Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Wellington v Auckland, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 11 to 14 December 2014

Fourth day

My Life in Cricket Scorecards achieved a lifetime’s ambition at 10 am on Sunday morning; for the first ten minutes of the day it constituted the entire crowd. The first two-and-a-half overs were its private entertainment and it could barely suppress a cry of “Proceed!” before the first ball was bowled.

The early start was down to the weather, which had curtailed progress over the first three days. Play did not begin on the third day until 4 pm when the temperature was measured at six degrees. A penguin wouldn’t accept a free ticket in those conditions. I’m sure that the mercury dropped to similar levels on the Hammond Room roof at the County Ground, Bristol in April days of yore, but I was younger then and my desperation for cricket after the long English winter always set my judgement askew.

So it was not until the fourth day of this Plunket Shield game that I put in my first appearance of the season. Overnight, Wellington were 77 ahead with seven wickets standing, so anything could happen. That’s the delight of first-class cricket: a run chase; a collapse; a canny declaration; elegant attack; sticky defence; the ball turning square; the ball not turning at all; a great catch; a missed stumping; a shambolic run out. Or the whole thing can end in torpid anti-climax. A night at the theatre with a different ending every performance.

One thing was certain: a Cachopa would be involved. There were three of them playing for Auckland: Carl, the all-rounder, Craig, the opening batsman, and Brad, the wicket-keeper. All the size of pixies. In Wellington’s first innings the Cachopii had a hand in nine of the ten wickets.

Today’s script dropped some heavy clues about the denouement almost before the orchestra had finished playing the overture. Left-arm opening bowler Michael Bates removed both the incumbent batsmen in the first quarter of an hour. Stephen Murdoch was caught behind driving at a ball that left him. Tom Blundell was struck on the pads playing across the line. Umpire Ashley Mehrotra took an age to rule. By the time the finger was raised Blundell had already taken several steps towards the rooms.

Another thing that makes cricket the king of pastimes is that even when you have watched for as long as I have it will still conjure something new. Today, when fast bowler Matthew Quinn bowled to debutant Henry Walsh, he did so with seven in the slip cordon, a silly mid off and a mid off. Nobody left to field on the legside then. So when Walsh turned a ball from outside off stump into the vacant acres, as was inevitable, it was the bowler who had to pursue it.

Rob Nicol's 9 - 0 field for Matt Quinn
The best that can be said for this is that it offered Rob Nicol (the Auckland captain) a controlled environment in which to exercise his psychological need to test half-witted theories, rather than exposing society at large to harm.

Walsh lasted for ten overs before losing his leg stump to Bates. It took only a further eight overs for Auckland to finish Wellington off. The most eye-catching feature of the lower-order batting was a series of millionaire off drives from Ili Tugaga, his preferred approach to getting off the mark. When, against expectation, he succeeded in hitting the ball with one of these pieces of speculation, he was caught at mid off for a duck.

That was Carl Cachopa’s third wicket; Bates finished with four for 47.

So what explains Wellington’s subsidence? There was movement, certainly, though the report that described the pitch as “green” was exaggerating, from what I could see at least.

Just as happened when I watched Gloucestershire collapse on the first morning against Kent in September, the ball tended to find the edge of the bat rather than beating it entirely, and most of the edges went to hand. Still, seven wickets had fallen for 50 today, so Auckland’s target of 128 might not be the early Christmas present it seemed.

Opener Jeet Ravel started impressively. He is a tall left-hander with a wide stance and expansive style. A square-driven boundary off Arnel was the shot of the day, but Ravel was out quirkily off the next delivery. As the ball rose off his thigh pad, Ravel attempted to lift his arms clear, but in doing so committed the very indiscretion he was seeking to avoid. He deflected the ball with just enough power to dislodge one bail when it came into contact with the stumps.

Two of the Cachopii—Carl and Craig—were now united. Carl had earlier survived a Gillespie appeal on the grounds that it was too high on the leg, a rare event for one of the brotherhood. The partnership was worth only four when Craig was bowled by a full-length Matt McEwan delivery.

With Auckland 29 for two, Wellington were bouncy. Another couple of wickets and they would be on top.

Colin Munro put an end to such pretensions. Munro is one of those cricketers who takes much the same approach regardless of the format or state of the game. Hard, clean hitting is to Munro what cold baths were to the Victorians: the palliative for all ills.

Here, 59 off 49 balls, 52 of them from boundaries (four sixes), settled the matter. He was particularly harsh on the normally abstemious Arnel.

Munro was out 24 short of victory, but look at the scorecard and you will be misled. It says that he was caught by Walsh. It was indeed Walsh who caught the ball on the long-off boundary, but he was still shuffling his feet to ensure that he did not connect with the boundary rope when he threw the ball to the nearby McEwan, who should therefore be credited with the catch.

McEwan is a bustling medium-fast bowler in the manner and shape of Tim Bresnan. This was his Wellington debut after a couple of seasons with Canterbury. The ball followed him about for a while. He took a fine catch to get rid of Carl Cachopa, running back with his hands above his head, but dropped an even harder chance diving in from the fine-leg boundary in a brave attempt to intercept a Nicol top edge.

It was too late to make a shred of difference anyway. Auckland won the game by six wickets and were top of the table after two rounds. Most of the Plunket Shield will be played while the World Cup is in progress, so I may be a lone spectator again before the season is out.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Mote Park, Maidstone

On our recent visit to the old country I treated my Khandallah correspondent to a trip to Mote Park in Maidstone. The park contains 450 acres of mature parkland, a 30 acre lake, a stately home and a rich history in which Elizabeth Woodville, Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn, Elizabeth I and William Pitt the Younger all feature.

All of this we ignored.
The sole interest of our visit was the north-west corner of the park, where one of the finest cricket grounds in Kent is to be found.

