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 ...