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.

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