Sunday, October 30, 2016

Billy divines the rain: Wellington v Northern Districts, Basin Reserve, day one, 29 October 2016

Last weekend in Wellington was the New Zealand spring at its best. The sun shone from blue skies and the wind took a rare weekend off. What’s more, Monday was a public holiday. Wellington were at home to Auckland in the opening game of the Plunket Shield. How perfect to spend three days in the sun at the Basin.

A pity then, that the game was played in Mt Maunganui, 500 kms away from the capital. Why is unclear. The RA Vance Stand is shrouded in scaffolding, though the dressing rooms are open, and with a modicum of planning could have been last week, one might think.

Surely there is a venue somewhere in Wellington’s many parks and reserves that would be an acceptable local venue. The English equivalent would be Surrey being unable to play at the Oval and finding no alternative closer than Scarborough.

Admission to Plunket Shield games is free, which absolves the authorities from any responsibility towards spectators. Any coalescence between the fixture list and times when the working fan might get to the game are entirely coincidental. Wellington’s three remaining Plunket Shield games feature just a single day of weekend play.

It is good that the first half of next year’s (shortened) County Championship will be played from Friday to Monday, but the feeling remains that those in charge, mesmerised by T20, can’t be trusted with its well-being. New Zealand’s tale is cautionary.

Inevitably, this weekend it is cold and wet in Wellington. Nevertheless My Life in Cricket Scorecards braved wind-chill temperatures of six degrees and made its way to the Basin to for the first cricket of the season.

Two well-known Hamishes will play for Wellington this year. Gloucestershire’s Hamish Marshall has returned to New Zealand and today is in opposition to his old team Northern Districts for the first time. Marshall was playing the last time I had a day at the cricket, at Canterbury at the end of July. His appearance in the Wellington line-up does nothing to diffuse the air of superannuation about it. Not until Pollard at No 5 do we reach somebody who is under 33 years of age. When I covered domestic cricket for CricInfo 15 years or so ago there were hardly any players over 30 outside the international squad, because it didn’t pay enough. Now players can make a decent living they have no reason to move on. I’m not calling for a cricketing Logan’s Run; the presence of a couple old heads in a team is obviously of benefit, but there has to be space to try out promising young players in first-class cricket, as has traditionally been the practice in New Zealand.

Northern Districts have a much younger profile with only the openers, sometime test players Dean Brownlie and Daniel Flynn, over 30. ND have seven players with the Black Caps in India, evidence of their ability to bring on young players.

Hamish Bennett has moved to Wellington too. For a brief time four or five years ago he was the great hope of New Zealand fast bowling, but the strain of windmilling it down at 140 kph was too much for his body, as it so often is for New Zealand fast bowlers. He began well today, once Wellington had won the toss and put ND in. In the first over he produced a beauty that came back in to take Brownlie’s off stump.

Brent Arnel opened from the RA Vance Stand End, and trapped Flynn lbw with his first ball, which swung into the left-hander. Early indications were that this was a typical Basin first-day greentop. For new readers, Basin pitches have the life cycle of a domestic cat, offering playful excitement, unpredictability and regular danger in their youth before settling down to sleep through most of the last 75% of their existence.

Billy Bowden is standing in this game. Once the biggest act of all, Billy is now reduced to walk-on parts, cricket’s Norma Desmond. But what a pro. Even though there were only five of us spectators, we were privileged to be treated to the unexpurgated version of his rain-divination act. A brief shower sent the players from the field in the seventh over. It was gone almost as soon as it began. With the light improving, a lesser man would have restarted play, but Billy patrolled the middle using every human sense to divine moisture, wherever it might be. In a less sensitive age, a pig would have been taken to the middle and sacrificed so that Billy could read the entrails. He is to rain what Joe McCarthy was to communism—he sees its threat everywhere.

It should be said that he was quite right on this occasion. Some minutes later the rain came down more heavily and that was it for the day. But nobody else would have done it with such pathos and flair.

It’s great that he is prepared to go back to domestic cricket after losing his place on the international panel. He is still a star. It was the pitches that got small. Billy is always ready for his close up.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The 1966 West Indians

Cohen, 1966.

Play word association with that, and most will say: George Cohen, doughty Fulham full back, and one of the most famous set of names of English sporting history. A hero of Wembley, 30 July 1966.

Very few will respond as My Life in Cricket Scorecards does: Rudolph Cohen, fast bowler, member of the 1966 West Indian touring team to England. Did not play a test.

