Friday, December 27, 2013

Wellington v Canterbury, Plunket Shield, Karori Park, 20 – 23 December 2013

There were three games of cricket played on Karori Park last Saturday morning. Two, both between teams of eleven year olds, were attended by enthusiastic crowds of twenty or so. Half-an-hour into play your correspondent constituted a third of the crowd at the other match, a game of first-class cricket between the historic provinces of Wellington and Canterbury, a fixture contested regularly for 140 years or so, now ignored in the corner of a public park.

For unknown reasons the Basin Reserve was unavailable, so to Wellington’s western suburbs we came. In the afternoon a match was played on the adjoining block between two men’s teams, the boundaries within five metres or so of overlapping. This was not the only new experience to add to my lifetime of cricket watching; the bails were dispensed with for the first half of the second day, which did nothing to disperse the aura of rusticity that enveloped the game. It was certainly blustery, but no more so than on any number of days during the average summer in Wellington. Let us hope that the Wellington Cricket Association found two sets of lignite bails in its Christmas stocking.

For all this, I enjoyed my two days at Karori Park hugely and came to the view that it is a better venue for Plunket Shield cricket than the Basin. It is attractive, with hills on two sides of the park, big ones to the west. I was put in mind of the Pen-y-Pound ground in Abergavenny, which is overlooked by Sugar Loaf Mountain (which is merely a big hill—the Welsh are a small race, unduly impressed by elevation).  There is a good cafĂ© with top-class coffee on the boundary’s edge and, on Sunday at least, the cricket was the centre of attention, not a brief diversion for pedestrians and cyclists passing through.

And there is excellent trudging, the best I have encountered at a cricket ground. It is to trudging around cricket grounds that my Blean correspondent and myself attribute our fine athletic figures. There is a 1 km path around the edge of the park and another track leading off it that takes you up onto the hill to the north of the ground with the oval still in view.

Canterbury’s Tom Latham had batted through the first day to be 137 not out when I turned up for the start of the second day. He was still there on 241 when Canterbury declared at 471 for eight. This was the second-highest individual score I have ever seen, and a deal more entertaining than the agonisingly dull 275 that Daryll Cullinan subjected us to on Eden Park’s glued pitch in 1999.  

Latham’s innings was most impressive, particularly for one who came to attention as a short-form dasher. He was disciplined and displayed excellent shot selection. He gave just one chance on the second day, pulling hard to square leg off McKay. With nether Hamish Rutherford nor (especially) Peter Fulton making the Test opening positions their own, Latham must be close to preferment; the next cab off the rank certainly.

Wellington had to make 222 to avoid the follow-on. They raced away with 35 from the first seven overs, when it started to go awfully wrong. Stephen Murdoch was first to go, caught at second slip by Brownlie off Hamish Bennett. Grant Elliott followed in the same over, lbw not getting forward. Papps was caught behind off Logan van Beek in the next over. Pollard was bowled offering no shot to van Beek and when Woodcock went the same way as Murdoch, Wellington had lost five for 19 in six overs.

Luke Ronchi counter-attacked to the tune of 20 in 19 balls, an approach that was too risky in the circumstances. Ronchi has not made much of an impact in the New Zealand ODI team; BJ Watling would seem a more dependable option. Here, he was out with 138 still needed to avoid the follow-on and only four wickets left.

Marshalled by James Franklin, the tail became the Maquis to the top order’s retreating French army. Jeetan Patel made 40 in 102 minutes before being caught at backward point by Latham off Ellis from the last ball of the second day.

Andy McKay occupied the first half-hour of day three before giving way to Mark Gillespie, who batted with his normal pugnacious aggression but for rather longer than usual, reaching 78 from 77 balls. He fell 21 short of the follow-on target, leaving Brent Arnel to support Franklin.

This was the most gripping cricket of the two days I watched. If Wellington could scramble past the target their chances of saving the game would be greatly enhanced, with a slim chance of being offered a target on the last afternoon. But my, it was perplexing. One might think that with one wicket left to take, all out attack at both ends would be the ticket. This is not the modern way. Fielders—eight at one point— retreated en masse to the boundary when Franklin was on strike. As curiously, Franklin turned down the singles on offer even though Arnel showed himself capable of obdurate defence. The standoff continued for some time before Franklin settled matters with a couple of big strikes, one of which rattled the roof of one of the neighbouring houses. Franklin also brought up his century, a clever, careful innings that showed how much he has come on as a batsman.

That pretty well finished the match as a contest. Canterbury batted for almost three sessions without ever quite reaching the heady heights of three an over. The target of 395 in around 50 overs was no more than notional, and Murdoch’s 122-ball 17 (which I am relieved not to have seen) may have been way of protest. If so, it was misplaced. No team has a right to have a gettable target set in the fourth innings. The only way of ensuring that is to take 20 wickets.

So why did Canterbury not make a contest of it? A look at the Plunket Shield table provides the answer. Canterbury lead Wellington by 12 points, the very number available for a win. Why risk that lead against team that has demonstrated proficiency in chasing large targets this season? Against Central Districts 310 was achieved with time to spare, while in the earlier fixture against Canterbury they fell short of a target of 470 by only 11.

Also, the pitch remained as flat as Holland. The propensity for outgrounds to offer randomness as the game goes on has largely disappeared, which is a shame as entertaining cricket was often the consequence. As well as making the pitch worse, those in charge of Karori Park should improve the outfield which was funereally slow. This apart, watching first-class cricket there was thoroughly pleasant and I look forward to returning when Wellington play Northern Districts in February.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Kent v Lancashire, County Championship, St Lawrence Ground, 4th day, 27 September 2013

The day began with a pork pie avalanche and ended as one of the finest I have been privileged to witness in almost half a century of watching cricket at the St Lawrence Ground.

Beginning with the calamity amidst the cold meats. In the continued, lamentable, absence of Scotch eggs, I scoured Sainsbury’s shelves in search of an acceptable substitute. Identifying pork pies as fit for purpose, I took a packet of two from the top of the pile. No sooner was it in my hand than the one below, imperceptibly at first, began to slip towards the front of the shelf. This triggered movement in the pies on either side and beneath, and so on. I suspect the Sainsbury’s staff of having greased the packaging for their own diversion. In no time at all pork pies were cascading onto the speciality sausages below. It seemed that nothing could prevent the spread of the conflagration to the individual quiches. A vision of myself being dug out of a mountain of delicatessen products spurred me into action and by forming a barrier with an arm and both hands equilibrium was restored. At this point, as they used to say in the News of the World, I made my excuses and left.

