Monday, April 25, 2016

Watching Godfrey Evans

Following last week’s piece on one great Kent and England wicketkeeper, here is something about another.

I have seen Godfrey Evans play cricket. Proper cricket that is, a County Championship game. Given that Evans retired in 1959, I flatter myself that this would surprise acquaintances.  

It was Canterbury Week 1967. Alan Knott was to make his test debut at Trent Bridge, so Evans was called up to replace him in the second match of the week, against Yorkshire, the leaders. Kent were second in the table and as it turned out, this was the deciding game. Yorkshire’s seven-wicket win gave them 12 points; the margin between the two teams at season’s end was ten. Here’s the scorecard.

Perhaps it was the importance of the match that prompted Kent to recall Evans (47) to the colours, but it still seems a bit odd, given the presence of David Nicholls in the Kent team. Nicholls took the gloves for the following game, against Essex, and deputised for Knott most capably for the next ten years. Then again, Evans was the world’s most experienced international player with 91 tests (Colin Cowdrey would draw level with him at Trent Bridge the following day). He was demonstrating age-defying agility and co-ordination on television for the International Cavaliers most Sundays. For the biggest match that Kent had played since the First World War, why not choose experience?

I was there on the first day, a beautiful, blue-sky Wednesday, as all days of childhood summers are in the memory, in defiance of the historical record (it was the summer of love, probably because people needed something to do out of the rain). We sat on the benches on the Bat and Ball side of the ground. I haven’t watched from there since, not for more than a few minutes anyway.

The crowd was large, more than would be allowed in these days, though several thousand short of the number at the Gillette Cup semi-final a three weeks before, when the boundary shortened as the day wore on to accommodate the growing throng.

Brian Close was away, captaining England. He achieved five wins in six tests that summer, but had the captaincy taken away from him for the winter tour as a result of time-wasting at Edgbaston, or at least his cussed reaction to accusations thereof. The committee room at Lord’s hid well its disappointment at having to reinstate Colin Cowdrey (Tonbridge and Brasenose). Fred Trueman captained Yorkshire in Close’s absence. Seven of his team had played test cricket; three more were to do so and the eleventh, opening bowler Tony Nicholson, should have done. Trueman no doubt took the opportunity to drop into the Kent dressing room before the game to appraise them of this information. Perhaps Evans was there to redress the balance off the field as well as on it.

Guile and precision had long since taken the place of brutish pace in Trueman’s bowling, but he was still quick enough to break Brian Luckhurst’s hand in his opening spell. Stuart Leary dug in with a somewhat uncharacteristic three-and-half-hour 66 (a few weeks later he became the only batsman I ever saw clear the old lime tree), but the memory of the day that lingers is of Alan Brown tonking Trueman for 18 off four balls late in the innings.

Brown was a fast bowler with a dragging action, one of the last to carry this legacy of the backfoot lbw law. He played in two tests on Ted Dexter’s tour of Pakistan in 1961/2, when the prospect of playing cricket in south Asia did not have the attraction for the leading players that it does today. But it was Brown’s tailend slogging that caught the imagination of the boy on the boundary that day. The Kent faithful thought that in giving Trueman a sense of his own fallibility Brown was doing him a service, but two for 39 from ten overs shows how well the great bowler had bowled earlier in the innings.

Trueman greeted Evans’ entry at No 8 by doffing his cap and dusting the batting crease with it. Evans made ten before taking his position behind the timbers (as Brian Johnston used to say) for the final hour or so of the day. I have no specific memory of his keeping, but have no reason to doubt Wisden’s report that he “kept wicket superbly”.

Yorkshire won the game quite easily by seven wickets and took the second of a hat-trick of Championships. There is debate about whether the current Yorkshire team, attempting to emulate this feat this season, is better than that of the sixties. If they are, nobody will touch them.

The 1967 season ended happily for Kent nevertheless. Three weeks later the Gillette Cup was won at Lord’s and the glory years began.

Thirteen years later Evans gave an altogether more memorable display of his skill and extraordinary longevity. It was Old England v Old Australia at the Oval in 1980, played on the day before the centenary test began at Lord’s, a match now remembered for Dickie Bird’s fussiness over a damp patch in the outfield that denied a full house most of Saturday’s play.

