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.

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