The World Cup triumph has been widely and rightly remembered over the past few months, fifty years on. But by the time England kicked off against Uruguay in the tournament’s opening game, My Life in Cricket Scorecards was taking the 1966 Kent CCC Annual to school as his reading book. To him, “Hunt” was not Roger of Liverpool, but Conrad of Barbados, spelt with an “e”.

For cricket people, 1966 was a shaft of Caribbean sunlight in a dull decade. The previous season was described by Wisden as “mainly disappointing”. As for 1964, the recitation of Tom Cartwright’s figures in the Old Trafford Ashes test tell you all you need to know: 77-32-118-2. As a first step in cricket it would have been like giving a child War and Peace as their first reader.

There are some ultimate truths that can be understood as well by a seven-year-old as by anybody. Though, I was far too young to articulate it, at some level I appreciated that the West Indians were playing cricket as a form of self-expression, which is usually when the game is at its best. My attention was grabbed with the first ball of the series, square cut for four by Conrad Hunte. Here was a team that played without reticence or constraint. Hunte finished with 135, though he was dropped on seven by Ken Higgs at long leg. Norman Preston in Wisden provided the fielder with an excuse that would be without credibility almost anywhere but Manchester in summer, namely that he had sighted the ball “very late against the distant background of dark-coated spectators”.    

That day I was freed of an emotional dependence on England winning; I must have realised that it was probable that my cricket watching would be less traumatic if this was not so, a view that continued to enrich my spectating experience through the years.

Garfield Sobers made 161 in that innings at Old Trafford, the smallest of the three centuries he made in the series, which he finished with an average of 101. Then there were 20 wickets, second only to the great off-spinner Lance Gibbs, who took only one more. Against Kent at Canterbury Sobers took his career-best bowling of nine for 49. It is likely that I saw the first two of these wickets taken at the end of the second day; I was there after school for the last part of the day and have Sobers’ autograph in my 1966 Kent CCC junior membership card (cost: one guinea) to prove it, but have no specific recollection of his bowling that afternoon.

I wasn’t particularly lucky watching Sobers. The best I saw him play was at Lord’s in the first day of the final test of 1973 when he came in late in the day and made the 31 not out, carrying on the next day to 150 without any sleep in the intervening period, or so legend has it. But I did see him play, and he was the greatest player of my lifetime, so that’s something.

In 1966 Sobers also scored a Lord’s hundred, saving a match that appeared lost with an unbroken partnership of 274 with his cousin, David Holford.

The strength of the West Indian middle order was the basis of resounding victories in the following two tests to seal the series. England took a 90-run lead in the third at Trent Bridge, but in the second innings a double century from Basil Butcher, supported by fifties from Rohan Kanhai and Seymour Nurse and 94 from Sobers, took the game well beyond the home team.

There was then a month’s break in the tests so that the cricket would not distract people from the World Cup. A different time. Of course, the tour went on. Eight matches were played in the interim, including that game at Canterbury. There were 28 first-class fixtures on the tour itinerary. This would be untenable today, but it did mean that the whole party had the opportunity to become at ease in the conditions. New Zealand’s recent trouncing in India has again illustrated how a side can flounder without that opportunity. Making it compulsory for touring sides to play three first-class games before the tests would do more to make test matches more competitive, and therefore attractive to spectators, than any number of marketing gimmicks.

Here is a Movietone News report on the fourth test, at Headingley. West Indies racked up 500 in the first innings with big hundreds from Nurse and Sobers against an England attack that included the debutant Derek Underwood. The scorecard suggests a mental running of the white flag up the flagpole, with the two innings totalling 55 short of the West Indies’ one. Nurse is rarely mentioned as a significant figure of the great West Indian era, but he averaged 48 with six centuries in 29 tests, so he should be. Here in New Zealand people remember his 826 runs in the three-test series in 1969, when he had already announced his retirement.

It would be wrong though to give the impression that the attraction of that series rested only with the West Indies. For a start there was Colin Milburn, whose presence in the attritional England side of the mid-sixties was as incongruous as Falstaff would have been in Cymbeline. He batted in colour in a black-and-white world. Ninety-four at Old Trafford was followed by a blistering hundred at Lord’s.

Milburn is the subject of a new play written by Douglas Blaxland, the nom de plume of the former Kent all-rounder James Graham-Brown (there have been a few Kent players who might have been well-advised to live out their lives under a false name, but Graham-Brown isn’t one of them). The PCA has imaginatively arranged for the play to tour the county grounds. Expect the ECB to announce that a lavish musical will play the test grounds only on the same dates.

