Saturday, April 29, 2017

1967: Setting the Scene

Almost every Wednesday and Saturday from late April to early September a new round of County Championship matches would begin. Three-day games of course; another two decades would pass before a fourth day was added, even tentatively. The seventeen counties (no Durham as yet) each played 28 games, so would meet 12 opponents twice, and four just once, an imbalance reintroduced into division two of the County Championship in 2017. That all counties played the same number of matches was a recent development; as late as 1962, some had played 32, some 28. Gaps in the schedule might be filled with games against the touring teams or Oxford or Cambridge universities.

One-day cricket remained an afterthought. The Gillette Cup—60 overs a side—was a straight knockout; Kent played only four games to win the competition. But a quiet revolution was taking place on Sunday afternoons. The International Cavaliers played a 40-over game each week, live on BBC 2. The Cavaliers are a neglected part of cricket history, as proved by the fact that a Google search has a post from this blog, written in 2010, as the leading source of information on the Cavaliers apart from a brief and inaccurate Wikipedia entry. The Cavaliers are cricket’s North-west Passage, the missing link between the game as it had always been played and the brave new world of limited overs, world cups and Kerry Packer.

Cricket was not entirely the staid Victorian relic that it is often thought to have been at this time. Nineteen-sixty-seven was the second season with Sunday play in some games. Cricket was the first professional sport to toy with the wrath of the Almighty in this way. This was the last year of the old-fashioned points system, with eight for a win and four for first-innings lead. Bonus points came in 1968 and have been with us in one form or another ever since. It was also the last year in which no overseas player was allowed to play for a county without serving a residential qualification period.
Kent played at home on nine grounds (and the second XI on three more, including two in Sittingbourne). Most counties were peripatetic to some degree; only Middlesex and Leicestershire remained at headquarters for the duration. Among other places, Kent would visit Brentwood, Peterborough, Southport, Hastings, Leyton and Burton-on-Trent during the season. The intervening half-century has seen a slow but unstoppable move away from truly county cricket, culminating in the Birmingham Bears and the 2020 20/20 franchises.

Like most who watched county cricket at that time, I regret the end of the caravan era, but nostalgia makes the memory selective; some of the outgrounds were hardly up to staging a village fete let alone a professional sporting fixture. The pitches were of mixed quality too, though this was not a bad thing. What eventually did for three-day cricket more than anything else was that the pitches became too good, using the batsmen’s definition at least. By the mid-eighties the norm had become a two-day phoney war to occupy the time before a chase for an agreed target. Cricketers of the sixties will tell you that developing the survival skills necessary in such conditions made them better players

It was the time of uncovered pitches too. If the rain fell after play started, the pitch (but not the run-ups) would not be covered until the abandonment of play. This seems entirely counter-intuitive, incomprehensible probably; but if you watched cricket on a drying pitch you regret that the experience has gone. Snoozing old cats of pitches would become spiteful tigers while their fur dried out. It was another dimension to the game, and helped move three-day games along.

Yorkshire started the season as county champions, having won two more games than any other side in 1966. The playing staff (“squad” was not yet in cricket’s dictionary, let alone “group”) included nine England players and five more who would be. The restrictions on player movement and overseas players gave Yorkshire an advantage, though they did their bit to nullify that with their insistence on allowing only players born in the Ridings to wear the Yorkshire cap. They were led by the Old Bald Blighter (as Alan Gibson called him) Brian Close. Those who don’t know of Close should picture a rhinoceros charging a machine gun post to get a flavour of the man. He was the England captain and was to have a very strange 1967 indeed.

Kent were on the up. After a dismal 1950s during which they only once (and just at that) made it into the top half of the table, they had risen from 13th in 1963 to seventh, fifth, and fourth in the following years. Leslie Ames must be given be given the bulk of the credit for this. He was appointed manager at the start of the sixties and as one of the county’s most famous players was the only man who had the reputation and character to assert professional competence over the amateur meddling of the committee. Colin Cowdrey had been captain for a decade, but was away with England for almost half of the Championship programme most years. 

Kent had seasoned professionals such as the South African batsman Stuart Leary and the vice-captain Alan Dixon, an all-rounder who could bowl seamers or off spin, and a group of talented younger players headed by the openers Mike Denness and Brian Luckhurst. And two of the all-time greats starting out: Derek Underwood and Alan Knott. It was a good time to start watching cricket in Kent.

Six test matches were scheduled, three against India and three against Pakistan, neither team expected to offer the excitement or quality of the West Indians of the previous season. England (or rather MCC) had not toured over the winter, though an under-25 team including Knott and Underwood went to Pakistan. It was captained by Mike Brearley (who was 75 yesterday). Near the top of the list of cricketing days I wish I’d seen was that at Peshawar on 1 February 1967 when Brearley scored 312 in a day, like one of those flowers that blooms once every fifty years. Alan Knott opened with him and scored his maiden hundred as they put on 208. According to Wisden, Brearley “annhihilated a fair attack which had little support from the field” (Intikhab Alam bowled more overs than anybody and he was a very good bowler).

There is much more to say about cricket in England 50 years ago, and about the world that it was played in. Stay tuned, as they used to say on the Light Programme.

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 ...