That aside, the day was joyous. I moved upstairs in the Underwood and Knott Stand and discovered that padded seating had been installed, presumably using recycled padding that previously lined the walls of the committee room to ensure that EW Swanton did not harm himself while raging at a player not having his shirt tucked in, or something equally grievous. They were the most comfortable seats I have ever sat in at a cricket match.

At the start of the day Kent required 386 more with nine wickets remaining—actually eight, as Rob Key’s broken thumb meant that he was not at the ground. This against the runaway Division 2 champions. The hopelessness of the situation meant that those of us there before the start of play felt it necessary to excuse our presence to each other. “It is a nice day…we’re on our way somewhere…last day of the season…I live in New Zealand.” There was no need really. The joy of watching cricket on a perfect day was enough and nobody ever knows what winter will bring.

The wickets were expected to fall as swiftly as the pork pies. Brendan Nash was out in the second over, pushing forward at Jarvis to be caught behind. The top deck of the Underwood-Knott adjoins the home rooms, so I can report that, despite his West Indian status, Nash’s deployment of language remains that of his native Australia.
Ben Harmison made seven before playing back to a ball from Smith that kept low, to be trapped leg before. Sixty for three (four really) and plans were being made among the faithful to fill the afternoon.

At the other end Sam Northeast played fluently, and it was good to hear that he is staying with the county. It was a surprise when he was leg before to Luke Procter for 70, the batsman’s reaction communicating a belief that he had hit it. At this point 276 were needed with five fit wickets to fall. A mid-afternoon Lancashire victory seemed no less inevitable than it had at the start of play.

Sam Billings came out to join Darren Stevens, who had made more than Northeast in their 82-run partnership. I had been impressed with Stevens’ intelligent aggression a couple of weeks before, as he saved the game against Essex ( Now he bustled once more. There was a cloud over Stevens this blue-sky day; he is being investigated over shenanigans in that mighty contest the Bangladesh T20. Not, let’s be clear, for match-fixing or accepting a brown paper bag with that intent, but for failing to report a shady approach. The worst case outcome would make this day in the sun his last, but then he’s the sort of player who always plays that way anyway.
Billings supported Stevens well through a partnership of 71 in 17 overs until he chased a wide one from Smith to be caught behind by Davies. His self-recriminatory rant continued well after he returned to the rooms.  205 to win with only three fit men to follow the next man, 20-year-old Adam Ball.

Stevens reached his century by tapping a full toss precariously close to mid on, the only false shot of his innings. It came from 111 balls and was a masterclass in matching the right shot to the right ball.
It is hard to identify the moment when the flame of hope began to flicker. Perhaps when the score passed 300 with no further loss. Stevens slowed down a little in this phase; moving from 100 to 150 took 71 balls with only two fours. Ball moved along at a similar pace, making his first half-century in first-class cricket. The county has abundant young talent, if only it can protect it from bigger clubs with deeper pockets.

By now it was clear that a draw had become the least likely result. If Kent were not bowled out, they would win. On the upper deck we began to shuffle to towards the edge of our padded seats. Then, a slight commotion in the rooms. Rob Key had arrived, ready to bat if needed.

We should also be clear that Lancashire were, as the young people say, up for it. Had their fate depended on the result, it is probable that the young slow left-armer Parry would not have been kept on for so long, but any doubters should have noted an edginess among the fielders and how the quicks steamed in with the new ball. Besides, Lancashire would be unbeaten for the season if they stayed ahead here.

Ball was out leg before to Tom Smith for 69 with 57 still needed. Tredwell was next in on what turned out to be his last appearance as Kent captain. Stevens had gone up a gear, striking Smith for six over long on just as I was explaining to my Blean correspondent that they needed to be circumspect against the new ball. Stevens was working on the basis that the fewer balls Lancashire had left to bowl, the less chance there was of the bloke at the other end getting out. He got singles at will and unfailingly hit anything remotely loose to the boundary.

The eighth over with the new ball, bowled by Oliver Newby, was the most gripping of the day. Tredwell was caught by Smith from the second ball, and Mark Davies was leg before from the fifth. With 27 still needed, Rob Key walked to the middle, broken thumb protected as best it could be. Here was drama on a Shakesperian scale.  Every time the ball made contact with any part of the bat that was not the absolute middle Key recoiled in pain.

Stevens moved into finishing mode. Key made three from the 11 balls he faced; Stevens got the rest from just 12 balls. He ramped Jarvis for six, unconventional, but still the right shot for that ball, and reached his double century just before the end, finishing with 205 from 218 balls including 21 fours and three sixes. Only once, against Worcestershire in 2004, have Kent scored more in the fourth innings to win a match.
It was a marvellous innings. The best I have ever seen for Kent? Better than the 151 not out scored by 42-year-old Colin Cowdrey to take Kent to their first victory against the Australians in 76 years in 1975? They are questions worth asking, and perhaps considering in another post sometime.  What’s more, it was the second time this year that Stevens had taken Kent to a victory in the face of the laws of probability. In June he made a 44-ball century (equalling Mark Ealham at Maidstone against Derbyshire in ‘95) in a successful 337-run chase against Sussex. A Kent hero.

As we left the ground we all congratulated ourselves on our sound judgement in choosing to spend a day in the sun at the cricket. You grow older, but the depth of satisfaction felt after a fine day’s play becomes no more shallow with age, especially here at the St Lawrence where it has been felt most often.

A perfect day.



Monday, November 11, 2013

Kent v Lancashire, County Championship, St Lawrence Ground, 3rd day, 26 September 2013

First, a staffing matter. I am pleased to announce that my (former) Waikato correspondent has accepted reassignment as my Khandallah correspondent and will henceforth be based at My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers. In these constrained times we must harbour our resources prudently.

She left to return to New Zealand to take up her new duties on the second day of this game, which entailed a trip round the M25 in the morning rush hour, the motoring equivalent of watching Derek Shackleton bowling to PJK Gibbs all day. So it was not until the third day that I took my place in the stand for the rare treat of Championship cricket at St Lawrence.

It was the first time that I had watched cricket this late in September. In my cricketing adolescence the season always ended sharply in the first week of September as if fun was rationed. But here, in autumn’s vanguard, it was perfect, the sun warm and constant, and no more than a hint of seasonal rust about the foliage. None of the threat to life that the extension of the beginning of the season to Arctic early April brings with it. If I were in charge there would be two things done on the first day, the first being an absolute ban on cricket in England before the last weekend in April (the second we’ll come to).

The match had nothing on it. Lancashire were already champions of Division 2, Kent long out of the running to join them back in the top league. Yet the match was played keenly and never descended to the depths that some end-of-season games that my Blean correspondent (who was there to enjoy the fun today) and I have dutifully sat through.

