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.


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 ...