Sunday, June 28, 2015

Forty years on: Cowdrey beats the Australians, Lillee steals my shoe

Two of best days’ cricket I ever saw came in the same week in the summer of 1975, when the sun shone from blue skies and the world was full of promise.

The first World Cup final took place on midsummer’s day: ten hours of sparkling cricket to launch the game’s Caribbean era. From Lord’s the defeated Australians travelled to Canterbury to open their Ashes tour at St Lawrence, just as they are now, forty years on.

I got to the ground for the last two hours, straight from the examination hall having taken my final two O levels. The morning was occupied with the deployment of smoke and mirrors in a quantity unseen outside a nineteenth-century mill town or the Palace of Versailles respectively, as I attempted to lure the examiners away from the conclusion that my knowledge of the Russian language was not as comprehensive as they might have hoped.

Two hours of the afternoon were spent stumbling mapless in the foothills of calculus for Additional Mathematics. I passed both subjects, but over the four decades since the benefit extracted from this achievement has never equalled that I would have accrued from the splendid day at the cricket foregone.

By the time I arrived the innings of the day was already done: 156 from the left-handed New South Wales opener Alan Turner made quickly enough to be over by tea. It remained his career-best score.
Some elegance from Doug Walters—who would always return to the field after an interval puffing on a cigarette in the tour games—and biffing from Gary Gilmour and the reserve wicketkeeper Richie Robinson rounded off the day.

At the close we wandered down to the lime tree and started a game on the outfield (it was pleasing the other day to see, on the TV coverage of a T20 game, the new tree within the field of play, as its venerable predecessor invariably was).

I removed my school shoes, which joined a small pile of items used to mark the bowler’s end wicket. Those end-of-play games were joyful, never more so than on a day when the cares of exams were done for two years. They ended only when the groundsman reclaimed the outfield and sent us away.

At one point the great DK Lillee emerged from one of the tents on that side of the ground (usually they were there only during Canterbury Week). A swarm of autograph hunters buzzed around him. Our game paused to let them pass.

Only when play closed half-an-hour or so later did I discover that my right shoe was no longer present. Schoolboy japery eliminated as a possibility, I was forced to recognise that the facts pointed only one way: the great fast bowler Dennis Lillee—who knows for what reasons of psychological turpitude—had stolen my shoe. Forty years later, I am as sure of that as I was as I limped my way down the Old Dover Road that night.

Respectably shod, I was there from the start of the second day. Ian Chappell declared overnight at 415 for eight. The Kent line-up was without the England captain (but not for much longer) Denness and Alan Knott. The great CJ Tavaré was also unavailable, playing for Oxford University. Though they cracked along at four an over (not far off the speed of light we thought then) the wickets fell regularly, not to the shoe thief Lillee, who ambled in only for eight overs of barely-trying medium pace, but to Gary Gilmour, who had appeared from nowhere to swing England out of the World Cup the week before, and the leg-spinner Jim Higgs.

Chappell did not enforce the follow on, choosing to take more batting practice instead, just as Michael Clarke has done 40 years later. I do not remember this being dull, but the scorecard suggests it was: 140 for three declared from 58 overs. The Underwood factor was strong—38 runs from 21 overs—but it was the underrated Graham Johnson who took two of the three wickets to fall, including the Australian captain, bowled for a duck.

The declaration early on the third (and final) day set Kent 354 to win in five-and-a-quarter hours. Ian Chappell told the driver of the team bus to be ready to go by mid-afternoon, which seemed a reasonable request.

But surprise is often one of the ingredients of a great day’s cricket. Just as this year nobody expected Williamson and Watling to break a world record, or Southee to bowl England out for 123, or Guptill to score 237 in a World Cup quarter-final, so then nobody believed that a 42-year-old could take Kent to a famous victory over the mighty Australians.

Colin Cowdrey was as naturally gifted a games player as there can be. It is sometimes said now that he would not have made it in the modern game because he was fat. Well, he was fat because he played in an age when he spent the whole summer at first slip (where he was one of the best catchers of his time). Both of his sons, Chris and Graham, were terrific fielders anywhere, and so would Colin have been in a different age. There are stories of him running people half his age ragged at squash simply by standing on the T and dinking the ball around the court until they could chase no more.

There has not been a batsman with more time or better timing. Only his inhibitions stood between Cowdrey and greatness. Whether from the restrained nature of the times, or personal insecurities, or the burden of captaincy, he was rarely as magnificent as he could be. David Gower is a more recent example of a player who on his best days looked as good as a batsman could be, but frustrated us by putting it all together so rarely, though in Gower’s case it could be that a few more inhibitions might have helped.

On that day though—Friday 27 June 1975—Colin Cowdrey put everything else aside and let his talent take charge. He came in at 77 for two, with Bob Woolmer batting well at the other end. 