In 1976, for example, John Snow gave a display of boundary fielding as unenthusiastic as a sulky teenager at a great aunt’s birthday party. My Blean correspondent and I are uncertain whether the great fast bowler actually kicked one back to the keeper but it would have been completely within the spirit of his performance had he done so. Another time, Chris Cowdrey devoted part of the first day to improving Kent’s over rate by bowling himself and others off two or three paces.

No, this was proper cricket, with meaning.
Kent 2013. More hangers on than in days gone by. Coach Jimmy Adams is back row left. He made a brief appearance as a substitute fielder

The day began with Lancashire 75 without loss in their second innings, a lead of 99. According to all reports Lancashire’s first innings lead was down to the slippery fingers of the Kent fielders. The affliction continued now as opener Luis Reece was dropped by Rob Key, diving at second slip. Key broke his thumb and ended his participation in the game (or so we thought at the time).

Reece did not stay long. He gave Tredwell the charge in the Kent skipper’s first over and was stumped with time to spare by Sam Billings. Billings replaced Geraint Jones for the final two Championship games bringing to an end Jones’ run of 115 consecutive Championship games. Whether it means that the (mostly) distinguished line Kent keepers now moves to the next generation is not yet clear. Billings was generally sound, but mangled a straightforward stumping chance, and it is what they miss that keepers are judged by. 

Reece’s departure brought in Ashwell Prince to join Paul Horton. They treated us to some fine batting, putting on 167 for the second wicket, 42 short of the Lancashire record against Kent, set by Harry Makepeace and Johnny Tyldesley at St Lawrence as the young men of Europe signed up for death in August 1914. Both Horton and Prince scored hundreds, in Prince’s case his second of the match, the first time this had been achieved for Lancashire for 15 years and only the sixteenth time in the county’s history. Horton’s innings was a model of proficiency and consistent tempo, which is not to say that it unattractive. Prince’s was a cut above. His timing and ease of shot meant that he scored at a good rate without ever seeming to hurry.

The latter overs of the Lancashire innings were brightened by some spirited tonking by Andrea Agathangelou with a half century off 35 balls including two sixes. At this stage it was just a question of how much Horton would choose to leave Kent to chase. He settled on 418 and left Kent 40 minutes and the whole of the last day to get them.
We sat in the old stand, next to the dressing rooms

What of the Kent bowling? Mark Davies was ordinary and the young left-armer Adam Ball erratic. Nineteen-year-old Matt Hunn was making his first-class debut. He’s tall and has the potential to be quick and awkward, but my he’s thin. The physios will be busy there, mark my words. Today, as on so many days, the attck was carried by Tredwell and Stevens, who bowled well over half the overs between them.

Stevens is Kent’s go-to guy for everything except wicketkeeping and supervising the car park. He finished the season as leading run scorer and was only one behind Charlie Shreck as wicket-taker. With an open-chested action and rolling approach to the crease he put me in mind of John Shepherd, but without Shep’s ability to fire a quicker short ball in to keep the batsman honest (Shepherd has just turned 70 by the way).

Tredwell bowled well, 40 overs at under three an over, mostly against batsmen with their eye in. Not long ago he seemed likely to be picked for the Australia tour, but a mauling in the ODIs put paid to that, though I can’t see why it should.

At least Tredwell got a game. The saddest sight at the St Lawrence on these two days was that of Simon Kerrigan carrying out twelfth man duties for Lancashire.  A little over a month before he had made his Test debut at The Oval, a decent performance there a quick path to fame and fortune, or at least a cushy winter carrying the drinks around Australia. Instead Shane Watson attacked him and his bowling repertoire was reduced to full tosses and long hops. His confidence was so damaged that he lost his county place as well.
Kerrigan on lonely twelfth man duty

In the absence of Key, Daniel Bell-Drummond opened with Sam Northeast, but fell lbw to Newby from the last ball of the day. Kent are giving young talent its chance; perhaps the finances mean there’s no option, but it is a good thing as long as they can save up enough to keep the best ones when the richer counties come in for them. Kent were 32 for one at the close.

Delightful as the day was, I never quite got over the disappointment with which it began. I have been much taken with there now being a small Sainsbury’s supermarket on the ground. In fact, it rests partly on the space on which Cyril Garnham’s scorecard hut used to be found, just behind the white scoreboard. (Scorecards now, by the way, cost a pound. I remember when you couldn’t lift all the scorecards you could buy for a pound). There was a pleasingly large supermarket at Folkestone right beside the ground, and there’s a whole shopping centre across the road from Seddon Park in Hamilton. 

So with a spring in my step not dissimilar to that of a five-year-old entering Santa’s grotto, in I went, seeking to recreate the extensive supply of provisions that kept a hungry young cricket watcher nourished in the seventies, but without the need to lug it all up the Old Dover Road. There were Jaffa Cakes, Club biscuits, sausage rolls and even prawn cocktail flavoured crisps.

But no Scotch eggs.

So that’s the second thing. Any food store within 500 metres of a first-class cricket venue must, on any scheduled playing day, ensure that Scotch eggs are available for sale up to the advertised end of play on pain of immediate closure.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Wellington v Otago, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 1st day, 27 October 2013

An achievement in cricket watching: being present at the last day of the English season, and at the first of the New Zealand season a month later. Superficially, the scenes were similar; sun beaming from a blue sky. But for the stillness of the St Lawrence there was a nail-your-granny-down northerly at the Basin. I have never changed seats so often during one day’s play, as I attempted to keep out of the wind and in the sun.

It was good to have the opportunity to watch at this time of year. For several seasons almost all pre-Christmas domestic first-class play in New Zealand has been scheduled within the working week, but a change of plan has given those of us who toil at the coalface of the economy the opportunity to watch some cricket. For once, the term “crowd” could be deployed with only a suggestion of irony or hyperbole, there being a couple of hundred present to enjoy the afternoon. The second day is a public holiday (the start of the season should always be celebrated thus).

Jesse Ryder returned to cricket today, something it was feared he might not do in the dark hours that followed the assault he suffered in Christchurch at the end of last season. It is the walls of the visitors dressing room off which he will bounce his bat if things do not go well; he has moved south in search of the peace of mind that will enable him to reclaim his rightful place in the national team.

Brent Arnel has come to the capital from Northern Districts. He joins Mark Gillespie (with whom he was joint leading wicket taker in the Plunket Shield last season) and Andy McKay in what is, on paper at least, as threatening a fast-medium attack as there is in the competition. I trust that Arnel had worked out that as the established leader of the attack it is Gillespie who has the choice of ends, leaving him and McKay to labour into the wind. Within the first half-hour Arnel had been hit for the first six of the season, a top-edged hook by Neil Broom that cleared the JR Reid Gates. You may infer that Otago won the toss and elected to bat, finishing the day on 358 for three.