The previous Wednesday was fine. It was nostalgic at the time. Reading the scorecard makes it seem all the more so in retrospect. It reminds me that I saw Neil Harvey play. One of the 1948 Invincibles. That’s quite something. He stood at mid on in sunglasses (long before this was customary) then finished the game with a composed 22 not out. It was the only time I saw Ken Barrington. He lifted a six onto the tin roof of the old stand beside the pavilion, an enormous hit. Little more than six months later he was dead, on duty as assistant manager with England in the Caribbean. A last chance to see most of the rest. All echoes of the players they once were of course, but an echo can carry sufficient cadence to identify the original tune.

Which brings us back to Godfrey Evans, by now 60. The card shows that he stumped both Australian openers off Fred Titmus. One was straightforward, but the manner of the other (Bobby Simpson I think), suggested that Evans had forsaken the hard stuff a while before and had instead been drinking exclusively from the fountain of youth. The ball slid down the legside, the batsman lifted his foot for a second, and with a blur of the gloves, the bails were off.

The PA announcer declared that the batsman had been bowled. There was confusion among the cognoscenti; we didn’t know whether to trust the evidence of our binoculars. But there it is on the scorecard. Stumped. The muttonchop whiskers might have belonged to a crewman of the Jolly Roger, but the feet and hands were those of Peter Pan.

Our story now moves forward to January 1999 and the Ashes test at Sydney. On the second day my seat in the Churchill Stand* was next to two elderly sisters and the husband of one of them. It was unclear to me to which he was married, and he seemed hazy on the matter too. They were up from the country for a day at the test, as had been their habit since the war (almost certainly the second one). Their dress and demeanor suggested that they had come all the way from 1948. I asked them about the players they had seen. The name that produced the broadest smile and a faraway look in the women’s eyes was that of Godfrey Evans. “Such a showman...the best wicketkeeper we have seen.”

During the lunch interval Evans, passing the winter hosting supporters’ tours, appeared in the stand. When I drew his presence to their attention, they sighed and become young again for a moment.

Godfrey Evans died just five months later, his ability to enchant unabated to the end.

*Named after the rugby league legend Clive Churchill. It would be frustrating being named Churchill and having something named after you. Nobody would realise it was about you.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Alan Knott at 70

During the recent World T20, Australia played New Zealand. Glenn Maxwell got one to turn sharply past Colin Munro’s outside edge. Wicketkeeper Peter Nevill’s hands started to move only after the ball had passed. I thought what I always think, what I have always thought, on such occasions for the last fifty years: Knotty would have had it.
So he would have too, for Alan Knott was the finest wicketkeeper that I have seen, will ever see.
A while ago, some younger work colleagues who are keen on cricket raised the subject of Geoff Boycott’s selection of a team of the best players he had seen or played against. Boycott’s pick of Alan Knott as keeper rather than Adam Gilchrist, attracted ridicule, identifying the Yorkshireman as an old fogey.
Gather round, my young friends, as I reveal your foolishness to you.
“How would Knott have got on keeping to Shane Warne?” they might ask. “Brilliantly” is the unhesitating answer (a less benevolent blog than My Life in Cricket Scorecards would be tempted to respond with another question: “How would Gilchrist have got on keeping to Derek Underwood on a drying turner?”, but the purpose here is to celebrate one great cricketer, not to denigrate another).
By the way, one of the few things that Boycott agreed with Tony Greig about was that Knott was the greatest keeper he had ever seen. Greig used Knott as the benchmark whenever the Channel Nine commentators were comparing glovemen. Ray Illingworth thought so too. He may have incomprehensibly preferred Norman Gifford to Derek Underwood on several occasions, but he was unshakeable in picking Knott as his keeper. This is the only recorded case of two Yorkshiremen admiring someone from Kent.

Knott’s brilliance behind the stumps is evident from a quick search on YouTube. But it wasn’t the flashy dives and extraordinary catches that impressed the old pros;  it was Knott’s consistency. Wicketkeepers should be judged not by the chances they take, but by those that they miss. A keeper who has one chance all day and takes it has had a better day than one who has six chances and takes five of them. Alan Knott made takes and catches that others would not be thought badly of for not attempting; but what made him better than all the rest was that he missed less than anybody. For Kent, as well as England; not once did he give anything less than his best for the county (the same could be said for Underwood). In this respect he differed from his predecessor in the Pantheon of great Kent keepers, Godfrey Evans, who rarely had an off day in a test match, but would perform indifferently for the county when his heavy social schedule drained him of energy and concentration.