Maidstone Week, usually in the first week of July, sits in the memory as the best of summer. Sun baking a flat, fast pitch from a clear blue sky; the woods across the valley pulsing in a light breeze; Asif Iqbal shimmying down the pitch to send the ball rasping through the covers; the birdsong tempered only by the welcome purr of the ice cream van’s generator.
Of course, the memory tints the image. In 1980, for example, it began raining in the late afternoon on Sunday and there was not another ball bowled until five on Thursday.

The good news is that it is still a cricket ground, unlike the Crabble in Dover for one. It is home to the Mote CC, one of Kent’s most famous clubs, and staged two Kent Second XI Championship games last season. But there has been no county cricket there since 2005 when a dodgy pitch caused Kent to be docked eight Championship points.
Pitches can be put right. The expense of taking cricket to the outgrounds and the period-charm nature of the Mote’s facilities are why the county has not returned, and is not likely to.

So I was pleased to be able to introduce my correspondent the ground much as it was throughout the three decades that spans my watching cricket there.
Though located a walk away from the town centre (lunchtime food replenishment is possible—the Mote holds a three-egg rating*), the outlook from the ground is predominantly rural. From the bank on the southern side one looks across the valley to the scarp slope of the North Downs, on their way to Dover to form the white cliffs. So many shades of green.

The cricket field is located on the middle of three tiers. The top level is the home of Maidstone RFC and a car park. The grass slope down to boundary is the main spectator area. In this respect, the Mote is more like a New Zealand ground. Of course, in Kent we are not as outré as to come into actual contact with the grass. There must be seating. In the seventies, this was rusticity itself. Planks of four by two balanced precariously on upright logs. Most days were enlivened by a row of stout parties finding themselves on their backs, feet waving in the air.
The Northern End

For cricket week the marquees lined the boundary from the bank to the scoreboard at the Northern End. There’s a short expanse of concrete terracing, from which we would watch Sunday League games when the bank tended to get overfull.

The Pavilion
Square to the pitch is the mock Tudor pavilion, which I once saw Clive Lloyd clear with a six. Further along, the boundary bulges back into the field of play, making space for a square, terracotta-coloured building known as the Tabernacle. Originally the private pavilion of Viscount Bearsted, it was used as the club office on match days. Both buildings date from 1910.
The Tabernacle
I first went to the Mote in 1972, when I saw Alan Knott hit his second century of the match, against Surrey. I was last there in 2002, for a resounding defeat of Durham in the Sunday League.

From the end of school until a reluctant entry into the world of work I would be there throughout cricket week. After that, the Mote always drew me back to Kent for the weekend.
There was so much fine cricket, some of which was in my mind’s eye as I walked the boundary and rested on the bank in September:

·       The day in 1976 when a helicopter landed on the square with the Sunday League trophy, just as Colin Dredge was run out in Cardiff, meaning that Kent had won it.

·       Two wins in 1978, the last year Kent won the Championship, with 19 wickets for Derek Underwood.

·       Losing to Middlesex by one wicket in the rain in 1981.

·       A fluent double hundred by Graeme Fowler in 1984.

·       My reward for turning down tickets to Live Aid in 1985 to go to Mote Park instead: a run-a-ball century by Roger Harper.

·       Mark Ealham setting about Derbyshire in general and Dominic Cork in particular for a 44-ball century in 1995, the fastest ever in the Sunday League then.
I was surrounded by the ghosts of spectators long gone, on their backs, feet towards the sky.

*The My Life in Cricket Scorecards Scotch egg ratings rank cricket grounds according to ease with which food supplies can be replenished during the day.

Only Folkestone has ever held the prestigious five egg status, the only ground in my experience to have a supermarket close enough for the replenishment of Scotch eggs during a drinks interval without missing a ball. Challenging certainly, requiring speed, strategy, cunning and the ability to knock aside old people without feeling remorse, but it could, and has, been done.

Unfortunately, Folkestone was subsequently downgraded to four eggs after the supermarket was rebuilt with the entrance at the other end of the building. Why don’t these people stop and think?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Kent v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Canterbury, 23-26 September 2014: third day

In my absence on the second day Gloucestershire took control of the match. After skittling the rest of the Kent batting for a lead of 14, they finished the day on 208 for two. Will Tavaré was unbeaten having reached his century in 150 balls, putting them to the sword in the belligerent manner of his uncle, the great Kent player CJ Tavaré (who is not to be confused with the rather dour fellow of the same name who played for England).

Unfortunately for us nostalgists, Tavaré lost his off stump to Mitch Claydon early on. Darren Stevens opened from the Nackington Road End, despite the ball being 55 overs old. The Kent faithful suspect that Sam Northeast is agnostic towards the spinners. We did not see Riley until only ten overs before the new ball could be taken, and then from the Pavilion End, conventionally the wrong end for an off spinner because of the slope. Graham Johnson, looking on as chairman of the cricket committee, would hardly have bowled from that end in a 20-year career. 

James Tredwell got his first bowl of the day only three overs before the new ball was due (though it was not taken straight away), and had two catches dropped in his first over, including the key wicket of Alex Gidman.

Gidman, 46 not out overnight, dominated the morning. This was his last innings for Gloucestershire. He and his brother Will are following the road well-trodden by gifted sportsmen out of Bristol, Alex to Worcestershire and Will to Nottinghamshire. The younger brother was not playing here, but the captain was set upon making the most of his farewell. His century, reached with a straight-driven four off Riley, was warmly received by the Gloucestershire folk present, who appreciate that furthering a career and staying at the County Ground are mutually exclusive concepts.

Runs were easy to come by before and after lunch as Gidman and Cockbain put on 124 for the fifth wicket. Claydon removed both, Cockbain lbw and Gidman with a cracker that came back and removed the middle stump.

Claydon bowled well, finishing with four for 90 from 31 overs. But I was more taken with his fielding, or to be precise, the lack of it. It was as much as I could do not to stand and cheer when, at some point during the afternoon, he fielded a ball on the boundary by stopping it with his foot. This used to be the default method for the tall fast bowler (hence my comparison of Claydon with Norman Graham in the post on the first day’s play) but has become one of contemporary cricket’s great taboos. In my view it would be a better game if every XI had to contain one player incapable of touching his toes.