The score gives a misleading impression of the course of the day. With sharper fielding—a couple of chances went down during the morning—and more luck with the considerable number of edges that fell just short or wide of fielders, Wellington might have had five or six out by lunch. There was more pace in the pitch than is often the case at the Basin, and for the first half of the day at least, it was not the paradise for batsmen and penitentiary for bowlers that the final score suggests.

Arnel finished the day wicketless, but was the pick of the attack. It was McKay—now with the wind—who took the first wicket, trapping Broom, who was well forward, lbw for 32. That was the last success for Wellington until well into the final session as Michael Bracewell joined Aaron Redmond for a partnership of 217, Redmond scoring a career-best 154, Bracewell 107.

Redmond was leading scorer in the Plunkett Shield last season, so with neither Hamish Rutherford nor Peter Fulton consistent as openers, it might be thought that an opening day 150 would have Redmond touted for an opening slot against the West Indies, who are here for three Tests before Christmas. Curiously, his innings here did nothing to advance his claims. There were many fine shots, particularly through the offside, and three sixes. But it was chancy and edgy. As well as getting all the luck that was going before lunch, he was dropped by keeper Ronchi shortly thereafter. The catch would have been comfortable for the only slip had he been positioned at first rather than fadishly at second.  He was also struck be a bad case of the nervous nineties, becoming almost shotless for half an hour before passing the mark. This raises temperament questions.  Redmond was finally dismissed caught behind down the legside off McKay late in the day, his departure from the crease sufficiently delayed to record disagreement with the decision. His final half century was the least spectacular, but most solid of the three.

At 34, Redmond may have had his international day, but the quality of his partner’s innings suggested that the national team could feature a brace of Bracewells sooner rather than later. Michael Bracewell reached his century just after the double-century partnership came up, and included 16 fours. His only six followed, a sweep off Patel over deep (in fact, not so deep, with the pitch being well over to the Museum side) square leg that almost took out an oblivious pedestrian twice, once on its way over the walkway that separates the seats from the field and once as it rebounded off the concrete. I am in favour of this; it will make people pay attention as they saunter through.

Bracewell was out in the same over, overbalancing and bowled around his legs trying to repeat the shot. Patel was too wily.

Which brings us to the Jeetan Patel question: what was he doing here? Or, by way of elucidation, why was he not with the Test team in Bangladesh? Spin resources are thin, with Vettori injured, Bruce Martin not looking quite the part and Ish Sodhi still young. Patel has not featured since the tour of South Africa in the New Year. Yet in the interim he had his second consecutive full county season with Warwickshire, taking 59 wickets to finish as the leading spinner in the top division of the County Championship, a higher level of domestic cricket than the dear old Shield. He bowled well here, finishing with 4 for 124 at a smidgen over three an over without encouragement from the pitch, and would be in my team against the West Indies in December.

Even though there had been two centuries, the event of the day for most spectators was the entry of Ryder in the last hour. After minimal reconnaissance he went on the attack, stroking successive fours through the covers off Woodcock, one off the back foot, one off the front. He gave a chance on 12, top edging a pull high enough for him to take several steps towards the rooms before Woodcock spilled it at square leg. It looked a bad miss, but there is no such thing for a steepler when the wind is up at the Basin. Ryder finished on 48 not out.

Postscript: day two

The northerly at the Basin is conciliatory. An accommodation can be reached to allow you and it to occupy the same space. Not so the southerly, the Arthur Scargill of winds. It was picketing in force on day two, so I only stayed until lunchtime, before retreating to My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers in balmy Khandallah, where the wind won’t risk the wrath of the Residents’ Association. My Blean correspondent will tell you how indomitable I once was in the face of the elements at early season cricket; but no more.

But I saw Jesse Ryder reach his century, which is what I had hoped for. He was not at his best; his timing was erratic as well it might be after the break he has had. Ryder at 80 percent is still better than almost anything else around. Andy McKay thought it a wheeze to bounce him with two back on the onside boundary. The second four of the over passed the finer man only four metres from his post and he stood not a shred of a chance of getting to it.

He fell for 117 and left the field to a warm reception, gracefully acknowledged.  I would have Jesse Ryder back in international cricket as soon as he wants to be.

The pitch’s early life was misleading advertising. It flattened out and the match subsided into dull drawdom. Let us hope for more spice later in the season.                                                                    

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Kent v Essex, St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury, 4th day, 14 September 2013

I am back in the old country for the end of the season, a little earlier than planned following the peaceful death of my father, who saw Bradman play before the Second World War. In the circumstances I was not able to make it to the first three days of this Championship game, which were severely disrupted by the rain, though not enough to keep Kent away from the precipice of defeat, 65 short of an innings defeat with four down.

A Saturday drive around rural east Kent—which looked quite enchanting, so green—inevitably led us to the St Lawrence to give my Waikato Correspondent her first sight of the great ground where I spent so many happy salad days. There had been a lot of rain, so I expected the game to have been called off, or if there had been play, for Kent to have capitulated. The ground was almost deserted as we drove in, but the umpires were inspecting and play would begin at 3.30.

There was plenty on it; Essex needed to win to stay in the promotion race. My Life in Cricket Scorecards was well represented; my Blean correspondent arrived as play began, thus allowing my Waikato correspondent a taste of the badinage that has been emptying the seats around us since the early seventies.

We were in the Underwood and Knott Stand; new name, familiar location. I have watched more cricket from this place than any other; not for some years now, but formative experiences permeate your DNA. So when Reece Topley hit Sam Northeast’s pads I gave it out ahead of the umpire. I got all subsequent decisions right too. The angle of viewing—over widish long on—precludes informed judgement based on the visual evidence available, so it must be the accumulated knowledge derived from hundreds of hours of sitting here and seeing what is out and what is not. Still got it.

Incidentally, Reece Topley is the nephew of Peter Topley, one of Kent’s least distinguished players of the past half century.

Pig farmer Geraint Jones hit three boundaries before going the same way as Northeast, so it was up to Darren Stevens to save Kent’s bacon. The following hour explained why Stevens is so popular with the Kent faithful. He attacked whenever there was the slightest opportunity, which was important as it put Kent ahead with little time available for Essex to bat again. His half century took 67 deliveries. When Stevens holed out, caught by former Wellington player Owais Shah, the job was done.

The bowler was none other than Monty Panesar, the most unlikely pantomime villain English cricket history, Julie Andrews cast as Cruella de Vil. My Waikato correspondent identified Panesar having last seen him in the Dunedin Test in March. I had not been aware that he was on loan to Essex.

