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”.

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