The afternoon gave us two things you don’t see very often. The first of these was three wickets in four balls by David Griffiths, a fast-medium bowler making his Kent first-class debut after spending most of his career on the fringe at Hampshire. Howell was the first victim, slashing at a wide one to be caught behind. After Miles lost his middle stump, Payne dug out the hat-trick ball, but had his leg stump removed by the next one. I have not seen a hat trick in person since 2000, (Simon Doull in Cricket Max and nobody realised it was a hat trick until after the game—long story), so this was the next-best thing.

Five wickets had fallen for ten runs and the lead was 370, probably enough but leaving Kent with a wisp of hope.  The second thing-you-don’t-see-very-often of the afternoon closed it down.

Tom Smith and Liam Norwell broke Gloucestershire’s tenth-wicket record against Kent, surpassing  CF Belcher and FG Roberts’ partnership of 74 at the Spa Ground, Gloucester in 1890. Belcher (I learn from Cricket Archive) had a seven-match first-class career of which his 60 not out contribution to the record partnership was almost certainly the highlight. It was 60 more than his captain, WG Grace, managed on that occasion. Fred Roberts was more distinguished. He took 970 wickets in 261 matches with his left-arm pace bowling over 19 seasons. His 35 that day was only three short of his career-best with the bat.

Smith took Belcher’s role as the all-rounder left to do as well as he could with only the last man to assist him. Norwell’s first-class average of 14 is double that of Roberts, and he swung the bat with some intelligence. Griffiths finished the partnership at 76 when he uprooted Norwell’s middle stump, finishing with a career-best six for 63.

I knew about the Belcher and Roberts because a programme came with the scorecard that, among other things, listed the main records in matches between the two counties, making the pound charge for the card good value. Thus I learned that this was the third Gloucestershire record that I had witnessed. First there was Sadiq Mohammad and Zaheer Abbas putting on 229 sumptuous runs at St Lawrence in the golden summer of 1976. Second was Paul “Human” Romaines and John Shepherd (who had a point to prove) compiling 221 for the fourth wicket at the County Ground in 1983. Though several of the Kent records were set in my era, I was not there for any of them.

Kent’s target was 448, right at the impossible end of the continuum, except for those of us who had been at St Lawrence the year before to watch Darren Stevens lead a laws-of-probability-defying  chase of 418 to beat Lancashire. In that context, the extra 30 seemed a trifle.

We were kidding ourselves, and we knew it. Bell-Drummond and Cowdrey were gone before the Byzantine light regulations brought play to an end for the day. I was not there for the fourth day, so missed Kent being bowled out for 203, a Gloucestershire win by 244 runs. Kent finished sixth in division two, Gloucestershire seventh.

A mediocre season then, for both my counties (I lived in Bristol for 19 years and was a member of Gloucestershire for much of that time). Kent, perhaps, have more cause for cautious optimism, having reached the semi-finals of the 50-over competition. What they need desperately is a decent fast bowler. Nobody is a greater admirer of Darren Stevens than me, but no side with a 39-year-old shuffling in to open the bowling is promotion material. Doug Bollinger was supposed to be the answer this year, but he has lost his fizz and played in only half the Championship games (I can’t resist the champagne metaphors with Bollinger, I know it’s a character flaw).

Gloucestershire appear to have more young talent where quick bowling is concerned. Both Miles and Norwell looked decently sharp here. But even if they find the talent, can they keep it? Kent have the same problem. Billings and Riley are both in the England development squad for the winter and will get good offers when their contracts are up. It is not simply a question of money, though neither county has cash to burn. Players aspiring to a test career these days think (probably with justification) that they must prove themselves in division one to be taken seriously. What began as a fissure between the two divisions has become a chasm. Last year’s promoted teams were both relegated.

I would like to think that on one of my end-of-season visits to the old country I will see Kent (preferably) or Gloucestershire win the Championship, but that may not be possible unless medical science doubles the human lifespan in the next thirty years or so.

But let us live in the present. I watched cricket at Canterbury, and it was good.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Kent v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Canterbury, 23-26 September 2014: first day

First, the good news. Scotch eggs—the absence of which triggered the pork pie avalanche of 2013—were abundant on the shelves of the on-ground Sainsbury’s, and no doubt in anticipation of the presence of My Life in Cricket Scorecards, had been placed close to the ground to minimise the risk of slither among the processed meats.

There was a pleasing familiarity about the St Lawrence. For one thing, only a year had elapsed since my last visit. For another, Sky Sport New Zealand has shown almost all the English county cricket broadcast by BSkyB in the UK this season, including several games from Canterbury. Last year I could name fewer than half of the Kent XI as it first took the field; this year my recognition rate was 100%, thanks to technology’s ability to shrink the world.

Gloucestershire captain Alex Gidman won the toss, chose to bat, and would not have expected to be 29 for five after an hour’s play, routed by Darren Stevens and Mitch Claydon, sharing the new ball with a combined run up of 27 paces. Fifteen of these are Stevens’, and they get shorter as he tires passing the umpire. “Mince up” might be convey the experience more accurately. I can’t think of a regular opening pair with such an economy of sole use since John Shepherd and Norman Graham. Like Graham, Claydon uses his height to get lift and has had a good year, finishing with more than 50 wickets. He follows Graham’s admirable approach to the game in other ways, which we will come to.

Another novelty of this partnership is that Stevens stands at first slip for his partner. Opening bowlers in the slips are novelty enough, though there have been a few good ones, most obviously Ian Botham. Mike Hendrick also springs to mind. But I cannot recall any others at first slip. It was here that Stevens got the carnage under way, taking a straightforward catch to remove Dent in the third over.

A residue of damp in the autumn air might have been a factor; the ball appeared to stop a bit and it certainly moved around, as the new ball should. Also, it was one of those days when edges carried and fielders held them. The ball that Gloucestershire’s promising young keeper Roderick edged to second slip reared up too, but there was nothing here to induce any doubt that it is a thoroughly good idea to extend the English county season to the end of September.