So a satisfying glimpse of Championship cricket at St Lawrence, the first I have had since leaving for New Zealand in 1997. I have seen one-day and university matches here, and a Championship game at the Mote in Maidstone since, but nothing in my favourite competition. It was good to see a real contest and to find that Kent cricket is still a vertebrate creature.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Random thoughts on the Ashes: Chester-le-Street

In England I was renowned as a reluctant venturer north. A Lancastrian colleague years ago was irritated when I told her that I had a job interview “up north”, only to reveal that it was in Stroud, only twenty miles or so from Bristol (cricket relevance: the interview was at Jack Russell’s old school, but I did not get the job).

I have certainly never got as far up the country as Chester-le-Street, headquarters of Durham CCC and venue for the fourth Test. Fewer than 20,000 live in the town itself, which must make it the smallest place ever to have staged a Test match, though Google Earth confirms that Chester-le-Street is really an outpost of the Tyneside-Wearside conurbation. 

Durham only became a first-class county in 1992. For over a hundred years before then the north-east’s many talented cricketers had to travel south to play first-class cricket, and the nearest county, Yorkshire, would not have them because of its ridiculous rule about having to be born within the Ridings. Northamptonshire benefitted most from this situation. Geoff Cook and Peter Willey both had lengthy careers at Wantage Road, and played for England, in Willey’s case, not as often as he should have done. They had both followed Colin Milburn south.

Milburn was a cricketer out of time in the 1960s. We have been reminded at times during the current series of the funereal tempo at which cricket, in England at least, was conducted then. Milburn ignored the orthodoxy of the coaching book and counter attacked. David Warner would be his modern equivalent, in his approach to batting, at least. As a person, Milburn was altogether more jocular and friendly, which was his downfall.

Milburn was first picked for England in the 1966 series against the West Indies. Run out for a duck in the first innings, he made 94 from 136 balls in the second, following with a century at a similar pace at Lord’s in the second Test. This against Hall, Griffith, Sobers and Gibbs, the finest attack of the day. Supersonic batting in the subsonic age. Milburn opened with Boycott in two Tests that summer, a duet between Kiri te Kanawa and Janis Joplin.

Today, scoring like that in his first two Tests would have established Milburn in the England side for a couple of years. Not then. He never became a regular. Two appearances in 1967, two more in 1968, then a late call up from a successful season for Western Australia to join MCC in Pakistan. On arrival he asked who was injured. “No-one”, they said, “we just needed cheering up”. He scored a hundred in his only overseas Test, in Karachi, nevertheless.

He was only 27, and might yet have become one of England’s most renowned. But two months later he lost an eye in a car accident and that was that. He did a bit of commentary on radio and TV, but hit the drink hard. I did a bit of work for the phone commentary service Cricketcall in the late 1980s. Milburn worked for them too, and it was reported that he would turn up having apparently slept in his car all night. He was 48 when he died in 1990, one of Durham and England’s lost treasures.

I was at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff when Durham won their first Championship game, an innings victory over Glamorgan:

In that first season the Durham team consisted largely of old lags enjoying a season or two’s superannuation, the average age that of a bowls club rather than a county cricket team. David Graveney was captain, supported by Paul Parker, Wayne Larkins, Simon Hughes, Gloucestershire’s Phil Bainbridge and, above all, Ian Botham, who was to describe joining Durham as the biggest mistake of his career. Dean Jones was the overseas player. On that day in Wales though, it was one of Durham’s own, medium-fast left-armer Simon Brown, who got it done with five for 66.

They finished bottom that year, but with a focus on developing local talent, intelligent leadership both on and off the field and wise choices of overseas talent (Dale Benkenstein and Ottis Gibson among others) Durham have prospered to the extent of becoming county champions in 2008 and 2009 and one-day champions in 2007, having an attractive international ground and developing key talent (Harmison, Collingwood) for the England team. If only Kent’s past two decades had been remotely as successful.

The increase in the number of international venues in England over the past decade has not been wise. Southampton is too close to London to be a worthwhile addition, while Cardiff’s elevation was down to political largesse and the ambition of a few individuals. It has also turned a pleasant and friendly county ground into a stadium too big for purpose on all but a day or two a year.

But the addition of the Riverside is welcome. It is the most attractive of the international grounds and provides Test and ODI cricket to a large population area with a strong cricket tradition—even though Durham is the newest of the first-class counties, high quality club cricket dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and leagues have thrived in the region almost as strongly as in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The sporting folk of Newcastle and Sunderland surely welcome a diversion from the perpetual misery of following their under-performing football teams.

Durham folk enjoyed a good game for their first Ashes Test. Nothing cheers up an English crowd like an Australian collapse when in sight of the finish line. This one—eight for 56—rivalled the likes of Melbourne 1998—eight for 59,—Edgbaston 1981—five for 16—and, of course, the gold standard of Headingley 1981—nine for 55. A shame that they will have to wait for three years before they see another Test on their lovely ground.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Random Thoughts on the Ashes: Old Trafford

Cricket’s relationship with the weather has always been difficult, particularly in England and New Zealand. The rain is the game’s Calvinist uncle, sending us home just when it all looks like becoming too much fun. So it was in the third Test at Old Trafford, where we were deprived of a gripping final afternoon, with England struggling.

Here the rain ensured that England would retain the Ashes. I wrote after the Melbourne Test of the last Ashes series how the mere retention of the Ashes has become an overblown event, contrasting it with the 1972 series, when the three-day victory and retention of the urn by Ray Illingworth’s team meant that some members of the England team had an unexpected cross-country journey to appear for the counties in the Sunday League the following day:

Celebrations at Old Trafford did appear a smidgeon more modest than they were at the MCG, and so they should, given that the rain intervened with England 37 for three with two sessions to survive.  Indeed, given the skin-of-the-teeth result in Nottingham, it is not too much of a stretch to say that with a tad more luck Australia could have led the series as they left Manchester.

England’s paper superiority has been nullified to a fair extent by the indifferent form of a number of key batsmen, particularly Cook and Trott; Pietersen and Root too, except for one dominating innings in each case. Prior is having a shocker, particularly with the gloves, which appear lead-lined. Who are the best keepers in England now?

It was good to see Michael Clarke’s class on display in Manchester. He would have been picked for any of the great Australian sides of the past twenty years and does better than Ricky Ponting would have with the talent available.

In days gone by, the rain would frustrate but also intrigue, for if play did resume it would be on an uncovered pitch, which as it dried would present batsmen with unbounded conundrums. Uncovered pitches were an effective way of keeping alive three-day games in wet weather, and players of that era will tell you that the experience was invaluable for the refinement of technique. The difference they made is indicated by comparing averages then and now. In 1966 (picking a year at random) only two batsmen[1]—Sobers and Graveney—averaged more than 50; in 2012, 11 did so. In ’66, 36 bowlers[2] averaged under 20; last season only 13 did so (of course, the overall improvement in pitches is also a factor here).