Milburn inspired a love of cricket in those who saw him, notably Matthew Engel. Backwatersman too. And me, though I don’t think that I ever saw him play live.

Tom Graveney was recalled for the second test. He was as old as my Dad, which for a seven-year-old meant that he was as old as Methuselah, but 96 at Lord’s was followed by a century at Trent Bridge, and he smiled as he played.

There was Basil D’Oliveira too. Children have a robust understanding of what is fair and unfair, so I understood with absolute clarity that it was outrageous that D’Oliveira was not allowed to play for South Africa because his skin was too dark. This, along with the brilliance of the West Indians gave me lifelong immunity from the prevailing nonsense of the Alf Garnett-Enoch Powell era.

Then there was Alan Gibson’s Old Bald Blighter, Brian Close, drafted in to lead the side in the final test at the Oval replacing Colin Cowdrey. He brought with him hard-headed professionalism in the form of Edrich, Illingworth and JT Murray. But halfway through the second day, with England 166 for seven in reply to 268, it appeared that Close had made no difference whatsoever.

One of the great rearguard actions then began, led by Graveney and Middlesex keeper JT Murray, who took my eye at first because he wore his cap at the same angle as Norman Wisdom. They put on 217 for the eighth wicket, even now the seventh-best in test history.

On the Saturday I had my first experience of the joyful anarchy of a decent last-wicket partnership, this one between John Snow and Ken Higgs worth 128. I have clear memory of accompanying my father on his grocery delivery round on a sweltering day while following the partnership on my transistor radio, re-tuned for once from Radio Caroline, which broadcast from a ship just over the horizon in the Thames Estuary. The commentators were Robert Hudson, Roy Lawrence and John Arlott. A first chance to listen to Arlott was not least among the influential experiences of 1966.

West Indies were happy enough to let England have the consolation victory, so the series wrapped up on the fourth day.

The thought that, were it not for the talented exuberance of Garfield Sobers and his team, this blog might be called My Life in Football Programmes brings a shudder to the soul.

Finally, a pop quiz, based on a Pathé newsreel coverage of the opening match of the tour, Duke of Norfolk’s XI v West Indians.
  1. Who is the Norfolk XI’s keeper?
  2. Who is non-striker when Sobers is bowling?
  3. What position links him and Sobers?
  4. Who is the bespectacled umpire?
  5. What was his link with the England team of 1966?
By the way, the West Indian opener Michael Carew was more often known as “Joey”.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Art of Centuries by Steve James

What do we know, we who sit and watch?

When I have occasionally joined end-of-play conversations between those who had played and umpired in a game that I have watched, I have usually been struck by how different their perceptions of it were from mine, by how much I had missed. I thought that I’d been watching Hamlet, but they had been performing a French farce (or sometimes, vice versa). When I was reporting New Zealand domestic cricket for CricInfo, the highest praise was to told by a coach or player that my account of play was on the button. It only happened a couple of times, but when it did it was as if I had broken the secret code, for a day at least.

Reading Steve James’ The Art of Centuries reinforced my feeling of helpless ignorance. Fifty years’ watching and I didn’t know that? The shame. The book is a treatise on batting that will educate the aspiring player and the casual spectator alike.

James played first-class cricket from 1985 to 2003, mostly for Glamorgan, but also for Cambridge University, Mashonaland, and, twice, for England. He was unfortunate to catch the end of the period where players often had only one game in the test side instead of being given a run, the only fair measure of whether they are up to it. James made almost 16,000 first-class runs at 40 in first-class cricket, with a highest score of 309 not out, which remains the Glamorgan record. He is now a member of a brotherhood that is regarded with as much suspicion here in New Zealand as the most subversive political group: he is a British rugby writer. The border is already being fortified pending their arrival with the British Lions next year.

You’ll notice that the book is called The Art of Centuries, not The Art of Batting. This is because James regards the making of centuries as the true measure of batsmen. He made 47 of them in first-class cricket with seven more in the one-day game, so writes with authority. His view is that you have to understand how centuries are made to understand batting.

Steve James takes us not only into the dressing room, but also into the minds of batsmen. More often than not, we find a location that is cluttered with all manner of rubbish. The successful batsman sends most of it to the tip.

Before he comes to technique, James has a chapter on luck and another on superstition. He has come to regard luck as being more significant than he thought it while he was playing. He is talking about things like dropped catches, which could be called bad cricket rather than luck, but which the batsman has no control over, which is what James means by luck.