Hamish Marshall came in at No 5. I wrote about Hamish often when I was CricInfo’s man in the Northern Districts so it was a pleasure to watch him again, not least because there was no risk of the unwary scribe mistaking him for his identical twin James (or vice versa). The joy was short-lived; Marshall was caught by Northeast at third slip of the back of the bat as tried to steer Stevens through the onside.

Gloucestershire’s pre-lunch recovery was merely relative; three more wickets fell by the interval. Sam Northeast, captain in Rob Key’s absence, kept the opening bowlers going for 22 overs. When Claydon finally got a rest, Tom Smith flailed away in relief at Calum Haggett’s first ball, to be well caught by Northeast in the gully. There was no rest for Stevens, who sauntered in from the Nackington Road End until lunch.

There’s always something new at the cricket. Today it was the sponsorship of the match by a firm of funeral directors, who positioned their limo (filled with balloons, bizarrely enough) on the bank on the hospital side. Given the demographic of the average County Championship crowd, the presence of a funeral car risked instigating unease, especially at the last game of the season when the minds of older spectators turn to whether they will be back next year. As a metaphor for the Gloucestershire innings thus far, it was compelling.

The interval found me carrying out a humanitarian act at the second-hand bookstall. Among the Wisdens sat a pristine 1966 edition. That sounds just what a collector wants, but consider. It was as-new because it had been neglected, for nigh half a century ignored on a shelf or in the back of a cupboard, unable to give out the good news about the second XI averages and Other Matches at Lord’s. Now it is free to shout all this out, sitting on the shelves at My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers, alongside 52 yellow-jacketed friends.
The Gloucestershire batting was also in better spirits after lunch. The ninth-wicket partnership of Craig Miles and David Payne put on 90 in 24 overs, just on the polite side of tail-end slogging. Some felt that Northeast persisted with the quicker bowlers for too long as the ball became middle-aged.

When Adam Riley was brought on he had Miles caught at long on for 48 and was then hit for six by Payne, coming down the pitch to reach 50.  After more merriment from last man Liam Norwell, Gloucestershire were all out for 179, not as many as Gidman envisaged when he won the toss, but a total he would happily have settled for at lunchtime.

James Tredwell did not get a bowl. He has had an odd season, loaned to Sussex for first-class games, but a regular for England in the short forms. Kent rightly give Championship precedence to Adam Riley, already spoken of as a test player of the middle future, but would like to hold on to Tredwell for the limited-overs stuff. The fact that both are offies does not help, especially at Canterbury where the slope makes things difficult from the Pavilion End.

Kent’s top order did only marginally better than Gloucestershire’s, subsiding to 47 for four before Billings and the inevitable Stevens rallied towards the end of the day.

During the final session I watched under lights for the first time at St Lawrence, but only briefly. The lights were switched on at tea as the cloud thickened. They kept the players on for longer than would have been the case, but at the point when the artificial light became stronger than the natural light (which, one might have thought, was their purpose) the regulations demanded that the umpires called a halt. It is probably the case that the ball becomes a shade more difficult to see at this point, just as it was a shade more difficult to play first thing, but this should be regarded as one of the variables that makes the first-class game interesting.
It confounded my Blean correspondent who shelled out the full admission price for very little cricket.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The 1956 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack

My Khandallah correspondent is on form. For my recent birthday I was presented with a copy of the 1956 Wisden, the 52nd edition on the shelves of the library at My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers. It is not the oldest there; the 1955 edition was an earlier gift from the same discerning source. As she says, if you’d told her two years ago that she’d spend her time hunting down the Almanack in second-hand bookshops and on websites she’d have thought that you had escaped from somewhere.  

Norman Preston had succeeded his father Hubert as Wisden editor in 1952; this was his fifth edition. Preston was a Derek Pringle among editors: solid, reliable, but unlikely to surprise or excite (I mean Pringle the cricketer; Pringle the writer would make a fine editor, I’m sure).

The format of the 1956 Wisden was that of every other of the 28 editions that Preston edited. It begins with a 63-page index. Nobody is keener on a well-honed index than My Life in Cricket Scorecards, but this is too much of a good thing. Yet there it stayed at the front of the Almanack until Matthew Engel came along. He shifted the index to the back in 1993 and did away with it altogether two years later, replacing it with detailed contents pages for the book as a whole and for the records. In his 1995 preface Engel anticipates complaints, but I doubt that there were any. He did more than anybody to make Wisden fit for the 21st century, not least by adding authority and panache to Notes by the Editor.

In 1955 the Notes were more by way of summing up with any opinions expressed meekly lest someone at Lord’s be offended. Preston does express concern that cricket in the mid-50s could often be dull. Even here, he was not sufficiently confident to say this in his own voice. Instead, he tugged his forelock and agreed with the views of MCC President Viscount Cobham (soon off to be Governor-General of New Zealand).

The main feature article takes up this issue. Bill Bowes—former Yorkshire and England bowler turned writer—leads, followed by a paragraph or two from leading players and administrators. The focus of the debate was the lbw law, which required the batsman to be struck in line with the stumps to be given out. This meant that batsmen could pad up outside the off stump at will. Some did so, for hour after hour in some cases.

Some contributors called for a return to the lbw law as it had been before a change in 1935 that allowed the bowler to obtain a dismissal from a ball that pitched outside the off stump. It might seem odd, in the pursuit of more positive play, to narrow the law, apparently in the batsman’s favour. The rationale was to encourage bowlers to bowl stump to stump, thus compelling batsmen to play shots.

Nothing happened of course, at least not until 1972 when the current law was introduced to allow a batsman playing no shot to be out when struck outside the off stump. Just seven years before the inauguration of the Gillette Cup, nobody proposes one-day cricket as a curative for English cricket’s torpor.

On the face of it, the progress of the test series between England and South Africa makes you wonder if the debate was necessary: South Africa pulled back a two-nil deficit only for England to take the decider at the Oval. But the run rate in that game was well below two an over, so they had a point.