For the spectator the universal covering of pitches removed a dimension from the game, especially if your team had Derek Underwood in it. Some of the earliest colour television footage of cricket is of the last day of the 1968 Ashes. Famously, England needed five wickets to level the series when a lunchtime thunderstorm drenched the ground and appeared to have concluded proceedings. But with the help of volunteers from the crowd, and every spare garden fork and blanket in the Kennington area, the outfield dried sufficiently to allow for a maximum of 75 minutes’ play. John Inverarity and Barry Jarman remained resolute for 40 minutes, which was as long as the pitch took to start drying—a strip that remained wet was simply a pudding, it was the changing state that presented the batsmen with problems.

Basil D’Oliveira bowled Jarman whereupon Underwood began to make the ball fizz, as reported by Norman Preston in Wisden:

The Kent left-arm bowler found the drying pitch ideal for this purpose. He received just enough help to be well nigh unplayable. The ball almost stopped on pitching and lifted to the consternation of the helpless Australians.

The match was won with six minutes to spare.

As the years passed, pressure to cover up grew. First it was restricted to the hours of play; abandonment meant that the covers went on. Then in Tests it was done away with altogether, but not before Mike Denness had been undone by it at Edgbaston in 1975. Towards the end of the seventies county cricket followed. Apart from a half-hearted experiment in the early nineties, that was that.

Except once. At Canterbury in May 1984, Kent reached 179 for four on the first day when it began to rain. Play was impossible until late on the third afternoon. A deal was done. Kent declared, both teams forfeited an innings and Hampshire couldn’t believe their luck. 180 to win in more than two hours appeared a gift. True, water had seeped under the covers, but what was the harm? How quickly they forgot:

Fifty-six all out in 27 overs, Underwood seven for 21. In his hands the ball was a dog doing tricks. I was one of the few spectators at the St Lawrence Ground that wet afternoon and witnessed the most unplayable over I have ever seen, with Chris Smith, Mark Nicholas and Trevor Jesty all edging balls that leapt at them like tiny commandoes.  

I have not seen the like since and almost certainly never will again. These days a game would probably be abandoned if the ball misbehaved so. But something is missing as a result, and, though it means agreeing with Geoffrey Boycott, I lament the day they started rolling the covers over the pitch when the rain began.

[1] Of those who batted ten times or more
[2] Of those who took at least ten wickets

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Random Thoughts on the Ashes: Lord’s

A few hours before the start of the fourth and final day’s play in the second Test I got an insight into what it is like to be Shane Watson. It was when an earthquake struck Wellington, 6.5 on the Richter Scale. Measured by the alternative fast bowlers’ scale of earthquake power it was at least a Glenn McGrath—penetrating, disconcerting and getting movement where it was least expected. It may even have been a Jimmy Anderson, with dangerous swing a threat. One day  Jeff Thomson will open from the Harbour End while Shoaib Akhtar steams in from the Island Bay End, but not this time.

I was in the gym at the time, which, as friends have been kind enough to mention, means that two exceptionally improbable events coincided. The MCC Civil Defence Manual is clear enough on the course of action in these circumstances: drop, cover and hold. Which is all very well, but on the day of the game conditions are never quite as ordered as they are in the coaching book. There was no desk or table to dive under; my treadmill was next to a large, shatterable window, so dropping where I was did not seem a sensible option.

So I attempted to make my way across the undulating floor towards the shelter of the doorframe. This is the civil defence equivalent of plonking your leg down the line of middle-and-off and playing across right across an inswinger. You know it won’t work, that you’ll be plumb lbw, yet you can’t stop yourself. I feel your pain, Shane.

Besides, even had I made it, I would have taken space that others coming after me might have made better use of. A bit like using up a DRS review on a decision that even someone in the bar at deep square leg can see is out. Moral of the story: don’t stand next to Shane Watson in an earthquake.

Watching a Test at Lord’s has an added pleasure quotient, even on television from this distance. The first match I watched there was the Gillette Cup final of 1967 between Kent and Somerset. From the early seventies until I left for New Zealand in 1997 there can only have been a handful of seasons in which I did not visit the ground. I watched three World Cup finals there, plus numerous domestic one-day finals, plenty of Tests and a good deal of county cricket (which was always a bit odd, like a busker playing in the Albert Hall, but it was an opportunity to watch from the pavilion, even if was necessary to put on a jacket and tie to do so).

Lord’s has changed a good deal in the 16 years since I was last there, much more so since my first visit thirty years before that; the new grandstand and the media centre have both appeared since ’97, but seem so familiar thanks to television coverage. MCC has done a fine job in modernising Lord’s while retaining its character as a cricket ground. Compare that to the Australian experience. The Gabba and the MCG have been turned into characterless bowls, and the SCG and the Adelaide Oval are on the way to being so.

Another reason why Lord’s is by some way the best Test venue in the UK is MCC’s intolerance. “Intolerant since 1787” might be the motto of the club, translated into Latin obviously (my Blean Correspondent will assist here), and for much of its history it has been an entirely reprehensible characteristic, shamefully racist, sexist and class-ridden. But now the MCC grandees have learned to use their intolerance for the common good, and are exercising it purposefully, for among its targets are ersatz patriotism, fancy dress and community jollity.

The playing of national anthems at the start of the game is fairly new to cricket. The Australians are to blame I think; I recall standing for the anthems for the first time when I attended the final Test of the 1998/9 series in Sydney and thinking how odd it was. It doesn’t suit the rhythm of cricket, especially for opening batsmen about to face a Test attack. For unfathomable reasons, the ceremony as often as not begins with the two teams walking onto the ground with each player hand-in-hand with a child. Invariably the cricketer is at a distance and bearing an expression that suggests the suspicion that the child is carrying leprosy, while the child has the sullenness of any contemporary youth who is a) awake and b) deprived of their on-line gaming device. Nothing could be further from the idyllic spirit that it presumably is intended to symbolise.

MCC sees this for the nonsense it is. Lord’s spared us God Save the Queen and gave us instead…the Queen. We also managed without the Jerusalem, Parry’s arrangement of four stupid questions from Blake about whether Jesus visited Glastonbury, the answer to all of which is clearly “no”. As the TMS commentator Don Mosey pointed out years ago, it is poorly chosen for community singing as it contains one note—on “built” in the penultimate line—that few untrained singers can reach.

And fancy dress (the sporting of which is defined in my dictionary as “a sad attempt to fabricate wit by those who have none”) is also out, unless, of course, it is in club colours and purchased by members from the Lord’s shop. The result is a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere characterised by an intelligent murmuring, a sound recently described by Simon Hoggart (about the House of Lords) as being that of “a basketful of puppies waking up”.