He had an interesting response to the luck going his way: he became a walker, which when started his career in the 80s was going out of fashion quicker than flares and platform shoes. This arose not out of sportsmanship or (dread phrase) the spirit of the game, but because in his mind his innings had become tarnished if he was allowed to remain at the crease when he knew he was out. He couldn’t come to terms with its imperfection, or, to put it another way, cope with his good luck.

James is intolerant of the hypocrisy around walking and describes how failure to walk attracts the vocal ire of players who would never walk themselves, and of bowlers who have no compunction in appealing for the most unlikely causes. He does not like sledging in general, dismissing the idea that it is a stream of Wildean wit rather than the boorish, boring verbiage that it more often is.

Other myths are exposed, including one that confirms a long-held suspicion, I am pleased to say. Batsmen who have made centuries in a losing cause often trot out the line that the three figures don’t mean as much in these circumstances. Six of Steve James’ hundreds were made in lost games. He goes through each of them, concluding in each case with the words “Happy? Yep”.

The insecurity that bedevils cricketers is explored in the chapter on superstition, which runs through the game like nits in a nursery school, including some who one would have hoped more of. For example, Ed Smith—Mike Brearley’s heir as cricket’s foremost intellectual—bought Lucozade and The Times on his way to the ground on first-class debut. He scored a hundred, so made the same purchase every morning for the rest of his career. Steve James himself—also the beneficiary of a Cambridge education—did not allow his children to play with plastic ducks in their baths until he retired, presumably in fear of the fates playing word association.

It is good to hear that cricket’s most renowned reader of the auspices, Neil McKenzie of bats-taped-to-the-ceiling fame, went cold turkey on the whole business, recognising that if he didn’t it would get in the way of family life.

Jack Russell convincingly explains that most of his eccentricities were founded in science rather than superstition, but that doesn’t explain the hat. When Lord Maclaurin (the Giles Clarke of the late twentieth century for those who have never heard of, or mercifully forgotten, him) became head honcho of English cricket he insisted that Russell abandoned the battered white floppy for a smart blue cap, apparently mistaking the best wicketkeeper in England for a schoolkid doing an evening shift in a Tesco Express. The result was a rare bad day behind the stumps from Russell, which to James shows that however silly some of us might think it, superstition has to be respected.

A friend of mine knows the mother of the Wellington and New Zealand ODI all-rounder Luke Woodcock. He reports her view that of her four cricket-mad sons, Luke had the least natural talent, but was the only one with the determination (or you could call it character) to make it to first-class level. He probably got there by practising much of what Steve James writes about here. There is an emphasis on practice and preparation, in the long, medium and short-term. We know about Bradman’s stump, golf ball and water tank, but it was news to me that the young Brian Lara used to place flower pots in fielding positions, bounce a marble off a wall and aim to hit it with a ruler through the gaps between the pots. He became one of the greatest placers of shots that the game has seen.

Alastair Cook’s talent looks so natural. From James we learn that as a young teen he badgered his teachers to join them for an early-morning swim so as to improve his fitness. On other days he would get his cricket coach—none other than Derek Randall—out of bed for an early hour with the bowling machine. Similar stories are told here in New Zealand about the young Kane Williamson.

Anybody doubting the appropriateness of a fitness regime for cricketers should be persuaded by this book. James makes a strong link between physical and mental fitness, though admits that there was widespread ignorance when he was a young player about what constituted effective exercise, and how it had to be combined with a good diet. Graham Gooch now sees his commitment to endless running as “madness” though in the drive to improve his strength and fitness he was ahead of his time.

Gooch is one of a number of players interviewed for the book, the results being used to excellent effect. Gooch is recognised as one of England’s best batsmen, but perhaps has not been given correct recognition as one of modern cricket’s thinkers and innovators, which on this evidence he clearly is.

Among the wealth of clear thinking that characterises the book, this passage from page 198 about English domestic one-day cricket is worth quoting:

But often in early season...the formula fell down, with a clatter of early wickets on seaming pitches leading to low scores. It summed up the problems of playing one-day cricket in England. In early season it really has to be played to a different set of rules...It is one reason why England have been so poor at international one-day cricket, and have never won a global one-day trophy.

And yet, from 2017 the 50-over competition will be concentrated in April and May.

Anybody who wants to understand cricket a bit better will learn more from an afternoon spent reading The Art of Centuries than they will at any boundary’s edge. It has the depth of a textbook but is written with a light touch that makes it a most entertaining read. It will have a place in the My Life in Cricket Scorecards Library next to Brearley’s similarly entitled The Art of Captaincy.

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 ...