Basil D’Oliveira would have brightened things up. On cricketing ability he should have been one of the first selected for the South African touring party, had it actually represented South Africa rather than only the minority white population. Wisden makes no mention of this.

The best writing in the 1956 edition comes from Neville Cardus, paying tribute to Len Hutton, who had retired. The article shows why Cardus is regarded as one of cricket’s greatest writers. Here he describes the young Hutton on one of first appearances for Yorkshire:

After a characteristically Yorkshire investigation of the state of the wicket, the state of the opposition bowling, the state of mind the umpires were in, the state of the weather and barometer, and probably the state of the Bank of England itself, Mitchell and Hutton began to score now and then.

Young Hutton was feeling in form, so after he had played himself in he decided to cut a rising ball outside the off-stump. Remember that he was fresh to the Yorkshire scene and policies. He actually lay back and cut hard and swiftly, with cavalier flourish. He cut under the ball by an inch, and it sped bang into the wicket-keeper's gloves. And Mitchell, from the other end of the pitch, looked hard at Hutton and said, "That's no ...... use!" This was probably Hutton's true baptism, cleansing him of all vanity and lusts for insubstantial pageantry and temporal glory.

This and other features are available on CricInfo:

The fifties were grim for Kent. The thirteenth place in 1955 was bettered only three times in the decade. With Colin Cowdrey on test duty for much of the season, forty-year-old Arthur Fagg was leading scorer. Kent’s first professional captain, Doug Wright (41) took most wickets.

My friends Allen Hunt and George Murrell would have suffered the season at eight home grounds: Gravesend, Blackheath, Tunbridge Wells, Gillingham, Maidstone, Canterbury (but not until the end of July), Dover and Folkestone. They probably took the train to some of the away venues long since disappeared from the schedule: Yeovil, Hull, Hastings and Clacton. George in particular would have taken a certain ascetic satisfaction from these proceedings.

The 1956 Wisden was primarily a publication of record, as Wisden remained until well into the nineties. It would be pleasing to report that it led debate on the issues of the day, rather than following rather breathlessly behind, but perhaps that is to expect more than readers did at the time. The great thing about any Wisden is that it becomes more fascinating as it gets older, each page a memory-lined tunnel to the past.

Note to my correspondent: Christmas is coming.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

England v Australia, Fourth Test, Old Trafford, 23 – 28 July 1964: A Cautionary Tale

To be born at all is to pick a ticket in a lottery. Land in one place and time and history leaves you alone to get on with life and make it what you can; a few years or a few hundred miles different and it intervenes with a black hand. Think of being a boy of 13 as opposed to 17 in much of Europe a hundred years ago and the difference that would have made to your life expectancy.

I had a lucky escape. As I have written before in these columns, my formative cricket year was 1966 when Sobers, Kanhai, Butcher and Hall came to England to intrigue and captivate a receptive young mind. Two years older and I would have been trying to drink in the desert of the 1964 Ashes series, and might well have fled parched from cricket into the arms of that temptress association football.

The ’64 Ashes was the love child of Sir Geoffrey Howe and the speaking clock, plain to look at, wet and desperately dull. Almost 15 hours were lost to rain during the first test, at Trent Bridge. With the scoring rate struggling to keep above two an over during both sides’ first innings, spectators will have welcomed the respite.

The rain and the funereal scoring at Lord’s led to a second draw. At Headingley, 160 from Peter Burge helped Australia to victory and the run rate to a heady two-and-a-half an over. How selection policies have changed over the years. Fred Trueman and Les Flavell were England’s only fast bowlers, so after Flavell was injured, Ted Dexter—brisk but very much a batsman who bowled—and Fred Titmus shared the new ball with Trueman.

And so to Old Trafford, the setting for our cautionary tale. In tune with the attritional attitudes of the day, Australia’s captain Bobby Simpson was solely intent on avoiding defeat, thus retaining the Ashes. On Thursday morning he won the toss, opened the batting and was still there on Saturday morning when a bit of late hitting took the strike rate to a pulse-threatening 2.56 an over, having not been much above two an over for the first two days. Simpson’s 311 remains the second-highest maiden test century after Sobers’ 365 and the second-slowest test triple hundred after Hanif Mohammad’s 337, both in the 1957-58 series in the Caribbean.

For real empathy with the hapless folk who paid money to watch this, look at the bowling figures of Tom Cartwright: 77 overs, 32 maidens, 118 runs, two wickets. Cartwright (then of Warwickshire, later of Somerset and Glamorgan) was a medium-pacer who could bowl with unequalled accuracy and with just enough variation to make batsmen even more risk-averse than usual in those cautious times. In first-class cricket he took 1,536 wickets at under 20 and at only a smidgen over two an over.

As I have written before, my Blean correspondent and myself frittered away our best years picking made-up cricket XIs. Our most debated and proudest effort was the All-Time Boring XI. Cartwright led the attack, which excluded truly fast bowlers, masters of swing and, obviously, spinners as being too intrinsically interesting. Cartwright’s selection was a compliment, a reflection that he did what he set out to do—to wear batsmen down by the relentless tedium of nagging medium-pace accuracy—better than the hundreds of other English county bowlers who have set about the same endeavour over the years.  Other bowlers were Derek Shackleton of Hampshire, cut from the same cloth as Cartwright, and GG (Horse) Arnold. The latter was a controversial choice, as Arnold could be quite interesting as a bowler, but was favoured as being most likely to induce boring batting in the opposition.

Three members of the batting line-up played at Old Trafford fifty years ago. Bill Lawry placed his position in doubt by hitting three sixes, and by being run out, always an interesting way to go. However, 106 at two an over despite the sixes supports his retention.

Geoffrey Boycott, in his debut test series, set the tone of the reply with three fours in three hours. Ken Barrington made 256 from 624 balls, though he did take an hour-and-a-half less than Simpson to reach 200.