Some will promote the claims of that fine wicketkeeper Bob Taylor as the best of the era. At the time, it was commonly said that Taylor was the better keeper, but that Knott’s superior batting kept him in the England team. The fact that Taylor stood up to medium pacers more than Knott did was incorrectly seen as evidence of the Derbyshire man’s superior skill. In fact, Knott believed that more chances would be offered if he stood back than if he stood up; don’t forget that Underwood was always classified as medium paced, and Knott’s work standing up to his co-assassin was as close to perfection as it is possible to come on a cricket field.

Barry Dudleston believed Knott to be the better keeper of the two. Barry played against both men many times and, as recorded here previously, was himself a county wicketkeeper, briefly but gloriously. He said that Taylor, when standing up, would sometimes move his foot back an inch or so as he took the ball, to rebalance. Knott never had to do this; his balance was always perfect.

Alan Knott averaged 32 with the bat in tests, just one fewer than IT Botham (another noted all-rounder) and respectable for any No 7, whatever else they had to offer. But with Alan Knott, the quantity of runs is not how he should be judged. It was when he made them and how he made them.

Knott was a T20 batsman before his time, his guard merely a point of departure for his journey around the crease as the pinball wizard, sending the ball in all manner of unexpected directions. I had a chat with Dennis Lillee about this once. For reasons that were never clear, the great bowler was flogging photocopiers in Bristol one day in the late eighties and the school I worked at sent me along. I took with me a scorecard of the Oval test of 1981 for him to sign. Lillee took seven for 89, his test best, and I was there to see him do it.  

When I handed him the card, it was not his own figures that took his eye, but Knott’s name. He had forgotten that Knott had played in that famous series (he came in for the final two tests). “He was an awkward bastard to bowl at. He’d hit you where you thought you couldn’t be hit.” One great player regarding another as worthy of the contest.

Look again at that Oval card. In the first innings Knott came in after four wickets had fallen for ten runs. His 36, including a couple of fours off Lillee lifted over gully from outside leg stump to prove the bowler’s point, was the only double-figure score made by anybody below No 4 in the order.

In the second innings he came in at six down for 144, the target of 383 well beyond reach, but half a day left to battle through. Close of play: Knott 70 not out, test match saved. It was his last test innings. Knott did not care to make easy runs. Against a tired attack, expect him to be out quickly for not many. Put his back against the wall against top bowling and the quiet fighter would approach the crease. If there were a measure of the value of runs to the team at the time, Knott would rank above any of the great keeper-batsmen. This was so from his first overseas test tour to the Caribbean in 1968, when his unbeaten 73 in the final test in Georgetown saved the match and won the series, to that last day at the Oval 13 years later. Here is an extract from the Wisden report from the Bourda:

All  seemed lost when Knott joined Cowdrey, but he was there to stay until the end, almost four hours later...Somehow, Knott extracted enough help from the tailenders to steer his side to safety...he was well nigh as assured as Cowdrey and no less courageous.

Delve into the circumstances of any of Alan Knott’s five test centuries or 30 half-centuries (and some of the 30s and 40s too) and you will often find that they were made in times of trouble.

One more example. Trent Bridge 1977, third Ashes test. Knott came to the crease with England at 82 for five on the first day. This rescue job was more complicated than usual, as it involved penetrating the tormented psyche of Geoffrey Boycott. The Napoleon of the Ridings had returned from three-year exile on his personal Elba, only, it appeared, to have met his Waterloo. He was recoiling from having run out local favourite Derek Randall (the only time he expressed any visible regret for dispatching a partner). Refocusing Boycott was essential if England were to pass Australia’s 243. The outcome: a partnership of 215, with 107 for Boycott and 135 (at four an over) from Knott. It was the decisive stand in the series, ensuring a two-nil lead with two to play.

A quality apparently valued in modern keepers is the ability to emit a constant stream of vacuous noise all day. Knott was Trappist by comparison, but volume is not to be mistaken for personality. His career was a slow capitulation to eccentricity. The headware tells the story. At first a regulation cap, Kent’s or England’s as appropriate. Quite early though, the MCC touring cap became the hat of choice, on tour or otherwise, followed by the sun hat, worn at first in sunny places like Australia, but later in locations such as Derby and Old Trafford where it was an excessive precaution. As the years went on, the handkerchief drooped permanently from the left pocket, the pads became ever more baggy and were secured by tape. Touching the bails began as a start-of-innings affectation, then developed into a sort of continuing nervous tick.