Woolmer spent too many years low in the order—he’d have gone to another county these days—but was now taking his chance at No 3 and by the end of the summer would be scoring a match-saving century in the final test. That day he reached 50 in just over an hour with eight boundaries, but was then forced to retire hurt when hit on the elbow by Lillee. Alan Ealham was out for a duck, and at 116 for (effectively) four it seemed that the coach driver should not dawdle.

But Cowdrey found effective support in Dave Nicholls, who did a fine job for ten years as fill-in keeper when Knott was away playing for England for half the summer. Nicholls was a punchy left-hander who was sometimes selected on merit as a batsman. He had made a double hundred—quite a rare feat in three-day cricket—as a 19-year-old, but had never lived up to the expectation that had created. Now he supported Cowdrey admirably with 39 in a partnership of 126.

As the stand grew, the shoots of excitement started to break through, watered by Cowdrey’s excellence. It could be done. 350 to beat the Australians. He worked the spinners around the ground, Chappell filling a gap in one place only to see the ball going through the space thus created.

Though Lillee had barely gone through the motions in the first innings, as the afternoon went on he quickly worked up through his gears. He was offended by the possibility that this old codger, sent out to Australia a few months before to take on him and Thommo, could possibly win the game. Lillee steamed in from the Nackington Road End, shirt billowing, that most graceful, fluent of actions producing pace and wile.

Cowdrey was equal to it all, matching the smooth beauty of Lillee’s bowling with his driving, the ball hardly making a sound as bat caressed it to the boundary. He hooked fearlessly and with time to spare, Lillee’s raw speed compensating for the lack of pace in the pitch. Cowdrey’s century, his 106th and penultimate, came up in under three hours with 17 fours.

The loss of Nicholls was quickly followed by that of John Shepherd, and 107 were needed from the compulsory final 20 overs that began at 5 pm. The young Charles Rowe, whose status as an ironic folk hero for my Blean correspondent and myself probably dates from this occasion, eased our qualms, outscoring Cowdrey with 30 in a partnership of 49 for the sixth wicket. When Rowe fell to Gilmour, 59 were still needed, so it was reassuring to see Woolmer returning to the crease, elbow bound.

Between them Cowdrey, Rowe and Woolmer accelerated in the final phase to the extent that eight an over came from the first ten overs in the final hour, even with plenty of fielders on the boundary, an eye-rubbing rate from two of the game’s supposedly stodgiest batsmen. One shot in particular is fresh in the mind from this phase of the game. Lillee bowls short and the ball rears towards Cowdrey’s head. He swivels and with perfect timing hooks to the square leg boundary leaving long leg no chance whatsoever of covering the ten yards of so needed to cut the ball off.

Soon it was done and Kent had beaten the Australians by four wickets, their first victory on this fixture since 1899 and still their most recent. My, how we stood and cheered.

Several innings have challenged Cowdrey’s that day as the greatest I have seen, most recently Guptill’s extraordinary World Cup double hundred. I would say that none has beaten it, for technique, for occasion, for quality of opposition, for surprise value, for beauty.

How great it was to have two such days within one week in my sixteenth year.

Pedantry Corner

Incidentally, Kent did not beat Australia that day. Kent have never played Australia. However, they first opposed the Australians in 1882. This year’s contest is the 34th between Kent and the Australians. Outside internationals, touring teams are correctly identified by their nationality, except England who, since they stopped touring under the banner of MCC, should be referred to as “an England XI”.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Derek Underwood at 70

If, under threat of some kind of cruel and unusual punishment, such as death or having the cricket writing of Piers Morgan read to me, I was compelled to name one cricketer as my favourite, a few names would pass through my mind.

Early heroes, such as Colin Cowdrey and Asif Iqbal. Great players who I have seen do magnificent things, like Viv Richards and Kumar Sangakkara.

CJ Tavaré, obviously.

The case for Brendon McCullum is compelling, at a time when measured writers say that he is changing test cricket (a few days ago, he hit his first ball in a test match for six over extra cover).

But two names stand above the rest, always have, always will: Alan Knott and Derek Underwood, Kent and England’s greatest wicket-keeper and spin bowler (though there is strong local competition in both categories). Today, l’ll choose Underwood, if only because last week he celebrated his 70th birthday.

Not that you could tell by looking at him. There were a couple of glimpses of Underwood in the crowd at the Lord’s test, looking much as he has always done, barring a case of creeping sideburns in the early seventies. He looked quite capable of taking off the jacket and tie, rolling up the sleeves and delivering a perplexing ten overs or so.

The run-up would have changed no more than it did from 1963 to 1987. Fifteen steps culminating in an elegant uncoiling, buttoned shirt billowing in the breeze.

For years Playfair persisted in describing him as LM rather than SLA, which was true but missed the point, just as foie gras might be accurately described as meat paste. Underwood took the spinner’s role, to bowl long, constricting spells on good pitches and to attack when the ball turned. No commonplace spinner though, being quicker, Swiss-clock accurate and, at least early in his career, bowling cutters as much as conventional spin. The fact is that if he was injured, a spinner, not a seamer, took his place.