Players with reputations as dashers were brought down by the miasma of the pervading torpor. Ted Dexter went no faster than Barrington in scoring 174. Jim Parks spent more than three hours over 60 against a tired attack. In went right down the order. Opening bowlers John Price and Fred Rumsey faced 51 balls between them for four runs.

England’s defence for imposing this inertia upon the paying public would have been that the Australians started it. There is something to this; with no chance of victory why risk defeat, however remote the possibility? Yet for the past 30 years at least, the rearguard action would have been conducted with a bit more style and awareness that people had paid money to watch and should not be sent home contemplating a call to the Samaritans.

The 1985 Ashes was a milestone in this respect. On the face of it, it was an unremarkable 3 – 1 win by a superior England team. But look closer. Two of England’s victories were concluded in the final session of the fifth day. England’s scoring rate for the series was close to four an over, and Australia’s was well clear of three. At 1960s scoring rates there would not have been sufficient time for the games to have finished and the series would have been drawn.

It is much more difficult to draw a test match these days for reasons beyond a more positive attitude. Fields drain quicker, covering is better, artificial light fills in when natural light is inadequate and some lost time is made up.

But let us not be complacent. For much of the current series in England (I write after the third day at Lord’s) progress has been pedestrian, the scoring rates inflated by some tailend bashing. At Trent Bridge, as at Old Trafford half a century ago, spectators turned up for the third and later days pretty sure that they were watching a game that was going to end in nothing but a draw.

This report from the 1965 Wisden—unusually trenchant for the time—captures the futility of the events at Old Trafford fifty years ago this week:


Monday, July 7, 2014

At Last:Test Cricket Under Lights

So test cricket will, at last, enter a new era towards the end of next year when Australia and New Zealand play a five-day game under lights at either the Adelaide Oval or the Bellerive Oval in Hobart. It is surprising that it has taken this long. In distant 2002 a first-class match under lights was scheduled in New Zealand, and I was to be CricInfo’s witness to history.

Except that I arrived in Hamilton to discover that it had been called off, rescheduled to begin the following day at a more conventional time. The match, between Northern Districts and Central Districts, was to be played under Seddon Park’s brand new lights, of which ND were justly proud, so much so that CricInfo was offered the opportunity to climb to the top of one of the four towers. I forget what sort of injury I feigned in turning down the offer. Anyway, they were as bright as any in the cricket world and had illuminated a famous one-day win for the ND over the touring English just a fortnight before.

So confident were they of the strength of the lights that it was decided that the proposed four-day game would be played with a red ball. As CricInfo’s man—perceptively and with elegant understatement—points out, testing this idea out earlier than the night before would have been smart:

At that pre-game practice they discovered that it was easy enough to follow the red ball, but only as long as it was not hit in the air. Once it merged with the night sky it disappeared quicker than Lord Lucan. Incidentally, does not the reason offered by John Turkington, ND’s perfectly spherical CEO, for not using an orange ball—that they were difficult to source—appear as hopeless at this distance as it did at the time? The internet may have been but young, but email was established and the fax machine was still in its pomp. A request to the manufacturers for a box of their finest would surely not have been spurned.

There was a trial first-class match under lights at none other than the St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury in 2011, again with a pink ball. The report on the match in the Kent annual describes the cricket as “turgid” but reaches no conclusion about the future of cricket under lights, though I note that the experiment has not been repeated.

The key is how the ball behaves. It has to age like a red ball, but still be visible on the ground and against the dark sky. That’s why the white ball is not an option. It swings like a monkey in a tree early on, then becomes grubby and hard to see. Two are needed to get through a 50-over innings.

Wellington’s daily paper the Dominion Post got very excited by the news of the day/night test and gave over most of its front page to a mocked up photo of the Basin Reserve under lights, which it does not yet have. The prospect of leaving work with four hours’ test cricket still to watch is enticing, but, as they say in Yorkshire, think on. Any number of reports in these columns on matches the Basin have turned into pastiches of Captain Scott’s diary, so obsessed do they become with the struggle to preserve life in the face of extreme cold. In eight years of watching ODIs and T20s at the Cake Tin, it has been actually pleasant sitting outside at 9 30 in the evening only once: at the T20 against England last year.

That is why the Australians, if they are sensible, should choose Adelaide over Hobart as the venue for the inaugural fixture. I fell in love with Hobart when I spent a week there two years ago, and the Bellerive Oval is charming. But, like Wellington, the Tasmanian capital stares south, teeth permanently gritted as it receives the Antarctic’s meteorological off cuts. A place where an alert caterer will prepare for a cricket match by trebling the order for hot soup is not suitable for test cricket in the gloaming.


Monday, June 2, 2014

New Zealand v India, second Test, Basin Reserve, 14 – 18 February 2014, third day: McCullum’s great innings

Day three

Four o’clock. That was when I told my Khandallah correspondent to expect my return to My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers, having watched New Zealand lose the test match. Many would have thought that a conservative estimate; after all, taxonomists mostly classify New Zealand’s batting under “invertebrate”.

That is what is so wonderful about test cricket. Nobody had a clue that we would see the start of New Zealand’s finest test match innings, or that it would lead a rearguard action that would draw the match and win the series. Four million looking a billion in the face and not blinking. What is more, our appreciation of what we had seen had not advanced much by the time we left the ground at 6.30. Test match cricket possesses a paradox that few if any other sports do: that you may not understand what you have seen until several days later.

There was little in the first half of the day to suggest that anything other than the tiresomely predictable was on. At afternoon drinks New Zealand were 121 for five, 125 short of making India bat again and a four pm homecoming still on the cards.

With Ross Taylor absent for the birth of his second child, a disproportionate amount of New Zealand’s hopes went out of the window in the second over of the day when Kane Williamson was caught behind off Zaheer Khan. This brought together two young left-handers—Rutherford and Latham—who, if every gram of their promise is turned into performance, will spend many hours together at the crease in the decade to come.

Not today, however. Rutherford had reached 35 when he mimicked Williamson’s mode of dismissal. This was a better ball though, swinging away late down the line of off stump.

