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

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 ...