But there’s the thing. In 25 years when was he injured? I don’t recall him missing a test, or a county game of any significance. Yet the thought persists that if the young Underwood were to turn up for a county trial today, round-shouldered, slightly stooping, cigarette on and lacking in enthusiasm for weights and shuttle runs, he would be sent to the gym, or obscurity.

The first thing people say about Derek Underwood is that he was lethal on drying pitches, and so he was, perhaps the best ever at this now-lost art. Underwood ball-in-hand with a damp patch on a length made the Christians v the lions look a fair fight.

The most unplayable over I ever saw was bowled by Underwood against Hampshire at St Lawrence in 1984. The era of uncovered pitches had ended, but water seeped past the protection and the pitch was wet.

Kent declared their first innings at 179 for four when play resumed late on the third afternoon. Both teams forfeited an innings and Hampshire were left with 180 to win in more than two hours, an offer that they took with the eagerness of a man who, given the chance to purchase Tower Bridge for a thousand pounds, does not stop to consider that it must be a scam.

Fifty-six all out in 27 overs, Underwood seven for 21, the ball defying physics and geometry as it leapt and spat. In that single, magnificent, over Chris Smith, Mark Nicholas and Trevor Jesty all demonstrated that they were good batsman by managing to get an edge to one of these conundrums. I would have defied anybody—Bradman, Hammond, Tendulkar, anybody—to have touched any of the other three deliveries.

But don’t think that Underwood was just a wet-pitch bowler. Some did, even then. “That’ll sort Underwood out” they said around the counties when fully covered pitches came in for the 1981 season. Over the next two years only Malcolm Marshall and Richard Hadlee took more first-class wickets than Underwood, then in his mid-thirties and playing for a team in decline.

Then look at his record overseas, where he took 152 of his 297 test wickets. In Australia he took 50 wickets at 31 (plus 16 at 27 in the WSC “supertests”), in India 54 at 26. In New Zealand he fed like a whale at a plankton convention with 24 wickets at 13 in just four tests; all those soft pitches and inadequate techniques.

He was also one of the finest one-day bowlers of his time, his mid-innings spells as inhibiting to acceleration as a line of sleeping policeman along a straight road. Underwood's parsimony was a major factor in Kent’s one-day triumphs of the seventies.

As I write I am watching a replay of the second in the current ODI series between England and New Zealand in which 400 has become the new 260. How would Underwood have coped in the era of big bats and fielding restrictions?

Well, batsmen would have been forced out of respectful prudence, and he would have gone for more runs, certainly. But that William Tell accuracy, and the change of pace, would still be there; get it slightly wrong and the ball goes straight up in the air. He would win as many matches now as then.

World Series Cricket effectively ended his test career; there was a reluctance to pick WSC players for England even when they became available once more, and Underwood was picked only for a single test against the West Indies in 1980 and the tour of India and Sri Lanka in 1981/2, so played little in his peak years. Earlier, as England captain, Ray Illingworth often preferred Norman Gifford to Underwood, passing over a painter of subtle portraits in oils in favour of an efficient whitewasher of walls and ceilings.

Had Underwood’s England career not been interrupted, Jimmy Anderson would still be chasing the England test wicket record.  

Offer me a ticket on a time machine to go back to watch just one innings of any in cricket history, and I wouldn’t choose Bradman’s 300 in a day at Leeds in 1930, or even WG’s 344 at the St Lawrence for MCC in 1876. I’d go to Hastings on 2 July 1984, to see Derek Underwood, in his 618th first-class innings, score his only century.

I recall the day clearly, and the memory is a reminder of how far the information revolution has taken us. I had not caught any of the radio sports bulletins during the afternoon, and got home late, so it was only when I picked up a copy of the Bristol Evening Post that I had an inkling of the drama on the Sussex coast.

There it was in the stop press: Underwood 84*. It will astonish anybody under 30 that only after two hours of mental torment was I able to establish that Underwood had indeed secured his century (nobody I knew even had teletext). But it was before the pubs shut, and my non-cricketing flatmates were happy to repair to the Alma Tavern in Clifton to raise a glass that they hadn’t paid for to a man they had barely heard of for an achievement that they didn’t understand.

The relationship between Derek Underwood and the Central Recreation Ground, Hastings—scene of the triumph—was to akin to that of Henry VIII and the monasteries: an infinite source of easy pickings. Twenty years before the century, it was there that Underwood achieved his career-best bowling figures: nine for 28. In 1967 he took seven in both innings and in 1973 took eight wickets for nine runs. In just nine first-class appearances there, he took 61 wickets.

On the day before the hundred I enjoyed watching TV coverage of Underwood taking six for 12 at Hastings in the Sunday League, the best one-day figures of his career barring an eight-wicket skittling of Scotland in his final season, so he has the best one-day bowling performance on the ground as well as the best first-class performance. These records are frozen in eternity; under the frozen foods, in fact: the ground is now buried under a supermarket.

So, again I raise a glass to you and your achievements, Derek Underwood. You are my favourite cricketer. At least until 9 April next year, when Knotty turns 70.

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