Let it be recorded that Brendon McCullum came in at this point, with his side 52 for three. A pensive period of play followed, until half an hour or so before lunch something happened that did not seem to matter much at the time. McCullum completely mistimed a drive to a full-length ball from Mohammed Shami. Virat Kohli, at a very straight silly mid-on, spilled a reasonably simple chance. See my remarks about not understanding what you have seen, above. In that moment the match and the series slipped away from India.

Tom Latham became Dhoni’s third victim of the session from the first ball of the last over before lunch. It was a nothing shot, pushing outside off at a ball that could easily have been left alone. Corey Anderson lasted only six balls before giving Jadeja a return catch off the leading edge. BJ Watling now joined McCullum.

Play until tea was a throwback to an earlier time, exactly two an over from 26 overs. Again, it did not seem as gripping as it actually was, as the idea that New Zealand could hang on for long enough to save the game seemed the sort of proposition that might eminate only from an email of Nigerian origin. And McCullum was dropped again, a harder chance than the previous one. Ishant Sharma could not quite hold on to a return catch as he followed through, one of those chances that comes down entirely to instinct.

Up to this point McCullum had batted against type, focusing purely on defence. It was Ken Dodd playing Hamlet. Perhaps he decided to add a shot of caffeine to his play to make him more alert, or maybe the Indian attack became stale. Whatever the reason, it was the authentic McCullum who resumed after tea, no chance to score spurned. He went from 50 to 100 at a run a ball, reaching three figures by putting Sharma into the crowd at long on. Like the rest of us, India had no appreciation of what was going on and were mentally heading for the airport doing nothing more than waiting for the batsmen to make mistakes.

Praise for BJ Watling should be fulsome too. At the end of the day he had 52 from 202 balls. More and more it seems that Watling has the temperament of a test player. New Zealand took the lead shortly before the end of the day, and we left the ground heartened by a performance that had heart and character. But we also knew that New Zealand would have to bat for another day to put the game beyond India, whose strokeplayers could rattle up 250-plus on a pitch that had not given up a wicket in almost two sessions. We had seen the Holy Grail but mistaken it for a shiny egg cup.

Days four and five

I was not at the Basin for the final two days but, in common with much of the population of New Zealand it seems, followed the game at a distance and watched the recordings later. Brendon McCullum batted throughout the fourth day and reached his triple century early on the fifth morning, watched by a crowd which contained the largest proportion of spectators dressed in suits and ties seen in New Zealand since the thirties. All over Wellington men of a certain age were seen hurrying to an urgent 11 am meeting at an undisclosed location.

McCullum was supported royally by Watling, who reached 124 from 367 balls, and Jimmy Neesham, who took a debut century off a tired attack from 123 balls. When I first saw Neesham I wrote how comfortable he looked at provincial level, and have the same opinion a grade higher. This is not say that he is the finished article, not by a long chalk, but there is enough emerging talent in New Zealand cricket for us to approach the future with our usual apprehension diluted somewhat.

So how good was McCullum’s innings? I have given it more than three months, in attempt to achieve perspective, only to find that there isn’t any. It was the finest innings ever played by a New Zealander in a test match, and not just because it was the biggest and the longest. Had McCullum been out at any point before he passed 250—about an hour before the end of the fourth day—New Zealand would almost certainly have lost.

Search the records and it is difficult to find an innings quite like it, one of such sustained defiance in the face of defeat. Hanif Mohammad’s 337 against the West Indies in 1958 is the only comparable triple century (and the only higher score in a team’s second innings). The danger of defeat was present almost throughout then too, but it was dour defence all the way, unleavened by McCullum’s willingness to take them on. Pakistan progressed at only a fraction over two an over. Had McCullum been as stately, New Zealand would have lost.

Martin Crowe’s 299 against Sri Lanka at the Basin in 1991 (still unwise to say “hey Marty, one short eh?” by the way) was also in pursuit of a large deficit, but he came in at 148 for two and the danger of defeat passed sooner.

VVS Laxman’s 281 in the greatest of all Tests, at Kolkota in 2001 also saw the prospect of losing the game recede at an earlier point. There are many other examples of fine, courageous long innings that saved teams from defeat, but none with the odds against success stacked so highly for so long. One of test cricket’s greatest innings, beyond question.

It was the highest innings of which I have seen part, eclipsing the fruitlessly tedious 275 to which Darryl Cullinan subjected us at Eden Park in 1999 despite Amnesty International’s intervention. It was a privilege to be there. If only we Sunday spectators could have appreciated quite what it was we were watching.

A note for my fellow pedants

Ever since I started writing Scorecards I have agonised about the use of the upper case for “test” as in match. When I worked for CricInfo its style guide (a thin publication) insisted that the word should always begin with a “T”. It has never made any sense to me to have an upper-case adjective followed by a lower-case noun. So with a shout of “Eureka!” I have decided that from now on in these columns it will be “test’ as an adjective and “Test” as a noun.

Now, should “Eureka!” begin with the upper case?...

Saturday, May 24, 2014

New Zealand v India, 2nd Test, Basin Reserve, 14 – 18 February 2014: second day

A period of reflection is sometimes appropriate; such is my explanation for the three-month gestation of this report on what became one of the great New Zealand Tests. It still beats Wisden by eleven months. I was there from tea on the first day to the close on the third.

The marketing people get brainier by the day. New Zealand Cricket’s latest wheeze to get people through the gates is to stage an extract from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the start of each international match. Guildenstern—a sensitive performance by Brendon McCullum—tosses a coin. Rosencrantz—MS Dhoni’s interpretation was as moving as any by an Indian captain in a leading role since the Nawab of Pataudi junior’s groundbreaking Hedda Gabler at Headingley in ‘67—calls heads and wins.

That is the most reasonable explanation for law-of-probability-defying run of seven tosses in a row won by the Indian skipper. And a lot of good it has done him. Four defeats and a tie in the ODIs were followed by a 40-run loss in the first Test at Eden Park.