And, of course, the calisthenics continued. In an era when the closest to regular exercise most cricketers took was the raising of the right arm in the bar after play, with Knott it appeared that the batting and wicketkeeping were interrupting the main activity, which was stretching. His between-deliveries routine was more entertaining than watching some players bat and bowl.

When Derek Underwood turned 70 last year I wrote that he would be my favourite cricketer until Alan Knott reached that age. That day came last week. Happy birthday Knotty. The truth is that I find it impossible to choose between them. To discover cricket just as these two great players of Kent were starting out, and to have watched them over so many seasons was the most extraordinary good fortune.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Auckland wins the Plunket Shield

Wellington v Auckland, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 23 – 26 March 2016

I have ticked off an item on my cricketing wishlist by being at the Basin Reserve when Auckland won the Plunket Shield, the first time in my spectating half century that I have been present for the moment of victory in the domestic first-class competition.

Kent’s three County Championships in the seventies were all secured away from home, at the Oval, Edgbaston and Hove. Neither Canterbury nor Bristol—my most common end-of-season locations—were the venue for the away side to take the title when I was there, though my Blean correspondent was at St Lawrence when Durham claimed their first title, so has always had the advantage in this respect.

With only six teams in contention, you might think that shorter odds would have prevailed during my 19 New Zealand seasons, but not so, until now.

I was there for most of the first, third and fourth days, on for the final 90 minutes or so of day two.

Day 1

The penultimate round of the Plunket Shield, and Auckland, the leaders, visit second-placed Wellington. The home side are 23 points behind. Twenty points are the most that can be accrued from one match, so Wellington need to win (third-placed Canterbury are also in with a shout). Throw in a forecast of dodgy weather and it was no surprise to find a pitch as green and angry as the Incredible Hulk.

The pitch for the test against Australia here a few weeks ago was also described as green, but in comparison was merely a truculent off-yellow. Then, given skilful guidance by Haslewood and Siddle, the ball did just enough. As I noted at the time, few balls beat the bat or found the edge on that first morning apart from those that took wickets.

This one, however, was an English green top circa 1988, when moderate dobbers could trundle up, present the seam and pick off good batsmen. Auckland—put in, obviously—took the view that dogged defence would be futile on a day when a ball with a batsman’s name on it was around every corner. Every opportunity to garner any available runs was taken.

The outcome was 152 all out from 34 overs. Brent Arnel (who, to be fair, is more than a dobber) finished with five for 51. Auckland’s Butch-and-Sundance approach to overwhelming odds against them was justified, all the more so when Wellington’s more cautious approach failed to protect its batsmen. Only 27 runs came from the first 13 overs, but three wickets fell nevertheless.

However, after tea the greenness faded and the pitch lost just enough pace to turn it from challenging to good for playing strokes. Michael Pollard and Scott Borthwick of Durham put on 73 for the fourth wicket. Borthwick was impressive and it was a surprise when he chipped a soft catch to mid-wicket. Pollard rode his luck.

Play was ended by bad light. As is customary, this came at the point when the batsmen appeared to be seeing the ball better than at any time during the day. Wellington were 22 behind with four wickets standing.

Day 2

Wellington made 236 in their first innings, and by the time I arrived for the last 90 minutes of the day, Auckland were within 25 of negating the lead, without loss. The pitch was still tinged with green and there was some movement, but it was on the fast lane to being the usual batman’s paradise that Basin pitches tend to become by the end of the second day. There was plenty of loose bowling too.

Not that you would have known it from the whooping and hollering of the Wellington fielders, mundane dot balls lauded as if they were bursting with fiendish cunning. I’m all for positivity, but the danger here is that the bowlers come to believe that they are better than they really are.

I was at Seddon Park in Hamilton for CricInfo one day about 15 years ago, when we were joined in the press box by Glenn Turner and John Parker, teammates for Worcestershire as well as New Zealand. The conversation turned to the feedback that technology offers to modern players. “Our bowlers had feedback” said one. “It came from Norman Gifford at short leg and tended to be along the lines of ‘what are you bowling that crap for?’”  Different days.

No wickets fell before light again intervened with batting looking as easy as the Sun crossword. Auckland were 73 ahead.