No wonder tickets for Lord’s Tests sell out faster than anywhere else, even though they charge the national debt for them. A pity that all the good cricket came from the home team this year. The Australians could pray for an earthquake.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Random Thoughts on the Ashes: Trent Bridge

Let us peer into the mind of Alistair Cook at around midday on the second day of the opening Ashes Test with Australia 117 for nine in their first innings.

“This is easy…all over in three days…five-nil…letter from the Palace…hire a top hat…limousine down The Mall…”

Enter Ashton Agar, No 11, 19 years old, Test debut, ten first-class matches, not even selected for the touring party. To watch over the following two hours was to look over the author’s shoulder as a famous story was written, a story that will be re-told as long as cricket is played. The first session of the second day was as gripping as any I have seen.

Whether Agar is any cop as a bowler remains to be seen. As a Test batsman he was nerveless, fluent and as replete of technique as a cordon bleu chef. In looking at once so at home, Agar put me in mind of the young David Gower on debut against Pakistan in 1978, pulling Liaquat Ali for four first ball. “Oh what a princely entry” said John Arlott on the radio.

Agar’s was proper batting, not hitting, let alone slogging. He played one late cut that was a thing of beauty, a shot beyond many established Test batsmen. That he missed a century by two runs only added to the romance. To witness a Test partnership record being broken, even on TV, is quite something.

When Agar passed Tino Best’s 96 at Edgbaston last year, Sky UK showed a list of the highest scores by No 11 batsmen in Tests. Two of these, in particular, resonated.

Of the many sessions of Test cricket that have challenged the endurance and mental fortitude of the New Zealand cricket fan, the last of 20 November 2004 and the first of the following day were among the most distressing. When Glenn McGrath joined Jason Gillespie at the Gabba, Australia were 471 for nine, 118 ahead of New Zealand’s first innings total, but not out of sight.

As McGrath and Gillespie carved, hoicked and larruped their way to a partnership of 114—McGrath’s 61 was the only half-century of his distinguished career in any form of cricket—we New Zealand fans had a sense of being in a submarine that was diving to uncharted depths; Gillespie’s bizarre celebratory imitation of a jockey whipping a horse home as he left the field seemed to signal that we had reached the ocean floor of our hopes.

But no. New Zealand were shot out for 76 in the second innings, 38 fewer than the Australian tenth-wicket pair contrived, the margin of defeat an innings and 156. That’s the effect that a last-wicket partnership can have. It’s not just the runs, it’s the stuffing that it takes out of the morale, the humiliation of a heavyweight unable to deliver the knockout blow to a featherweight.

The first time I appreciated this was during the final Test at the Oval in 1966. The first great West Indies team—Sobers, Kanhai, Hunte, Butcher, Hall, Gibbs included—had dominated England all summer, leading three-nil going into this final Test. England sacked MJK Smith as captain after the first Test, and Colin Cowdrey after the fourth. The Old Bald Blighter (as Alan Gibson called him) Brian Close was called up to bring Yorkshire obstinacy to the leadership.

At 166 for seven (103 short of a first-innings lead) damn-all difference it seemed to have made. Then Tom Graveney and wicketkeeper JT Murray both scored centuries as they put on 217 for the eighth wicket. Opening bowlers John Snow and Ken Higgs were together for the last-wicket partnership. Snow was at the start of his career as one of England’s most fluent fast bowlers. Higgs was the only Englishman to play in all five Tests of the series, an indication of the fickle approach of the selectors of that era. Higgs retired to run a boarding house in Blackpool before returning for several seasons with Leicestershire as cricket’s most rotund bowler. They put on 128, two short of the England record set by Foster and Rhodes at the SCG in 1903, and unbettered by an England partnership since.

My memories of that hot August Saturday afternoon are of listening to the commentary of Arlott, Robert Hudson and the Jamaican Roy Lawrence on a transistor radio as I accompanied my Dad as he delivered groceries to customers around Herne Bay. Arlott’s lyrical, romantic interpretation was one of the most pleasing of the many discoveries of that formative summer, the germination of a notion that cricket and words belong together.

It was perhaps the best way for a young enthusiast to follow the progress of the partnership. The scorecard reveals that this was far from the bash-crash approach of McGrath, or the more cultured urgency of Agar and Hughes. Neither Snow nor Higgs scored at much more than two an over. Yet the unfolding improbability of events at the Oval were enthralling, a window on the possibilities of cricket’s infinite variety.

Back in the present, that two different batsmen came within a whisker of stealing the Trent Bridge Test with another odds-defying tenth-wicket stand challenged credulity. For the good of the series it might have better had they made it, as there appears to be a canyon separating the batting quality of the two teams. It was a fine Test to start the Ashes marathon that stretches joyfully before us.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Basil D’Oliveira by Peter Oborne

For those unfamiliar with one of cricket’s most famous stories, Basil D’Oliveira was a South African cricketer of immense talent who would have become one of his country’s great cricketers if only the colour of his skin had not been a tad too dark for the tastes of his country’s Apartheid rulers. Instead, D’Oliveira (who was Cape-coloured in the nauseating vocabulary of that place and time) and his compatriots were condemned to performing on rough wasteland. On the evening before any game the players would gather to clear stones from the designated pitch area (there was no such thing as a cricket square). National representation was limited to white players, who played on the manicured fields that D’Oliveira could see from his home in Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap, but could never play on.

D’Oliveira’s ambition led him to look for possibilities outside his homeland. Persistence secured him a contract with Middleton in the Central Lancashire League in 1960. From there his talent took him to a county career with Worcestershire and 44 Tests for England. In 1968 he was selected to tour South Africa (after originally being omitted), which caused the South Africa’s Prime Minister Johannes Vorster to cancel the tour, and thus hasten his country’s long period of sporting isolation.

It is a story of some personal significance for me. D’Oliveira was first picked for England in 1966 when I was a young fan enjoying his first cricket season. I was drawn to his forceful, fluent batting, while the nascent proof reader and pedant within was intrigued that a name could have an apostrophe in it, or—wrongly according to Oborne—sometimes be written beginning with a lower case letter.

If 1966 was my cricketing foundation year, then 1968 was the start of political awareness, triggered not by events on the streets of Prague or Paris that momentous summer, but by those in the committee rooms of Lord’s. The understanding that a man could be refused a place on a cricket team on the grounds of colour was a shock; that South Africa was organised on racial grounds with whites the superior race was incomprehensible.  As a nine year old I knew that the proposition that people with other-than-white skins were inferior in some way to be a nonsense. My certainty on this matter was because I had seen Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Wes Hall, Clive Lloyd, John Shepherd, Asif Iqbal, Basil D’Oliveira and others play cricket. No further information was required.

