Wisden gives the attendance as 12,000. It was the best day of a wet summer.

All day, there were echoes of the match a few weeks earlier. Again, Kent lost early wickets, starting with Graham Johnson. Colin Cowdrey came in at three. Cowdrey’s reputation as a fine batsman, but a cautious one led opposition supporters to expect him to block all day. In the 55-over final the previous year, there were jeers and laughter from some Worcestershire folk as he came to the middle with only a couple of overs to go. But he increased the scoring rate with shots so deft and well-weighted that he scored two from almost every ball he faced, even with the field back in those pre-circle restriction days. He was puffed at the end though.

By the way, guess where Cowdrey often fielded in one-day cricket. At backward point. So did Norman Graham. It was where the captain hid his slow fielders. A generation later and it had become the place from where Jonty Rhodes, Paul Collingwood and the other guns leapt, dived and threw the stumps down.

This day was not Colin Cowdrey’s. He was out for a duck and Kent were 22 for two. That was where our anxiety peaked for the day, as Mike Denness joined Luckhurst for a partnership of 149. One of the great pleasures for Kent supporters was to watch these two bat together. They complimented each other so well, Luckhurst strong on the onside, Denness on the off. Almost a decade of opening the batting together had given them the trust and understanding that made them thieves of a quick single, two baseball batters stealing base at the same time. There was no calling to alert the opposition to their mischief either; no need when both knew what the other was thinking.

When Denness went for 72, Alan Ealham came in to rev things up. When people look at the Kent line-up in the seventies they might wonder how Ealham came to have a regular place in a team that otherwise comprised international players, and how he went in above Knott, Shepherd, Woolmer and Julien for many years. His career figures – an average of 28 with only seven centuries in 16 seasons – are ordinary. They tell not a quarter of the story. Besides being the finest boundary fielder I have seen, he made his runs when they were most needed. Look through the scorecards and count how often his 50 or sixty was highest score in a low total, or, like today, when quickfire 40 was the difference between a gettable total and one that was beyond reach.

Ealham added 57 with Luckhurst (who finished with 125) then 42 in four overs with Knott. Illingworth drew much of the fire, conceding 23 from one over and finishing with the figures of 12 overs, no maidens, 76 runs and no wickets. Mention Illingworth (and it should be made clear that he was a fine cricketer and one of England’s best captains) to my Blean correspondent or myself to this day and we will intone these figures with the seriousness of a Buddhist monk teaching the eightfold path.

Kent’s total of 295 disappeared over Leicestershire’s horizon thanks to parsimonious use of the new ball by Graham and Shepherd. Brian Davison gave them hope with a splendidly aggressive 82. He hit Derek Underwood for 18 in one over, as many as the great man ever went for I would think. It was good to see Davison featured on the Tasmanian avenue of fame at the Bellerive Oval a few weeks ago. He had a few years at Bristol when he was past his best, as so many did. When he was out, that was effectively it, and the final margin of victory was 66 runs.

I hope that the modern Kent team go into their big match with something of the confidence of their predecessors from 40 years ago. They could do with a Luckhurst or an Underwood of course, but Rob Key would have had a place in that great team, there is exciting young talent (I’d love to see young Sam Billings bat) and a few Alan Ealham types who can make a difference on the day. I’ll be up early to see how they get on.

Update: I said that only a huge defeat could exclude Kent from the semi-final, and so it was, by 9 wickets with ten overs to spare.


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 ...