Our inbred pessimism led home supporters to expect payback and it was no surprise to arrive at the Basin at tea on the first afternoon to find New Zealand all out for 192, Ishant Sharma six for 51.

Murali Vijay was out to the last ball of the second over of the reply, unable to get the gloves out of the way of a Southee delivery that came in with extra bounce. The odd play and miss aside, the batsmen looked comfortable and it was a bit of a surprise when Pujara fell leg before to a Boult inswinger just before the end. As often happens when the side bowling second is defending a small total, the New Zealand bowlers were bit anxious and too keen to make things happen rather than concentrating on the basics.

Nightwatchman Ishant Sharma provided the early entertainment on Saturday with shots of pure cock-eyed optimism. The fifty partnership came from 73 deliveries. Southee continues to chip batsmen with the vocabulary of a bowler ten kph faster than he actually is; Sharma will have made a note of Southee’s view of his bouncer-avoiding technique, which finished with the batsman flat on his back in the crease. Sharma was caught behind off Boult trying to repeat a cover drive for four.

At the other end, opener Shikhar Dhawan was showing why the Australian writer Chloe Saltau had recently picked him in her World XI. He cuts like a Savile Row tailor. However, it was still perplexing a couple of months later to open Wisden to find that Dhawan was one of the Almanack’s five Cricketers of the Year. The choice of the five is made on their performance in the previous English season, so how did Dhawan win in a year in which Australia and New Zealand toured? I had forgotten all about the Champions Trophy, which is easy to do. He had wowed Wisden editor Lawrence Booth with a couple of dashing centuries in the group stage, but it is still cricket’s least-merited accolade since Paul Collingwood’s seven-run MBE in 2005. The other four Cricketers of the Year were Ryan Harris, Chris Rogers, Joe Root, and Charlotte Edwards. It is a measure of how the three-nil result in the 2013 Ashes failed to reflect the narrow gap in talent between the two sides that two Australians and only one Englishman are named (though the fact that no one can be a Cricketer of the Year more than once may have influenced this too). It used to be the case that one of the five would be a county stalwart. I commend Darren Stevens to you, young Booth.

Here, Dhawan was out two short of a century, edging a Southee outswinger to Watling. Rohit Sharma soon followed for a duck to become Jimmy Neesham’s first Test wicket off as poor a ball as the debutant will ever take one with, a wide half volley that Sharma dragged on. At 165 for five a degree of parity had been restored, but India’s new hero, Virat Kohli, was in.

Kohli was fluent until succoured by a McCullum ruse. Neil Wagner maintained a line a couple of feet wide of off stump with two short extra covers. For some time Kohli resisted, but the apple was too big and juicy and the first time he tried to take a bite Rutherford, the straighter of the two fielders in the trap, took the catch.

MS Dhoni joined Ajinkya Rahane at the crease with both preferring to accrue through boundaries. At mid-afternoon drinks 28 of Rahane’s 38 had come that way, and Dhoni had hit the first four balls of the preceding over for four. A sensible bowler would have stayed quiet and tried to blend in with the surroundings, but Wagner continued to chip the Indian captain, and made himself look mightily stupid by doing so.

The advent of the new ball after tea merely accelerated the scoring rate. New Zealand’s only idea seemed to be to feed Dhoni’s ramp shot in the hope that he might feather one. So it was a surprise when Dhoni fell to a short ball from Boult that he could easily have left alone. This brought in Ravindra Jadeja, a Test No 9 with three first-class triple centuries to his name.

Jadeja showed no inclination to dig in or run singles and greeted Wagner’s return to the attack by sending the first two deliveries to the boundary, the second impishly between slip and gully. He was caught at second slip off the following ball, all but two of his 26 coming from boundaries.

Rahane was now ten short of his maiden Test century and will not have been reassured by the entrance at No 10 of Zaheer Khan, a batsman unable to pass a swash without attempting to buckle it. Predictably enough he attempted to send the second ball he received down the Mt Victoria Tunnel. Rahane met the situation calmly, upping the tempo without risk and two overs later pulled Anderson to the mid-wicket boundary to join the centurions. With a hooked six he brought up Wagner’s century a little later, from a mere 22 overs.

Earlier that over Wagner thought that he had bowled Zaheer, only for a replay to show that he had no-balled by cutting the return crease with his left foot (he was bowling round the wicket). My seat high in the Vance Stand looked right down the line of the violated crease and I am sure that he was bowling one or two no balls an over in this manner, so had no sympathy for him. Did Wagner shut up? He did not.

It took a piece of fielding as classy as the innings itself to dismiss Rahane. Boult sprinted in from the cover boundary and dived full length, scooping the ball one-handed an inch from the turf. It contends with Boult’s own flying leap to dismiss Denesh Ramdin at the Basin late last year as catch of the season.

Another flurry of eyes-shut slogging from Zaheer took India to a final score of 438, a lead of 236 with more than three days still to go. As Fulton and Rutherford came to the crease it was the nature of the defeat that was being debated; would India have to bat again?; would play go beyond the third day? The fact of defeat was no more worthy of debate than the setting of the sun.

Peter Fulton lasted only into the second over when he padded up to a Zaheer Khan inswinger. The raised finger of umpire Steve Davis cued a lot of rot from the radio commentary box, where it was agreed that the decision was a travesty. Firstly, had the decision review system been in operation it would have supported the decision by showing the ball clipping the off stump. Secondly, any opening batsman padding up to a swing bowler of Zaheer’s pedigree is asking for all the trouble that comes to him. It was further evidence that, for all the heroism of Eden Park last year, Peter Fulton does not have what it takes as a Test opener.

Rutherford and Williamson shepherded New Zealand to the close, but the football fans present consoled themselves with the thought that on the morrow they would be able to watch the rest of the Test and be in their seats at the Cake Tin as the Pheonix kicked off at 5 pm. If you had told us that the game was almost 72 hours away from a finish we would have called an ambulance for you, and probably the police as well.

To be continued.

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 ...