I have taken too long to acquire Peter Oborne’s 2004 re-telling of the D’Oliveira story. It won every award for which it was eligible, and deservedly so. Oborne is a political journalist with a love of cricket, which is the right way round for this assignment. He explains the historical and political contexts—everything to this story—with the utmost clarity and brings the skills of a journalist accustomed to revealing the mysteries of Westminster to the task of unravelling the events around the selection of the MCC touring party in August 1968.

Oborne is particularly strong on D’Oliveira’s cricketing career in South Africa before he left for England. He argues that D’Oliveira was so good a young player that had it not been for the whites-only policy he would have been selected for the South African touring party to England in 1951, 15 years before he finally played Test cricket at the age of 34 (D’Oliveira maintained the fiction that he was 31 at that time; he believed that he would not have been selected had his real age been known). His actual Test career was a proud one: five hundreds, an average of 40 and a partnership breaker with his deceptively plain medium-pace bowling. But Oborne makes a persuasive case that had D’Oliveira’s talent been allowed to flourish unfettered by Apartheid he would have been one of the great players.

It is impossible to read without outrage the description of the indignities that were part of the everyday life of D’Oliveira and every other non-white South African. The deep imprint that daily humiliation leaves on a human being was shown by D’Oliveira’s constant unease during his first days in England:

The following day Kay[i] and D’Oliveira caught the train to Manchester. As they walked down the platform, D’Oliveira asked anxiously which was his separate carriage, but Kay firmly told him that things were not done that way in Britain…Kay told Arlott later that “he dined on the train, a factor that he could not get over because he was allowed to eat and travel with white people”
It is incredible that the argument that politics and sport should not be mixed gained such traction in those years.

Osborne’s account reflects very differently upon the reputations of two of the heroes of my youth. John Arlott, the great commentator and writer, had been appalled by his experiences in South Africa as the BBC’s man on the 1948/9 MCC tour. So when letters in green ink from an unknown South African seeking a league contract began to arrive in the late fifties they were taken seriously. Arlott’s copious humanity made him determined to secure his correspondent the position as a league professional that was his dream. The political Arlott knew that if successful, he would be striking a blow against Apartheid, though he could not have predicted how great a blow it would be. Without John Arlott, there would have been no story to tell.

Colin Cowdrey, on the other hand, emerges as a man of straw. During the South African tour business Cowdrey assured D’Oliveira of his support while arguing against his selection in the privacy of the committee room, his responsibilities as captain compromised by his need to be universally well thought of.

Oborne’s analysis of the events around the selection of the MCC tour party to South Africa in 1968 is forensic. He concludes that there was no conspiracy to omit D’Oliveira. Examination of the sequence of events around the selection has never supported the view that there was. Not even the bunglers of Lord’s could have conspired with such incompetence.

D’Oliveira had had a poor tour of the West Indies in the early months of 1968. He had become a drinker comparatively late in life and was making up for lost time; late nights on the rum had taken their toll. Here was a chance, had it so wanted, for the Establishment to sideline D’Oliveira for the summer. Yet he was selected for the first Ashes Test, won by Australia, and top scored with an unbeaten 87 in the second innings. Then he was dropped.

The conspiracy kicking in? If so, it had no resolve. D’Oliveira had a below-average summer with Worcestershire and made no case for a recall up to and including the naming of the twelve for the final Test, from which he was omitted. Debate about the political viability of the tour all but ceased so unlikely had D’Oliveira’s selection become. Then Roger Prideaux, the Northamptonshire opener (and former Kent player), dropped out and was somewhat improbably replaced with D’Oliveira, a middle-order batsman. Had there been a plot to exclude D’Oliveira this lifeline would never have been thrown.

He grabbed it with such relish. 158, gloriously made, and, as a bowler, the breakthrough as the final hour of the game began, opening the door for Derek Underwood to mesmerise the remaining Australians on a drying pitch for a series-levelling victory. Now, they had to pick D’Oliveira, surely.

There were ten people in the six-hour selection meeting—the four selectors, Cowdrey, tour manager Les Ames (who had dealt with D’Oliveira’s drinking issues in the Caribbean) and four representatives of MCC (in whose name England toured in those days). Oborne talked to chairman of the selectors Doug Insole and studied all available accounts. Insole told the assembled group that that they should proceed as if they were picking a team to tour Australia. The political context was not referred to, which is not to say that it was not a factor.

Oborne believes that “at least one of the people in the room was acting as a spy for South Africa”. Others were aware of backdoor communications from the highest levels in the Cape affirming that the tour would be cancelled were D’Oliveira picked. Oborne does not go quite as far as he might have done in exploring the effect that this knowledge had on proceedings.

Though it would be unfair to cast all those present at the selection meeting as apologists for Apartheid, the view that sport and politics should be separate would have found no dissenters. The idea that the cancellation of a major tour would result from their deliberations would have been anathema to every one of them. It seems to me that this knowledge was enough to sway them, enough to explain why, as Oborne says, D’Oliveira had no strong advocates.

Oborne outlines the cricketing argument against D’Oliveira’s selection and points out that Colin Milburn (a player born in the wrong time if ever there was) also missed out, and that Ken Barrington nearly did so. Prideaux and the young Keith Fletcher (despite a famously disastrous debut at Headingley a few weeks before) were picked.

The all-rounder position went to Tom Cartwright, who was no more a true all-rounder, worth picking as a batsman or bowler, than D’Oliveira. They were at opposite ends of the all-rounder spectrum, D’Oliveira a No 5 or 6 batsman who could trundle efficiently, Cartwright a medium pacer of renowned parsimony (77-32-118-2 v Australia at Old Trafford in 1964—glad I missed that one) but a No 8 or 9 in a Test order at best.

Cartwright was one of the few left-wing cricketers, and Oborne raises the possibility that his withdrawal through injury two weeks was politically inspired. Though D’Oliveira was not a like-for-like replacement—Insole had made a point of saying that he was regarded as a batsmen only in South African conditions—a fortnight of furore had made the selectors repentant, and his addition to the touring party was a formality, as inevitable as the subsequent cancellation of the tour by the appalling Vorster.

Oborne timed his book well, sufficiently distanced from the events for historical perspective, but while many of the protagonists were still alive and talking. The result is one of cricket’s most important pieces of literature. It is clear-headed and insightful about the cricket and the politics. Most of all it does justice to its subject, portraying D’Oliveira as a man of decency and dignity, and reminding us what a fine cricketer he was.

[i] John Kay, cricket correspondent of the Manchester Evening News whose contacts had secured D’Oliveira his contract with Middleton.

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 ...