Day 3

It takes some time to put on all the layers necessary to withstand a day in the southerly at the Basin, so I arrived only just in time to see Michael Guptill-Bunce reach his hundred, the second of his first-class career. A cousin of Martin Guptill, but somewhat shorter, Guptill-Bunce has an open stance and shots on both sides of the pitch. These he displayed with ever greater freedom as he progressed to 189 before falling a leading edge to cover from the first delivery with the second new ball.

Earlier, his first-wicket partnership with Jeet Ravel, worth 215, had ended when McPeake removed Ravel’s off stump. Ravel has often been mentioned when the perpetual vacancy at the top of the order in the test team is being discussed, but has not been picked thus far. He has had another good summer.

I would move Martin Guptill down the order to fill the gap created by Brendon McCullum’s retirement. Away from the torment of the new ball, Guptill would become the test batsman that his one-day achievements promise him to be. The gap between Plunket Shield and test cricket is huge, but Ravell’s consistency puts him at the head of the line to open the innings with Tom Latham (now of Kent, I am pleased to note).

With a draw almost certain to be enough to give Auckland the Shield, there was no question of a declaration. A queue formed of Auckland batsman eager to make the most of a pitch that had transformed from cornered tiger to purring tabby, eager to encourage strokes.

Mark Chapman (whose parents, we may summise, are not Beatles fans), hit a breezy, run-a-ball 73. Colin de Grandhomme’s 33 was as quick. At the close Donovan Grobbelaar was 89 not out. His innings contained as good a display of precision straight driving as I have seen for a long time; shot after shot missing the bowler’s stumps by a just a few centimetres.

A little over two years ago, Scott Borthwick was picked by England as a leg spinner, and has a test bowling average of 20.50 to show for his sole appearance at Sydney. He has been one of the highest scorers in county cricket over the past three years, but the bowling has fallen away. Borthwick wasn’t given a proper spell until Auckland had passed 400; he was tidy but unthreatening, which is not a bad report for a leggie on this pitch.

Of course, every leg spinner wants to be Shane Warne, and rightly so. They may not be able to bowl like he did, but they can mimic Warne’s theatricality. Borthwick is a star in this respect. When any ball is not met by the absolute middle of the bat, he gives us his Hamlet, a moving portrayal of the injustice of the human condition. Just like Shane Warne.  Until he lets go of the ball, at least.

Day 4

This was the day on which Auckland would probably win the Plunket Shield for the first time in seven seasons. Unless Wellington produced an improbable win, or Canterbury beat Northern Districts (which also seemed unlikely), it would be theirs by dinner time.

Grobbelaar completed his century and captain Michael Bates set about enjoying himself. He hit Borthwick for four and three sixes off successive deliveries. Never fear; when the final ball of the over was defended, Borthwick reached deep into his repertoire of pain to convince us that the rest of the over had been no more than an administrative oversight.

Auckland’s total of 598 was the highest in a domestic game at the Basin. Wellington‘s target was 515 at about six an over, the tallest of orders even on such a benign surface. There was no doubt that they would give it a go.

By lunch they had reached a solid 68 for one from 19 overs, though it would have been two had the perfect Nethula googly that bowled Murdoch not been a no ball, one of three the leg spinner bowled in his first two overs. The luck continued to run with Wellington and Murdoch after the interval. A top edge could have been caught by either mid on or deep mid-wicket, but with exquisite politeness they left it to each other. They probably laughed about it later, but not at the time. The second-wicket partnership between Murdoch and Woodcock was worth 144 when Murdoch was bowled by Nethula.

Any residual hope disappeared after tea, with the loss of four wickets for 23 runs. To their credit, Wellington focused on saving the game. An eighth-wicket stand of 60 between Verma and Blundell was central to enabling them to do so. Verma remained unbeaten at the end.

The end of the game at the expiry of the 16 overs compulsory in the final hour was not quite the moment of triumph, as play was still in progress in Christchurch. But Canterbury had given up hope at about the same time as Wellington and had been blocking for an hour, so it was as good as. I had expected scenes of uninhibited joy and emotion, but not so. The two teams lined up, shook hands and left the field, and that was that. It was much like I expect it was at the Oval in 1970; Colin Cowdrey proffering an outstretched hand and Micky Stewart calling for three cheers.

Nevertheless, I am happy to be able to give the ultimate affirmation of the sports fan: I was there.

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 ...